Edward Bawden @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting a fabulous retrospective of work by the British artist and designer, Edward Bawden (1903-89), displaying more than 170 works, half of them from private collections i.e. a rare opportunity to see them.

It’s the most wide-ranging exhibition since Bawden’s death nearly thirty years ago and takes a comprehensive overview of his 60-year career. As often with these kinds of shows, extra work has gone into digging rarities, which include previously unseen works from the Bawden family private collection as well as bringing together 18 rarely-seen works which Bawden did as a war artist during the Second World War, on display together here for the first time.

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Bawden was a commercial artist – an innovative graphic designer, book illustrator and printmaker, who turned his hand to a bewildering variety of formats. The exhibition includes examples of:

  • posters (including ones for Ealing Comedies, several for Kew Gardens, as well as a number for London Transport)
  • adverts and commercial designs for – among many others – Fortnum & Mason, Shell and Twinings
  • maps (a huge map of the seaside resort of Scarborough, the cover for an early edition of the London A to Z, a wonderful cartoon-style guide to the layout of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition)
  • murals (which he made for the Festival of Britain and for Morley College’s cafeteria, in central London)
  • promotional brochures and leaflets
  • menus
  • tiles and beer mats, including a set based on signs of the horoscope
  • book covers for a huge variety of genres, from Edith Sitwell’s poetry, translations of classics (Herodotus), jaunty travel books round Britain (East Coasting by Dell Leigh), and cookbooks (The Magic of Herbs by Mrs C.F. Leyel, Good Food and Good Drinks by Ambrose Heath)
  • postcards and booklets
  • calendars and Christmas cards
  • and wallpaper – three of the exhibition’s six rooms have walls covered with Bawden designs, namely ‘Tree and Cow’ and ‘Pigeon and Clocktower’ and a blown-up version of Covent Garden market

The wallpaper is still commercially available:

You name it, Bawden had a go at designing or decorating or illustrating it.

Friends and mentors

Bawden was born the only son of a Methodist ironmonger in Braintree, Essex, and grew up into a boy much given to solitary wandering and drawing. He went to a Quaker school, where his talent was encouraged. He went on to study at Cambridge School of Art before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art School of Design in London, where he studied from 1922 to 1925. On his first day there he met and befriended fellow student Eric Ravilious who would become a lifelong friend.

At the Royal College, Bawden was taught by Paul Nash, the great and strange painter of English landscape (as recently seen at Tate Britain’s Paul Nash retrospective).

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden.

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

In the first room of the exhibition is this large picture of a wartime scene in Baghdad, Iraq (a British ship had been sent to win Iraqi hearts and minds by holding a pop-up cinema and fireworks displays; Bawden, as a war artist, was instructed to paint this rather bizarre sight, as much else during the war).

If you look at the moon in the top left of the Baghdad painting, the way it appears in an area which seems almost to have been torn out of the rest of the fabric, in the way it is almost totally eclipsed, and then at the wash of colours around the fireworks on the right – all these seem to me to be completely in the unsettling watercolour wash style, the rather ragged finishing, and the hallucinatory oddness of Paul Nash.

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox( 1943) by Paul Nash

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943) by Paul Nash

As for Eric Ravilious, the exhibition informs us that he and Bawden remained lifelong friends until Ravilious’s tragic death during the war, in 1942. We’ll come back to Ravilious.

Six rooms

As usual, the show is housed in the six exhibition rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery, each with a specific theme.

The World Off Duty

Bawden was not a fine artist, devoting himself to exploring himself or the human condition via laborious oil painting. The reverse. He was fascinated by people and all their multifarious activities and, insofar as he became a highly successful commercial artist, he was always on the lookout for novel, imaginative and quirky channels for his humorous vision of people at play.

This first room is designed to introduce you to his prolificness and variety. One wall is lined with the striking pigeon and clocktower, on another hangs the Baghdad watercolour shown above. There’s a watercolour of the English relaxing on a beach which is very reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. There’s a huge and eccentric map of the seaside resort of Scarborough which he made for a hotel there.

Gardening

In 1932 Bawden married Charlotte Epton, who had been a fellow-student at the Royal College and was a professional potter. After a few years in London they bought a house in the Essex village of Great Bardfield and lived there for the rest of their lives. It had a garden and Bawden took to gardening like a duck to water, buying up loads of seed catalogues, experimenting with planting schemes and enthusiastically illustrating gardening books.

