Essex man who left his mark

Edward Bawden’s versatility has  masked his huge contribution to 20th-century British art

Michael Prodger

© Estate of Edward Bawden

Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden met on their first day at the Royal College of Art in 1922 and became the closest of friends and allies. Ravilious died in 1942 accompanying an RAF search and rescue operation off Iceland; Bawden, however, survived the conflict, during which he was an official war artist in Egypt and the Middle East, and lived until 1989. This longevity is one reason why the relatively recent reassessment of Britain’s mid-century artists has seen the lost talent of Ravilious elevated above the fresh-in-the-memory Bawden. This and the matter of artistry: Bawden demurred at the title of artist and claimed he was simply “someone who made dirty marks on paper” — he preferred to be called a designer.

This may have been his tacit acknowledgment that there was too much wit and joyousness in much of his work and not enough interest in the human figure and three-dimensionality for him to be taken entirely seriously as an artist. His seeming parochialism didn’t help: as a painter he drew largely on the Essex profonde landscape around his home in the village of Great Bardfield (he was the son of a Methodist Essex ironmonger). As a commercial designer his client list was dominated by such quintessentially British firms as Twinings, Fortnum & Mason and Faber & Faber. And then there was his sheer scope: he produced, inter alia, watercolours, advertising posters, book jackets and illustrations, trade cards, murals, menus, woodcuts and linocuts, typography, wallpapers and ceramic designs.

Bawden was a flibbertigibbet; friends recall him idly peeling off long strips of wallpaper from his rented rooms and abstractedly gouging into the table with a pencil. He was something of an eccentric too, turning up at the RCA wearing a pince-nez and a handkerchief tie and amassing a collection of headwear that encompassed top hats and a guardsman’s bearskin. He could be shy with strangers, simply sticking his arm out like a traffic sign when asked for directions, while in the company of women his wooing technique was to “stay on the other side of the room and look very apprehensive”.

Nevertheless, it was Bawden who, with Ravilious, reinvented or at least reinvigorated the British watercolour tradition and showed that such humble forms as the woodcut and linocut were not incompatible with a certain domestic modernism. Bacon and Freud may be the great artists of the British 20th century but Bawden’s imprint on national artistic life was arguably more wide-ranging.

Now Bawden is having a moment in the sun. There is a small show of his work at the delightfully quirky Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden (Bawden At Home, until October 28); Are You Sitting Comfortably, a superb volume of his book-jacket designs produced by the Mainstone Press, has just been published; and, most importantly, Dulwich Picture Gallery is following its major Ravilious survey in 2015 by extending the treatment to Bawden (Edward Bawden, until September 9). The exhibition comprises 170 works that span his entire output and includes a rare group of 18 war portraits, mostly of Iraqi Jews, Kurds and Marsh Arabs he encountered while on service.
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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