Page 1: Biography
Higgs, Avis Winifred
Artist, textile designer
This biography, written by Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Avis Higgs was a leading figure in wartime textile design in Australia and subsequently a New Zealand artist and designer of note. Her textiles designed in the 1940s and 1950s were notable for their use of New Zealand flora and for motifs drawn from Australian surfing culture. As an artist she favoured watercolour, working in both representational and abstract styles. The rediscovery of her design work in 2000 led to revived interest on both sides of the Tasman and she became a noted figure in the revival of mid-century styles.
Avis Winifred Higgs was born in Wellington on 21 September 1918, the elder of two daughters born to Sydney Higgs and his wife, Winifred Patterson. Sydney was a prominent Wellington patent attorney and an active member of Wellington’s art community, exhibiting with the New Zealand Society of Fine Arts and the Pumpkin Cottage group. Winifred Patterson had been one of the city’s first female bank tellers.
Avis attended St Anthony’s School in Seatoun, Seatoun School and Wellington East Girls’ College, before enrolling to study art at Wellington Technical School in 1936 with the aim of preparing herself for a career as a commercial artist. There she received tuition in painting from Scottish-trained artist Jenny Campbell and in design from Nelson Isaac, along with private tuition from watercolourist T. A. McCormack. Higgs flourished, placing second in a national competition for a poster symbolising peace sponsored by the League of Nations Union.
On graduation in 1938, Higgs joined the staff of National Distributors Ltd, operators of the Self-Help grocery store chain, as a commercial artist, but resigned on the outbreak of war. She retrained as a nurse to contribute to the war effort, but contracted diphtheria during her training at Wellington Hospital. Invited by her maternal aunt, a milliner, to recuperate in Sydney, Higgs headed across the Tasman.
Inspired by a magazine article on textile design and printing, Higgs assembled a portfolio and visited the firms listed in the Sydney telephone directory. Eric Hernshaw, the manager of the recently formed Silk & Textile Printers Ltd (STP), based at Rushcutters Bay, offered the young designer a position.
Founded in 1939 by Italians Paul Sonnino and brothers Claudio and Orlando Alcorso, STP was to become a leading Australian textile manufacturer, but had yet to make its mark when the war began. Much of its workforce enlisted, supply lines were disrupted, and when its directors were interned, the future looked bleak. STP had initially employed young Sydney Technical College graduates to translate designs sourced in France and Italy, but in August 1941 Higgs and Hernshaw began redirecting STP to emphasise original design.
Young, fashionable, blonde, petite and naturally vivacious, Higgs enjoyed exploring wartime Sydney and began designing fabrics that reflected that lifestyle. ‘Rushcutters Bay’, ‘Randwick Racecourse’, and ‘Sydney Roundabout’ were innovative designs inspired by the female experience of wartime. Higgs worked alongside Mary Curtis and later Betty Skowronski, and the three women produced many floral designs based on contemporary fashions but increasingly including designs that reflected urban Australian life.
STP’s wartime innovations extended beyond the design studio. Production difficulties stemming from a shortage of dye, traditionally sourced in Germany or Japan, and silk and cotton fabric (largely from France and England), prompted the use of innovative dye removal processes and eventually the development of new dyes. Stockpiled Irish linen, then deemed best-suited for tea towels, proved an excellent dress material for the Australian climate. STP’s fabrics became strong sellers through department stores such as Mark Foy’s, David Jones and Curzon’s, where they were marketed as Folly Cove prints and seen as American-inspired designs now produced in Australia.
In 1943 Higgs joined the Contemporary Art Society of New South Wales, and began exhibiting new art works while also attending classes with Hungarian artist Desiderius Orban. After Orban was invited to give in-house lessons to factory staff, displays of new STP fabrics began appearing alongside paintings by Higgs, Curtis and Skowronski in order to emphasise the connections between art and design, and to elevate textiles as an art form. In 1944 STP extended its market when an exhibition of textiles designed by the three women was mounted at the Seddon galleries in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. This was the first of its type to be held in Australia, and possibly the largest exhibition of Australian-designed textiles to that date. Further Melbourne exhibitions were held in 1945 and 1946.
As early as 1944, Higgs’s fabrics had come to the attention of Phyllis Burke, head of the women’s section of the War Savings Campaign in New South Wales. Burke had already master-minded a number of wartime fundraisers aimed at women. Together they developed the Victory Loan Fabrics, a series of fabrics with patriotic themes sporting wartime motifs such as ‘Attack with your money’ and ‘Target for victory’ which were widely publicised. Higgs received a Commonwealth of Australia commendation from Federal Treasurer Ben Chifley for this work. When the process was repeated in 1945, her designs, ‘When the lights go on again’ and ‘The Navy’s here’, suggested that the war was nearly over.
By the end of the war Higgs and her staff had made a significant and original contribution to the development of Australian textile design. Under trying conditions, they had produced hundreds of fabrics, many with specifically Australian motifs. More than that, these textiles both reflected the spirit of contemporary Australian life and illustrated specific wartime experiences, such as blackout, from the point of view of a young woman. This work had been sold in leading stores, acclaimed by critics and recognised by government ministers; and worn by hundreds of Australians on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne.
