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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 29 October 2009

Elisabeth Tomalin
Stitching the rich tapestry of a long life

The artist Elisabeth ­Tomalin’s
journey through the 20th century touched upon many of its
historic events, writes Dan Carrier

FROM designing textile prints that became favourites with 1950s housewives, to helping modernist architect Erno Goldfinger put his groundbreaking ideas on the drawing board, from becoming an art therapist in her 60s to taking up embroidery in her 90s, Elisabeth Tomalin’s incredible life has been marked by her relationship with the art she has created.
The 96-year-old is behind a new exhibition at the James Wigg health centre in Kentish Town – and the remarkable show, consisting of both paintings and embroidery, is all the more impressive when you consider that every piece bar one of the embroidery was done in the past two years after Elisabeth decided she was too elderly to continue painting.
Her story starts in Germany in 1912. She was born in Dresden into a liberal Jewish family, and was surrounded by music, art and culture.
A diversion in Vienna in the 1920s saw her exposed to the European capital of culture and was followed by a spell in Berlin at art school. The political events of the 1930s prompted her to flee persecution in her home country. Following a spell in Paris working for a textile designer who was also an émigré, she finally settled in London.
“I made good progress with my designs,” she recalls of her time in Paris.
“When I arrived in London, I had crafted a reputation as a specialist textile designer.”
As the war started, she met and married Miles Tomalin, a Spanish Civil war veteran who had been in the International Brigades.
Elisabeth found work at the renowned architect Erno Goldfinger’s studio in Primrose Hill where she was employed doing architectural drawings. As the conflict developed, she then went to the Ministry of Information, and worked alongside Abram Games, the graphic designer responsible for some of the most iconic propaganda and public information posters the government produced during the war.
“They went all over the world,” Elisabeth recalls.
Throughout the 1950s, she returned to printing textiles: she worked for Marks and Spencer and her designs graced the high street, while she continued to paint.
But as she reached her 60s, she decided to combine her two loves: an interest in psychotherapy, stemming from a youth exposed to the pre-war philosophies of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, and her belief in the restorative and redemptive power of art.
Aged 62, she travelled to New York to study art therapy – which eventually prompted a return to the country she was born in.
In the early 1970s, she was approached by various institutions and asked if she would give lectures in Germany.
“It took a great effort inwardly to say yes,” she says. “It was a challenge. In Germany, there were children of Nazis who were burdened with guilt. It meant a lot to them that I came. I wanted to help make a resolution of conflicts.
“I had to overcome incredible feelings. They had killed virtually everyone in my family – all my aunts and uncles.”
She continued to teach art therapy up to the age of 94 in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, giving hundreds of seminars. Now her work graces the walls of a doctors’ surgery in Kentish Town.
“These pictures do not have titles,” her daughter Stefany states. “They depict the scared and the profane, aspirations, longings and contradictions of events in her inner life, and some of them may speak to those who look who also share these emotions and spiritual challenges in their own lives.”
A Searching Journey in Colours is at Kentish Town Health Centre, 2 Bartholomew Road, NW5, until December, 8.30am-6pm weekdays, until 7.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, closed weekends, 020 7530 4700

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