She was an unlikely subversive. When Elizabeth Peacock arrived at Ethel Mairet’s weaving studio The Thatched House in 1916, she was in her mid-thirties and, having been seriously ill as a child, had seldom left her family home, not even to study. While being home-schooled, Peacock developed an interest in art and her parents paid a teacher from the nearby Birmingham School of Art to give her private lessons. After finally convincing them to allow her to depart for the English market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in order to study the seemingly sedate craft of hand weaving at The Thatched House, Peacock entered a radically different world that transformed her life.
Not only was Mairet at the forefront of experimentation in weaving, spinning, and dyeing, she and her husband Philip, a philosopher, writer, and jobbing actor, were central figures in a bohemian network of artists, writers, artisans, and activists. Thanks to the friendships Peacock forged through them, the once-reclusive invalid found herself embedded in the intellectual hubbub of the Arts and Crafts movement and Votes for Women campaign.
Peacock showed such promise in handweaving that the Mairets invited her to move with them to Gospels, a home and studio they were building in the village of Ditchling in southern England. Ditchling was a nexus for the Arts and Crafts movement, many of whose members—including the sculptor Eric Gill and type designer Edward Johnston—lived in and around the village. Peacock befriended them and fell in love with a local farmer, Mollie Stobart, with whom she built Weavers, a home, studio, and small holding in the nearby hamlet of Clayton. They moved there in 1922 and Peacock established an independent practice, taking on her own apprentices. She swiftly made her name as the designer and weaver of skillfully constructed textiles with subtle geometric patterns and striking combinations of vivid colors, Peacock’s versions of the organic dyes formulated at Gospels. The following year, she and Mairet presented their work at the English Woman Magazine exhibition in London, organized by the suffragette movement. Peacock then participated in one of the most important design events of the era, the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, which included contributions from Le Corbusier and Josef Hoffmann.
During the 1930s, Peacock became increasingly prominent in British craft circles as a co-founder of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. As well as writing for its journal, she co-curated the first major exhibition of guild members’ work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1935. She was also part of the lively circle of artists, activists, and intellectuals who regularly gathered for weekends and residencies at Dartington Hall in Devon, a grand courtyard house dating back to the fourteenth century owned by a wealthy left-wing couple, Leonard Elmhirst and his New York–born heiress wife, Dorothy Whitney. After restoring the magnificent though lugubrious Great Hall, they invited Peacock to design ten handwoven banners to hang from the beams, animating the space and improving its acoustics. Imposing and engaging, the banners typify her adroit combination of craft traditions and a modernist aesthetic.
After World War II, Peacock flung herself into teaching while also researching medieval weaving techniques and experimenting with new handloom designs. She continued to weave and live with Stobart at Weavers until her death in 1969. “I am rather curious to see Miss Peacock’s establishment,” wrote one of her apprentices to his mother. He described the great weaver as a “slim, delicate, prim, little person” and Stobart as “a farmer who has never worn a skirt,” ending with, “They get along splendidly.”
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. Her books include Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton, and, most recently, Design Emergency: Building a Better Future, co-authored with Paola Antonelli and published by Phaidon.