IN the tiny Dales village of Linton she was simply known as ‘Sheila, from up the back’. Little did the quiet and kindly octogenarian’s friends and neighbours realise just what a prodigious talent they had living in their midst.

After she died, aged 82, even Sheila’s family was astounded to discover a treasure trove of art work, most of it stacked away in drawers, in her small studio in a converted farm shed, which she had always kept locked, across the way from the cottage up the back lane where she lived. Now, at last, Sheila’s stunning, forward-thinking, bold hand-painted designs have been brought out into the light and are being celebrated, to huge acclaim, in a new exhibition in her beloved Yorkshire, at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.

An only child who never married or had children, Sheila, the daughter of the village shopkeepers, was close to her cousins and their families and immersed herself in her local community, but never talked of the success she had enjoyed as a textile designer.

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Throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, she had created patterns for Liberty and Marks & Spencer and undertook commissions, which were highly-praised and much sought after at the time, for the Natural History Museum and the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Modest and reclusive, Sheila had moved between London and Linton after graduating in 1950 from the prestigious Slade art school, where she won a number of prestigious prizes, before settling back in her beloved Dales and discreetly selling her designs by post.

It was only a chance discovery by gallery professional Chelsea Cefai on eBay nine years ago that saved this significant body of work, which charts the shifting fashions of post-war Britain, from fading into obscurity. Unaware of its value, or of what to do with it, Sheila’s family sold most of it off at auction and it fell into the hands of an antiques dealer, who put a few of her hand-painted abstract prints on eBay to see if there was any interest.

Mother of two, 40-year-old Chelsea was looking for some mid-20th century artwork to hang on the walls of her newly-renovated Victorian home when she stumbled across them, the year after Sheila died, in 2008.

“They were so bold, vivid and striking, I immediately connected with and was drawn into them,” she says. When she discovered they were part of a larger collection Chelsea, who works as a gallery professional in Rugby, felt she had to rescue the complete works to ensure they stayed together. There was a sense of panic when I found out there were more. I could tell I had found something special and wanted to save them. How could an artist with such talent remain completely unknown to the design world? My instinct told me there was a story behind the pieces that could easily have been lost forever. Sheila Bownas was unheard of and I began to want to change that.”

The dealer, who was nearing retirement, agreed to sell Chelsea the lot for just over £1,000 on the understanding she would make something of the collection. “When they arrived, I was astounded by the sheer scale and volume of the work and the varying styles were just jaw-dropping. They looked like they had just been painted. It was unbelievable to think they had been hidden away all that time.”

Sheila’s freshly colourful and inventive geometric designs looked just as relevant today. “There were bright spring patterns, playful figurative scenes, bold daring geometrics, modernist jagged patterns and organic art inspired by nature. Sheila, aware of new trends for modern, futuristic design, had the ability to adapt her work to different styles. I wished I could have met her,” says Chelsea.

Intrigued, Chelsea made contact with Sheila’s family to discover more about this gifted, but unknown, artist.

In the Fifties and Sixties, career women were often frowned upon and one letter Chelsea uncovered, from Crown Wallpapers in 1959, might explain why Sheila’s work went largely unrecognised as she struggled to secure jobs, eventually resorting to working quietly in the background throughout her career as an artist. While Crown bought some of Sheila’s patterns, a Mr H Walton wrote: “With reference to your desire to obtain a position in our studio, the director feels that should an appointment be made, a male designer would be preferable.”

That was Crown’s great loss. Today, writer, curator and design historian Lesley Jackson praises the striking authenticity of Sheila’s designs, which she says capture the ebullient upbeat mood of the post-war era. “What is especially rewarding is that these wonderful designs are given a second chance to shine,” she says.

The exhibition, which will see Sheila’s work displayed in Yorkshire for the first time, includes still life, landscape and portrait paintings, alongside the textile designs which first alerted Chelsea to her work. There will also be a number of previously unseen designs, owned by a private collector, and Chelsea is keen to uncover more by this unsung artist whose thousands of designs created over three decades have undoubtedly played a significant role in the furnishing of Britain’s homes.

Eventually, Chelsea hopes to find a public gallery, ideally in Yorkshire, willing to house the whole collection of around 200 pieces. “I want it to be looked after. Working with Sheila’s legacy has become a labour of love and I have become protective of each and every design. I see myself as a guardian for its future, ensuring she does not get lost again.”

  • A Yorkshire Life in Pattern, Mercer Gallery, Harrogate, until January 8. Entry free. W: sheilabownas.co.uk