Muriel Wylie (nee Lochhead): Born Glasgow 12th September 1900
The Early Years
You can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can’t take Glasgow out of the girl.
J. E. B. Lee
Muriel, doyenne of decorators, is a Glasgow girl with Edinburgh roots. Born in 1900 in the Second City of the Empire, she is the epitome of Kelvinside culture and west end gracious living and glamour. As she says herself, and improving on St Francis of Assisi, “where there is darkness, I bring lampshades.”
Muriel was not so much born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but as she is fond of saying “more of a canteen of cutlery”. Muriel is the only daughter of older parents. Indeed as the daughter of a woman in her late 40s, Muriel is what was known in Glasgow as “a change baby”. Her father John “Jock” Lochhead, who came originally from a farming family in the Scottish Borders, made his money in ironmongery. He specialised in furnishings for Clyde Built Ships. It was, however, his domestic range, “Knobs and Knockers” which brought him acclamation and a knighthood, particularly his hand turned brass knob and matching finger plate. For this Arts and Crafts inspired range, Jock used the talents of a now long forgotten young artist called “Charles Rennie, something or other” (Jock always had a tendency to vagueness especially in matters of attribution). Jock, never keen himself on the Arts and Crafts style, always referred despairingly to the range as “a load of old tosh”. Nevertheless he was pleased to see his family’s knobs and knockers all over the west end of Glasgow, with many a tight Glasgow hand on them.
If nuts and bolts formed the scaffolding of Muriel’s extraordinary personality and decorating “savoir fair” it was her mother’s side who provided that Caledonian flair or “Je ne sais quois” for which Muriel has become “a weil kent face”. Muriel’s mother was Ellen MacCavity, daughter of an Edinburgh Confectioner, Frank “fast boiling” MacCavity. Ellen was known in Edinburgh society as “wee Sweetie MacCavity” or behind her back as “Acid Drop”. For, Wee Sweetie had a short fuse, as well as short legs and had a face on her like split wood and a temper like a sherbet fountain. There were few young Morningside gels who dared to cross her for fear of her right hook and that they would be denied access to that morning’s cut price traybake supplied by her father to their school. Sweetie’s classmates were some of the most amply proportioned young ladies in Edinburgh, or as Frank MacCavity would say, he was helping to produce “winter models”.
Frank MacCavity grew wealthy on the proceeds of his famous black stripped balls and it was said that 95% of Edinburgh pocket money was spent on MacCavity’s pan-drops, tablet or coconut ice. The MacCavity Lucky Bag was so popular it became the subject of a Music Hall song and for Christmas 1899 a Khaki Lucky Bag was sent to the troops fighting in the Boer War. The Lucky Bag was so important in raising morale that it was widely held in parts of “Auld Reekie” that MacCavity had “Relieved Mafeking”.
Frank MacCavity’s true genius, however, was to totally integrate his business concerns in the American manner, so at one end of his business operations he bought up sugar plantations and at the other established a chain of Painless Dentistry Surgeries. The first of these was in Partick, followed by Paisley and Polmadie, as Frank liked alliteration. This in turn led to the purchase of the Falkirk False Teeth Factory. Frank’s “West-end wallies” were the gift of choice for every Scottish 21st birthday. It was a stroke, both of genius and philanthropy, as in many ways “Fast Boiling MacCavity” could be said to have been the founder of the welfare state. It was clearly from Grandfather MacCavity that Muriel inherited her business sense and her charitable nature. From her mother, Sweetie she was given the gift of the withering look.
The Meeting that Mattered
Muriel’s parents met at a charity fancy dress ball at Glasgow’s St Andrew’s Hall. “The Fairytale Ball” was the social event of the year. It was organised by Glasgow businessmen to raise funds to build a home for Glasgow’s fallen women (of which there seemed to be a great number). Jock Lochhead had always taken a great interest in fallen women and so was pleased to be involved and gifted a number of cast iron letter boxes as prizes. Coincidentally Jock also took an interest in Glasgow’s Orphan Homes. Every Christmas young Muriel was encouraged to clear out her toy cupboard of unwanted toys and take them along to the Pyde Piper Orphan Homes where it thrilled her to find that as an only child so many of the poor children saw her as their sister.
Jock’s other contribution to the Ball was to persuade Frank MacCavity to donate boxes of his whisky flavoured tablet as an after dinner dainty to accompany the coffee, before carriages. Frank not only agreed (he had once been the recipient of the William Ewart Gladstone Prize at Edinburgh University for “Services to the Relief of Fallen Women in the Grassmarket”) to bring his famous tablet but attend himself and to bring his daughter “Sweetie”. Frank went to the ball as a Wolf and Sweetie and her older sister “Macaroon” Mary as the Ugly Sisters. Young Jock went as Widow Twankie which raised a few eyebrows, but everyone agreed that his ability to wear a bustle would shame any lady of fashionable pretensions . As Twankie and one of the “Uglies” whirled around the ballroom, love blossomed. The night was a huge success raising over £5 for the Home for Fallen Women and the union of two business dynasties was sealed.
