In a box sitting at the bottom of a closet, Lilian Sear’s family discovered a secret. Painted on pages untouched for a century blossomed the rich world of a young woman’s imagination. A bloom of lilies floating languidly amidst swaths of leaves. Butterflies gliding towards each other, their wings entwined. Lemons growing on a trellis fertile with vines and flowers. This was the forgotten inheritance of the late grandmother who made all her family’s clothes, who taught her granddaughters to sew and embroider, who wore dresses of the finest silk and velvet. Unbeknownst to her family until after her death, Lilian Sear was an artist.
Sear’s family discovered her work after she had passed, unearthing the vibrant jewel-toned illustrations from a box as they were clearing through her belongings. The artworks, it turned out, were studies from her years as a Textile Design student at Central Saint Martins in the 1920s — then the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She drew inspiration from a range of sources, such as Chinese embroidery, English tapestries, Persian art, and the works of William Morris (whose influence is particularly strong in Sear’s work). Her style was intricate yet bold, unapologetically feminine in its depiction of flora and fauna. In art, as in life, Sear had an eye for both elaborate detail and elegant simplicity. Her work brimmed with promise and talent, and was at one point exhibited and sold in the Paris Exhibition at the World’s Fair — in 1925, three years before her marriage.
There was a nostalgic element to her designs, a harkening back to older days at a time when the future chugged forward. In the wake of the first world war, the 1920s welcomed modernity with open arms — something Sear herself would have experienced as women rallied for the vote, chopped off their hair, and shortened their skirts. And yet Sear — herself an art student in an era where it was extraordinary to be an educated woman — was drawn to the romance of the past.
Lilian Sear was a woman of contradictions: small yet strong, quiet yet formidable.
Lilian Sear was a woman of contradictions: small yet strong, quiet yet formidable. The organised, meticulous homemaker ran her household with precision (dinner time, her grandchildren later shared, was always precisely at 6pm on the dot). She also enjoyed long road trips to the Middle East with her husband, a bank clerk named Lesley Winslow. The couple visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Calcutta, Iran, the USSR — locales then unfrequented by the usual traveller. On these long drives across arid deserts, Sear collected embroidered hats, perhaps as a result of a continued fascination with textile design. The artist balanced life as a devoted mother to a conservative son whose traditional beliefs enforced that it was improper for women to be educated, and that a household should have only one breadwinner. Years later on her deathbed, she declared, “I would rather die than vote for Margaret Thatcher.” A CND badge (featuring the iconic 1960s peace sign representing nuclear disarmament) was later found in her belongings.
In a satirical essay about female artists in The Central School of Darts and Shafts (the student magazine in circulation during her matriculation), a writer jokes, “It is in choosing and furnishing a home, however, that her true genius is revealed.” There is a dark truth behind such a jest — at the time, women truly were pressed for options. They often had to make the difficult decision between family and career out of a sense of practicality. Even for those with liberal, modern views about gender and labour, the work of caring for a home and family could make a creative career impossible to pursue.
Sear’s life was by no means an easy glide — there was the death of her mother during her youth, and then the two World Wars she lived through. Without a doubt, Lilian Sear was resilient. She was a woman who made do. Although her visual work came to an end after she married and started a family, one could argue that Sear remained an artist throughout the rest of her life, expressing her creativity in everything she did. She was known for the elaborate meals she cooked for her family, the tasteful interior decoration of her household, the beautiful clothes she stitched together for her granddaughters. The reasons for her secrecy about her time as a practising artist remain unknown — at the end of the day, it could simply be that she had moved on to prioritise other matters. But one thing is for certain: in choosing and furnishing her home, in supervising her family’s daily lives, in the clothes she wore and the souvenirs she selected, Sear’s genius always shone through.