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Bawden’s outlook was formed early. He joined the Design School at the RCA at an extraordinary moment; as well as Ravilious, Enid Marx, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth were all contemporaries. Paul Nash, a sometime tutor, described the class of 1922 as “an outbreak of talent” . What he taught them was that there should be no distinction between the fine and applied arts and that safe art and design was “just what we are trying to get away from”.

While still a student, Bawden was commissioned by Frank Pick, the design director of London Underground, to create a map of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition; he also came to the attention of Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press in Plaistow, and together they would redefine the art of commercial printing. Meanwhile in 1930, alongside Ravilious, he was asked by Sir Joseph Duveen to paint a set of whimsical murals for Morley College in Lambeth and although their work was destroyed in the war it had by then announced their arrival.

As a watercolourist Bawden used a “dry brush” and a muted palette and chose determinedly non-picturesque topics — a clump of roadside trees, a cluster of outhouse roofs, a corner of a garden with fruit bushes covered against the birds. Underlying them was a strong sense of structure and what the Times critic Edward Crankshaw in 1932 identified as a manner “completely free from rhetoric”, though not of an instantly recognisable style. February 2 pm, for example, is a watercolour of a snowbound back garden painted in 1936 where, with extraordinary boldness, the whole paper has been scratched and slashed to give the effect of a snow flurry. While his pictures clearly express a sense of place they never overtly attempt to express emotion. This was a trait he shared with Ravilious, and although their pastorals can’t help but transmit feeling (and profound poetry in Ravilious’s case) it is of a most undemonstrative kind.

Bawden as an illustrator was a different character. His drawings and designs are chock-a-block with wit and delight, the spirit of Edward Lear undimmed: his dust-jackets and vignettes and almanacks are dotted with morose fish, sea bathers surprised while undressing, stoic cattle and dancing gardeners, befuddled spiders and four-square market porters. His love of buildings means that architecture features heavily, whether in a five-foot linocut of Liverpool Street Station or a sketch of an Essex church.

Bawden returned from the war to find his style out of favour: he complained that everyone had forgotten him other than the taxman. His graphic work, however, showed a liveliness and bottomless invention that was an antidote to the drabness of post-war utility Britain and remained fresh, albeit with a tinge of nostalgia, into deep old age. Nonetheless, underlying the lightness of his work was a deep seriousness of purpose.
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