This is a watercolour Bawden painted of the view from his room. Note the architectural accuracy of the brickwork on the right and the roof on the left, and the line of the fences. The trees, bare in winter, are obviously more organic in shape but still partake of the generally geometric cast of mind which characterises the whole.

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

Spirit of Place

Through the 1930s, into the 1940s and 50s Great Bardfield became home to an impressive array of English artists who began a tradition of holding ‘open houses’ to showcase their latest work. The Great Bardfield Artists eventually included John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, George Chapman, Stanley Clifford-Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Walter Hoyle, Michael Rothenstein, Eric Ravilious (who lodged with Bawden at Brick House), Sheila Robinson and Marianne Straub. Other artists linked to the art community include Joan Glass, Duffy Ayers, Laurence Scarfe and the political cartoonist David Low.

Back in the 1930s when Ravilious came to stay, the two friends discussed ways to revive the great English tradition of watercolour painting. They set about trying to adapt the Great Tradition to the discoveries of the Modernists and the shocks of the Great War and post-war period, to update the great English pastoral tradition to the ‘age of the motorcar and the wireless’.

From Cubism onwards the tendency in continental art had all been about discovering the geometric buried in organic forms, as well as reacting to the odd brittle staginess of much 1920s culture, the peculiar artificiality of the poetry of Edith Sitwell, the fragility of Noel Coward’s witty plays about neurotics – a cultural tone which was associated with the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’.

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

I kept finding myself comparing the odd, geometric stylisation of the trees, and the way they seem to have been plonked onto an almost abstract stage set, with the work of Paul Nash. Nash is more haunted and disconcerting but both share the same mood of alienated figuration (even though Nash was mostly working in oils and Bawden in watercolours).

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

And you can also compare and contrast Bawden’s landscapes with the style of his good friend Eric Ravilious. Many of the pair’s depictions of rural scenes are almost interchangeable. But Ravilious nearly always has a somehow softer and more rounded tone. His objects are somehow more complete and gentler.

This Ravilious watercolour is both more overtly geometrical than the Bawden (in the hatching of the immediate foreground or the cross-hatching of the grass on the right of the ‘island’) yet something is softening the impression. Maybe it’s the cartoon image of the geese waddling, or maybe it’s the palette, in particular the warm orange-brown colour of the spokes of the waterwheel. Ravilious’s images always feel more humanised somehow.

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

By contrast with the warm bath effect of Ravilious, Bawden always seems a bit more scratchy. But both produced scores and scores of immediately evocative and beautiful depictions of that strange homely but disconcerted England between the wars, where the pretty southern landscape remains the same and yet you can sense that something in the culture has been irrecoverably shattered.

Different works for different moods. Having looked at the Nash, Ravilious and Bawden for some time, I wonder if the Bawden isn’t the deepest: the cross-hatching of the sky in particular, of the central muddy groove in the road, and of the way he creates the sense of different leaf shapes on the different species of trees without actually drawing any leaves – just by using different types of hatching and shading – creating a vivid, modern, compelling image.

Wartime portraits

This room is a story in itself. When the Second World War broke out Bawden was recruited as an official war artist. He was sent to depict the British army in France and then, following the army’s evacuation from there, in the Middle East. There followed five years of widespread travels all around the British Empire and its numerous theatres of war. There’s a handy world map on the wall to help you locate all the various places where he went to paint British and Commonwealth troops.

Bawden had had it drummed into him at art school that he was no good at figure painting and so they are largely absent from his watercolours, and he rarely if ever did portraits before the war. This also explains why, although he created designs for book covers, he rarely if ever did illustrations of the actual text, being shy of trying to depict human beings let alone fictional characters.

But part of being a war artist was being under direct orders to portray British and Commonwealth soldiers, nurses and so on wherever he went. And so this room brings together over 20 examples of wartime: portraits, scenes with a few people in; and larger scenes with crowds. A characteristic example of crowds is the Showboat in Baghdad, above. There’s also a powerful depiction of refugees at Udine in Italy.

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

To me the sketchiness of the figures reminds me a little of the contemporary work of Edward Ardizzone, just two years older than Bawden, a successful book illustrator (and, later, author) who was also commissioned as a war artist and did some wonderfully vivid war paintings and sketches.

