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A group of 5 people holding up a colourful printed piece of fabric

The Life and Work of Tessa and Rodney Moorhouse

Written by Natalie Anastasiou
Published date 09 January 2020

This February, the Textiles programme at Chelsea College of Arts will celebrate the lives and legacy of Tessa and Rodney Moorhouse with an exhibition in the Triangle Space.

Tessa, a Senior Judge of the Family Division, and Rodney, a textile artist who taught for many years at Chelsea and Camberwell College of Arts, were both known for their unswerving support for young people and a commitment to enriching the communities in which they lived and worked. In line with the couple’s wishes, the executors of the Moorhouse Estate are pleased to announce the provision of four scholarships each worth £10,000, which will be awarded annually for the next five years.

The scholarships are part of a larger gift to the University of the Arts London, the remainder of which will support undergraduates from lower-income families who have participated in our Insights Programme, which aims to widen access to higher education. The Moorhouse gift is the largest ever of its kind, focussed on student support at both undergraduate and postgraduate level of study at Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon.

A iamge of a man and woman in a boat
Tessa and Rodney Moorhouse, 1976/77 Caption

Tessa and Rodney had met at university, married in 1959, and together shared the optimism and artistic creativity, which was then beginning to replace the gloom of post-war Britain. After further studies at the Royal College of Art, Rodney was becoming known for his vibrant textile designs, which could be bought at Liberty’s, Sandersons and Heals, whilst Tessa had embarked on a career teaching Secondary School children, in London’s East End.

However, the young couple’s entry into their respective careers was not without immense challenge, and those close to the couple affirm that a life-changing car accident shaped not just their considerable careers, but also the values by which they lived their lives. Tessa and Rodney were both very badly injured and such was the damage to Rodney’s legs that surgeons repeatedly advised the best course of action would be for him to have an amputation. This advice was swiftly rebutted – fifty years ago, pre-prosthetics, amputation would certainly have meant a life of near immobility and having to switch careers to something much more sedentary.

A man and a woman dressed up in a suit and dress
Tessa and Rodney attending Leeds university Textile Ball in March 1957 Caption

Andrew Bano, who came to know Tessa very well, having shared an office with her for many years, tells us, “Because of the seriousness of their injuries, Rodney and Tessa’s solicitor also took them to see one of the top personal injury QCs of the day. He gave them two pieces of advice, both of which were emphatically rejected.”

“The first was that they should settle the case on the basis that they should accept a very small part of the blame for the accident. The second was that they should use their compensation to buy a business, which was not too physically demanding, such as a sweet shop or a tobacconist.”And the reception to that? “Tessa decided that she would make a far better lawyer than the top QC,” Andrew continues, "and was soon enrolled to read for a law degree at King’s College.”

Like her husband, Tessa became known not just for her creative approach but as much for her persistence. She soon established herself as a formidable lawyer specialising in difficult child custody cases and for defending housing possession proceedings.

Rodney, with Tessa’s care, resumed his career in screen printing and textile design but by now was also a committed lecturer, teaching at Camberwell through the 1960s before moving on to Chelsea in 1969, teaching there until 1977.

Both Tessa and Rodney had lifelong struggles with their injuries and Rodney opened a shop in Camden so he could practise his craft close to the couple’s home. Here he continued to mentor young practitioners from London and overseas.

A young man with a piece of printed colorful fabric
Camden Summer School, 1984 -86 Caption

The photographer Jonathan Olley, himself an ex-student at Chelsea, remembers the Moorhouses as a constant presence throughout his own childhood and youth. Jonathan’s mother worked with Tessa when she had started out in teaching and his parents become close friends of Tessa and Rodney. “I count myself as very lucky to have grown up around Tessa and Rodney. They were consistent in every way – unwavering in their support for each other, the people around them and also what they believed in.”

“They also believed that difficulties could nearly always be overcome with pragmatism and the right approach.”

“It wasn’t that that they were stubborn, it was just that they knew their own minds and what mattered to them. And any opinions they had were always grounded in common sense and their own strong values.”

Rodney became well known for his totally open practice – crowds of curious onlookers would often form outside the shop as he and an apprentice would go about their work. Jonathan is adamant that Rodney’s approach to work was ‘inclusive’ before that particular term had entered into educational parlance. “Tessa and Rodney always looked beyond labels such as gender, race, sexuality etc. Fairness and hard work were the things that mattered to them.”

Andrew Bano continues, “It has been inspiring meeting with Chelsea textiles students and discovering how their aspirations and models of working are so aligned with Tessa’s globalised outlook.”

“They want to play their part in addressing some of humanity’s big challenges such as poverty and pollution. There’s a real desire to use their skills and knowledge to support, sustain and nurture communities near and far.”

Two men screen printing a large piece of fabric
Rodney with Colin Dixon, 1984-86 Caption

To find out more about the lives and work of Tessa and Rodney Moorhouse and to meet students who have had their learning experience transformed by their legacy, visit the exhibition in The Triangle Space from 5-7 February 2020. Textile Design students will demonstrate how their research is built around sustainable practice.

Life and Work of Tessa and Rodney Moorhouse runs at Triangle Space from 5 February – 7 February.