The Union of Two Dynasties or East MeetsWest
A society wedding in Edinburgh was followed by the decision to set up home in Kingsborough Gardens in Glasgow’s fashionable West End in a house which was a present from a grateful bride’s grateful father. It was a source of great distress that John and Sweetie seemed destined to have no family. Fortune eventually smiled on the couple. Following a holiday in a German spa town and the purchase of device to help Sweetie improve her circulation and calm her nerves a miracle happened and that miracle was Muriel. The couple were overjoyed. John brought out a new range of door closers and Sweetie went into nursery overdrive.
Muriel’s Early Influences
Muriel was a healthy child and early on took an interest in her surroundings demanding the latest in fashions and fabrics. The family went through a number of Nannies and Governesses until it was time for Muriel to go to the Westbourne School for Young Ladies. Here she learnt the important things in life such as how to get in and out of an over- stuffed sofa and how to prepare petite fours in the servant-less household.
As one of the most indulged girls in the school, Muriel was frequently sent to Coventry. This did not worry Muriel who swept the board with prizes for conversational French, elocution, and appliquéd antimacassars. For her hand painted silk parasol she was awarded the St Mungo Prize. It was to be her ruched, pink, velvet boudoir cushion that established, not only her decorating style but also insured she was dux of the school. If appliqué and ruching were her life blood, then it was performance which seemed to bring her to life. Her rendition of “Anytime’s Kissing Time” from Chu Chin Chou in 1917 and her costume design which was said to be on the scanty side, unfortunately led to her being banned from the neighbouring boys’ school end of term dance and hastened her departure from Westbourne by a year.
“Finished Off” on the Continent
Muriel was sent to Cheltenham Ladies’ College where she was asked to leave rather earlier than planned and then packed off to a remote Scottish island to stay with relatives for reasons which were never fully explained. After the Great War, she was finished off in Paris and Berlin. Muriel learnt to cook in France and was one with the French language and general ambience. Her stay in Germany was less successful, with her finding the country rather straight laced and the language rough and guttural.
Fun, Frolics, Fabric and Fashion
Muriel somehow felt more alive on the continent, particularly in the Mediterranean countries and the interwar years were a cauldron of creativity. She just adored the fashions, the fabrics and the food. It was during these years that Muriel made so many contacts in the world of art and design. There was coffee with Coco, lunch with Lanvin and dinner with Dior. Inevitably Muriel who, unlike her mother, was tall and beautiful became a model. No one, it was said, could accessorise like Muriel.
Clouds Over Europe
With war imminent Muriel sadly returned to Scotland. These were testing times as Muriel’s father had been hit badly by the Depression and there was little market for his now out of date knobs and knockers. Her mother, Sweetie, had been badly injured by a Corporation tram, while trying to cross Union Street sucking a ‘soor ploom’ and was now an invalid. They had been forced to downsize to one of the new flats in Kelvin Court where Sir John and Lady Sweetie lived in somewhat reduced style. Muriel helped them to live comfortably in their twilight years and made sure there were never any pips in the lemons when it was G&T time, which it always was.
To make ends meet Muriel opened up a shop in Byres Road selling the luxury trimmings she had brought back from France. One night in the air raid shelter Muriel met a dashing army officer on leave from North Africa. When they emerged from the shelter, they were engaged and Muriel’s shop was bombed to bits, with only her tassels blowing in the wind. Their marriage was short lived as the officer of whom she never would speak, was killed at El Alamein.
Muriel’s remaining war years are shrouded in mystery, although she occasionally refers to her ability to use both a gun and a parachute and her ability to engage in silent killing using the odds and ends basket of a department store’s haberdashery section. There never has been a satisfactory explanation as to why Muriel has the George Cross and the Légion d’Honnour medal.
The Love of Her Life
After the War, Muriel was without husband, parents and her beloved shop. She decided to go to the South of France and try to persuade her old friend Pablo to part with some of his pots which she knew were just the thing for a new decorating venture. So Muriel would find inspiration pottering around the antiques’ markets and lying on the beach with a young Yves Klein telling him that she just knew blue would be the post war black and he should think of colour as a block. Yves said he would think about it. Breakfast with Matisse was a regular feature of Muriel’s life and she would help him with his paper cut-out shapes. One day on the Promenade des Anglais, while deep in conversation who should she bump into but the most dashing man she had seen since the air raids. It was, of course, none other than Jasper and it was love at first sight, she just knew they were “chez nous”.