Interview with Professor Bernard Nevill
Professor Bernard Nevill studied and taught at St Martin's College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. In 1960 he became consultant designer for Liberty, and he revitalised their traditional prints, ensuring that they became a major influence on international fashion. In particular, his Islamic prints introduced Eastern design to fashion, and other Art Deco-inspired ranges led to a revival of interest in the Art-Deco period. He also achieved great success designing furnishing fabrics, and designs for the theatre.
Below is a transcript of an interview recorded with Bernard Nevill in April 2006.
I was tutored until I was just about fifteen, getting on for sixteen and I realised that I wanted to go to an art college. There was a girl I knew who would have gone to St Martins to do Fashion was it not for the war, she gave me the link to St Martins and Muriel Pemberton. I was the youngest student they'd ever had.
St. Martins and the Central and the Royal College of Art, I was teaching at all three places at the same time. Evening class, a day class, hither and thither and I was fortunate in being taught by Muriel Pemberton, a really inspiring teacher. There was Muriel, William Johnston, the Head of Central, and Janey Ironside who was Head of Fashion at the Royal College of Art. She, together with Roger Nicolson, the retiring Professor of Textiles at the RCA, invited me to apply for his post and Jocelyn Stevens [the publisher of Queen magazine] came round with Lord Snowdon to persuade me to go after it. I was in that position for five years.
There was a lot of Life Drawing [at St Martin's], but I hated it, I tried to get out of it, stupidly I think, I because I could have improved my drawing that way. Very good fashion classes, costume classes. They had wonderful 1850s and1860s dresses, I dressed the model very often and I would take strange bits from different periods and put them together, you know I put a military scarlet jacket on Margery, a voluptuous life model and put black fishnet tights and high heels on her and she looked fantastic.
In those days it was useless being seventeen or eighteen, brimming over with talent, unlike the 1960s, you know with Ossie, when all that lot came in to it. Then to be young and to be talented, the world was your oyster, but when I was young you had to be forty-four, a member of the Incorporated Society of Fashion Designers, or try and work for them for a time. And nobody would look at you because being young was not interesting in those days and I always felt rather envious when I was teaching in the 1960s and I saw how easy it was, relatively easy for someone with talent to make a hit, as with Ossie [Clark] or Zandra [Rhodes].
Teaching fashion and textiles design
I was teaching fashion design with the fashion students and textile design with the textile students, choosing the theme for the fashion show we had every year, my first year students in both subjects would combine on a project set by me, it was either the Forties, Chinese, Elizabethan or whatever it was, I would guide them and edit the final result.
I selected fashion designers, and for the textile people I selected furniture design. I gave them a list of names and a potted biography of each one. The designers I looked at were responsible for inventing the design vocabulary of the 20th Century, and I would give them, as I say, a potted biography and they would select whichever one they felt sympathetic towards. I know that Ossie was taken by Lucien Lelong because he married a Russian princess and held a very glamorous social position in Paris, and so they worked on the history of each designer compiling sketchbooks and there was sometimes a prize at the end of the year for the best one.
I was very interested in William Morris in those days, so we're talking about the late 1950s, I did this thing with the Textile students using William Morris wallpapers as a starting point and then the fashion students designing for them.
I think to begin with young students wanted to be swinging and with-it and rather looked down at things from the past, but once they became more educated, their eyes and their minds, they began to understand what a wealth there was to mine in this previous work.
Designing Liberty textiles
I had my own little studio. It was my training and my eye as a fashion designer rather than a textile trained person that gave me the edge you see.
I worked backwards from the dress to the textile because I've always had a very good antennae for picking up vibes and trends before they happen, that's a very important thing to have as a designer. So I would listen to whatever I was being told in my head and I would follow from there as I say, if I had a feeling for maxi, for long skirts, or short skirts or loose clothes or tight clothes it would affect my designs for textiles.
That's always stopped me from being wrong for the time. The way I work was suddenly feeling combinations of colour and shape or style or whatever, listening to myself and following it through, that way if you're true to yourself I don't think you can do something out of time.
It was sheer perseverance to convince them [Liberty's] that my feelings, my antennae for where the wind was blowing was worth following commercially.
I was quite old in the sixties, unlike, say, Ossie, the others were my students, even when I went to New York I was in my early thirties. All the others were ten years younger but they parcelled me into that sixties thing so I felt beholden to make a statement in my dress. I would spend so much time having tweed specially woven and shirts specially made by Michael Fish, Deborah and Clare, Turnbull and Asser … choosing the shirtings and stripes. I would then spend hours or days going to Maxwell's my shoemaker and choosing the suede skins for my suede shoes. Going to Michael Fish and finding a piece of pale beige suede. I had a jacket made in that beige suede and of course, ties. The time involved was unbelievable. One suit made by Tommy Nutter, I slung a length of blue jeans [material] to him and said make me a hand-stitched Saville Row suit but in denim and he did and then a panné velvet that I had specially woven for Liberty Prints and had it dyed eau-de-nil, and got him to do that.
I tried Blades but the cut wasn't me. Michael Fish was very good for shirts, not so good for jackets. My tailors were Tommy Nutter (he was the most avant-garde) before that I had Welsh & Jeffries just round the corner from Fortnum and Mason, Jarvis & Hamilton in Clifford Street, and Dege and Skinner of Savile Row.
I later found out, which was amusing, after I'd been at Liberty for about 10 years, in Carnaby Street and Portobello Road, in some of the second-hand stores, I'd find some of my scarves and things, which really made me feel ancient. The first time that happened was after Ernestine Carter wrote that article on my jazz prints and I went into the Chelsea Antique market which had just opened, and I saw a very nice bridge jacket, a 1920s thing printed on satin, and I thought I'd like to get that for my collection and I said to the chap there who was called Verne, how much was it, and he said something like £12 which was an absolute fortune! I said how come? To which he said, it's very Bernard Nevill you know! And I thought he knew me and was having me on but he had just read that Sunday, the Ernestine Carter article about all the Jazz prints and thought he'd put a high price on it.
What changed in the sixties was the pop culture of working class, pop stars. I remember at the Fulham Forum Cinema there being some news item about the Stones being had up for drugs and all sorts of young yobbos in the audience got up and cheered, and I thought, 'What's this?' you know, this is really someone shaking the foundations. It's amazing how it's continued, that hasn't stopped, it's been pop culture, pop stars, pop singers, all in the pop world, more so I think than the influence of Hollywood. I think it took over from Hollywood.
I can't honestly say apart from the Zandras and the Ossies, and Janice Wainwright and the Tuffin and Foales that I had much to do with it because I'm not a pop music person, I'm a classical music person. Music is a very important part of my life, I listen with my eyes rather than my ears when I'm colouring, there is such a close association between music and colour which is quite a well known thing. My interest was in buying old buildings. I was a founder member of buying from architectural salvage, what I didn't buy from Victorian men's clubs and buildings was burnt.