When STP’s owner Claudio Alcorso returned to the factory in 1946, he was impressed by the transition, and commissioned designs from leading Australian artists for the launch of the Modernage fabric range, a formative event in the development of Australian post-war Modernism. When STP relocated to Hobart, Higgs resigned and joined Colourset, established by Edward Malone, one of STP’s innovative chemists. However, in 1948 she returned to Wellington.
Developing her portfolio
In Wellington Higgs exhibited paintings and craft textiles in the new Helen Hitchings Gallery, but she lacked the access to industrial textile-making processes available to her in Australia. She took up a position at Screen Advertising Ltd, designing advertisements for cinemas, and produced a portfolio of new designs to interest potential employers in England. There Higgs planned to take advantage of existing supply chains by providing English manufacturers with designs for Australasian-themed textiles that might then be sold in those markets.
In what later became known as the ‘portfolio designs’, Higgs retained an interest in Australian themes and in particular Bondi beach and its surfing culture. Higgs began to incorporate the peculiar slang of the surfers onto fabrics with designs such as ‘Whacko’ – thus essentially creating surf culture textiles – later popularised by clothing manufacturer Billabong, among others. Higgs also developed new abstract designs based on Māori artworks at the Dominion Museum, a methodology more widely seen in New Zealand art and design in the 1960s and 1970s. Higgs also included a wide range of florals, some of which she saw again years later as completed fabrics on the streets of Wellington, having been printed from her designs in England. In July 1951, with a portfolio of more than 80 designs, Higgs embarked for London.
Despite the publicity surrounding the Festival of Britain held that year, the British textile industry was suffering a considerable downturn in 1951. Higgs was, however, able to sell some of her designs, including some to leading British firm Tootal, Broadhurst & Lee, and to obtain a position at W. E. Currie in Manchester, although this turned out to be more focused on sales than Higgs had hoped. Back in London she became an agent for the French designer F. Williams Gobeaux, and slowly established a foothold in the textile trade through the sale of individual designs. When Higgs and a friend decided to take a summer motoring holiday to Rome, the friend fell asleep at the wheel and died at the scene of the resulting crash. Higgs was seriously injured and, after a long hospitalisation in Rome, she returned to Wellington in 1952.
Return to Wellington
Aboard ship, Higgs met Douglas Jocelyn (Jock) Beere, an architect returning from a period of work in Britain. The two married in Wellington on 11 February 1955; Higgs retained her maiden name for her professional life. The couple settled in Wellington, and in 1958 Higgs gave birth to their only child, Marguerite.
Higgs began exhibiting watercolours, inspired by the landscape around Wellington, at the Architectural Centre’s gallery. She was a founding member of the Watercolour Society (later Watercolour New Zealand) and an active member of the Thursday Group, whose members included John Drawbridge and Gwen Knight. Higgs joined the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, where her presence led the academy to an eventual acceptance of modernism and increased diversity in their exhibitions. Over the next three decades Higgs established herself as a central figure in the Wellington art scene, eventually joining the Academy’s council. Her expressionist watercolours gained her a strong reputation and brought both critical and commercial success. She won the National Bank Award for Watercolour painting (1964) and the IBM Art Award (1985). In 1999 she was included in the Dowse Art Museum’s The eighties show alongside Drawbridge, Doreen Blumhardt, Juliet Peter and Roy Cowan, like her in their eighties.
Revival of interest
In 2000 the rediscovery of her 1949–1950 portfolio, largely intact, led to a retrospective exhibition and the publication of a book, Avis Higgs: joie de vivre. Higgs accompanied a nationwide tour of her textiles from the 1940s and 1950s, supported by some paintings. Collaborative projects with fashion designer Laurie Foon and the Christchurch firm Dilana Rugs, drawing on mid-century designs, followed. Her husband died in 2001, but she embraced this revival of interest in her work. The development of a website by her family to publicise her work further connected her with new audiences, and Higgs became a central figure in a revived interest in mid-century New Zealand design.
At this time Avis Higgs’s work at STP was reintroduced to Australian design history, where it had been overshadowed by the later Modernage experiment, and by the fact that styles now synonymous with Australian design had been created by a New Zealander. Works long held anonymously in Australian museum collections were now attributed to her.
In 2006 Higgs was awarded the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts Governor-General Art Award for long service as an outstanding artist. A retrospective exhibition of her work in both painting and design was held at New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Wellington. In 2010 Higgs was inducted into Massey University College of Creative Arts’ Hall of Fame, in recognition of her early affiliation with Wellington Technical School. Higgs continued to paint and exhibit until 2012.
In 2015, artist Sarah Hughes created a large-scale mural ‘Pinwall’, based on the initial 1940 portfolio, as part of the redevelopment of MTG Hawke’s Bay, which holds Higgs’s archives.
Avis Higgs died in Johnsonville, Wellington, on 14 October 2016, aged 98.