Michael O'Connell (artist)

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Michael O'Connell (7 August 1898 – 9 December 1976) was an English modernist artist. He is best known as a textile artist, with work held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.


Michael was son of Patrick O'Connell and his wife Mary Cecilia, and was born in Dalton, Cumbria, in 1898. After the death of his father from Typhoid in 1900, he was brought up solely by his mother and was educated at Ushaw College, County Durham.[1]

He joined an Irish regiment in 1916 to fight in World War I but was taken prisoner in 1918. After the war he took some training in agriculture before emigrating to Australia in 1920 to attend an agricultural college in Wagga Wagga.[2]

O'Connell soon abandoned agriculture and moved to Beaumaris, near Melbourne. He built his own house, 'Barbizon', in 1923 when his previous home – a tent – was condemned by a health inspector.[3] He became a member and councilor of the Arts and Crafts Society in Melbourne, where he met his wife Ella Moody (née Evans-Vaughan) (1900–1981), a textile artist and embroiderer. They married on 4 April 1931 in Melbourne.[2]

Michael and Ella moved to England in 1937. They built their new home 'The Chase' at Perry Green, Hertfordshire. Michael was commissioned to create a series of wall hangings depicting rural Britain for the Festival of Britain in 1951, after which he received various new commissions for other public and private murals. His work was then exhibited in New York, Melbourne and London.

In the 1960s he travelled widely and taught at art schools. In 1970 a devastating fire destroyed his workshop, including most of his notebooks and records. The house was rebuilt with the help of students and friends, but it was also in this period that his eyesight began to fail. O'Connell died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds on 9 December 1976 at his home.[2]


Michael O'Connell was primarily a textile artist, but was also noted for his work in architecture and home furnishings.

Architecture and home furnishings[edit]

Michael O'Connell was the architect of two buildings in his lifetime, both of which he lived in.


O'Connell built 'Barbizon' in 1923 in Beaumaris, Victoria. Its design was that of a large, open-plan cruciform building made primarily of homemade concrete blocks. Its name was probably a reference to the Barbizon school of art, but its design and functionalism were born of necessity and looked to modernism, and has been called the first modernist house built in Melbourne.[1] Barbizon became his personal studio and became a gathering place for fellow artists. It was here that O'Connell first experimented with the concrete garden sculpture, the linocuts, and the textiles that were to make his name.[4] The house was destroyed in a fire in 1947.[4]

The Chase[edit]

O'Connell built The Chase in Perry Green, Hertfordshire, with his wife Ella in 1937. They had both recently returned to England from Australia. They continued to produce printed textiles identified as Mael Fabrics, possibly a combination of their names and a recognition of Ella's contribution. A fire broke out at The Chase's studio in 1970, burning much of O'Connell's records and artwork. The home was rebuilt with the help of friends and students.[5]


Australian work[edit]

O'Connell began experimenting with textiles in the 1920s, a time when he was an active member of the Arts and Craft Society in Melbourne.[1] While working with garden designer Edna Walling on local exhibitions, he began experimenting with the dyeing and printing techniques that would eventually make his name.

His work during his period is colorful and vibrant, with obvious influences from aboriginal culture. The most important Australian work is Pandemonium, a fabric frieze made in 1930, and in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

Post-1937 work[edit]

Shortly before the Second World War, O'Connell and Christopher Heal (of Heal's, London) developed a close working relationship. The friendship continued through the war years, and it is probably during this time that Michael developed his techniques and moved into freehand drawing with the resist pastes.[5]

Christopher Heal was instrumental in obtaining supplies of fabric for the Festival of Britain wall hangings. O'Connell was commissioned to create wall hangings depicting British rural life, architecture and landscapes. He travelled across the country, taking observations for what would become seven gigantic hangings, each measuring 7x3.8 metres. These were sewn together into a long curtain measuring 56x4 metres, which was then hung from a railing in the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain.[6] After their display they toured New Zealand and Australia before being acquired by the Museum of English Rural Life, where they were used as backdrops to their tents at country shows before being put into storage for around 55 years. Two, Cheshire and Kent, have now been conserved and are displayed in rotation for five years each at the Museum of English Rural Life.[7]

The regions represented on the wall hangings are:

  • Rutland
  • Scotland and Wales
  • Yorkshire
  • The Fens
  • Kent
  • Cheshire

After the Festival of Britain the popularity of O'Connell's work increased and he received commissions to create murals for public buildings, restaurants, factory canteens and showrooms. His work was exhibited in New York, Melbourne and London. In the 1960s, he began to travel widely and to teach his techniques in art schools. He also worked with architects, producing murals for universities and churches.[2]


  1. ^ a b c "In search of the lost modernist of design". Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d McPhee, John. O'Connell, Michael William (1898–1976). Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  3. ^ Fraser, Morag (July–August 2012). "To Barbizon". Australian Book Review.
  4. ^ a b "Barbizon, Beaumaris". 8 April 2012. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  5. ^ a b "THE MUSEUM OF ENGLISH RURAL LIFE- Online Exhibitions : Then and Now". www.reading.ac.uk. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  6. ^ "Festival of Britain". 8 April 2012. Retrieved 29 August 2016.
  7. ^ "Chalk or Cheese? Winner announced!". 16 May 2016. Retrieved 29 August 2016.

External links[edit]