Note:

  • the way details all over the Bawden are more abstract and stylised, for example the trees at the top
  • the way Ardizzone’s people are surprisingly anonymous mop-heads, whereas there is a lot of individual portraiture in the Bawden, for example the Italian priest dressed in black in the centre
  • and the way Bawden’s buildings are more strictly defined – and their windows more bleak and haunting in a de Chirico kind of way.

You can’t see it very well in this reproduction but down at the front of the Bawden are the figures of a mother holding the hand of a child and looking through the wire into the camp, presumably the wife and child of one of the prisoners. Now I come to study it like this I can see that, although the Ardizzone is more pleasurable to look at, the Bawden is much more composed and arranged and artful than the Ardizzone. Deeper. There is much more to see.

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Anyway, compelled to do portraits, Bawden turned out not to be as bad at them as he expected. All the examples here don’t exactly have photographic accuracy, but they are powerful in that between-the-wars, watered-down, English modernist way. Verging on a kind of quiet surrealism.

The more I look at this portrait of the sergeant – once I’ve got over the blue face – the more important and unsettling I realise the extremely accurate depiction of the staircase behind him is. It could have been far more sketchy but the accuracy with which Bawden captures every single step with its slight overhang and shadow adds not only realism but a kind of threatening sur-realism to the image.

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

His five-year odyssey took Bawden from Dunkirk to Libya, Sudan, Cairo, Eritrea and Ethiopia (where he met and liked the Emperor Haile Selassie), Palestine, Lebanon, southern Iraq, Casablanca, Baghdad and Kurdistan, and to Jeddah, back to Iraq and into Iran. He had a spell back in Blighty in 1944, painting in Southampton docks before setting off for Yugoslavia, by way of Rome, taking in Ravenna, then Greece, Austria and Florence. What an exotic five years!

To quote the exhibition:

He successfully battled his own feelings of inadequacy as an artist to produce some of the most compelling artworks of the conflict such as A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians, 1940-1944. Portraits of Iraqi Jews, Kurds and Marsh Arabs are displayed alongside servicemen of different African nations, revealing the range of people Bawden encountered and his warm treatment of all.

Once I started looking at the credits for each picture, I realised that all 20 of them (and a couple more which spill over into the next room) are owned by the Imperial War Museum, presumably because it inherited the archive of war artists’ work. A reminder of the vast troves of art held by IWM, and the frustration that there isn’t a big gallery to put them on permanent display.

Architecture

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The war had interrupted Bawden’s experiments with the technique of linocutting. After the war he found himself well known. He was profiled in in the series of Penguin Modern Painters, received a CBE and was elected Associate Member of the Royal Academy.

But tastes had changed. The 1930s fondness for landscape had been swept away to be replaced by an urge to modernise. Amid ongoing work in murals (the 1951 Festival of Britain), designing book covers and other commercial activities, Bawden began to really explore the technique of print-making from linocuts.

We have noted the ‘geometric’ aspect of some of Bawden’s prints and the architectural accuracy of the watercolour of his back garden. Well, something about that action of cutting into the lino in order to make the print played very heavily to Bawden’s tendency to strong lines and architectural definition, strengths which really came to fruition when he applied the technique not to people or landscapes, but to the built urban environment.

The results are consistently vivid and powerful. Not all of his watercolours, of his landscapes and even the frivolous book covers and so on are convincing. By contrast, almost everything in this room full of linocut prints is powerful and impactful.

Bawden’s fondness for the humorous and fantastical led him to a series of prints of Brighton, from the gaudy Brighton pier to the absurd fantasia of the Brighton Pavilion. But it is the series of linocuts about London which I found most powerful. He did a set of London Monuments which included an arresting image of St Paul’s, along with depictions of Horse Guards Parade, the Tower of London and so on.

But I particularly loved two prints from the series about London markets, one of Covent Garden and one of Borough Market. For two years I worked in an office near London Bridge and walked under the railway arches and past the market stalls of Borough Market twice a day, besides all the times I’ve come this way to visit Tate Modern and sometimes to visit the church in the background, Southwark Cathedral, with its monuments to Shakespeare and John Gower.

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

The exhibition, naturally enough, pays attention and respect to all phases of his career, but I get the impression reading around the subject that it was the clarity and monumentality of these linocut prints which really made him a household name.

Fable and fantasy

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The final room aims to bring out the thread of humour and the fantastical in Bawden’s work. He’s not a great inventor of fantastical beasts or landscapes; he is not John Tenniel of Alice in Wonderland fame or Arthur Rackham or E.H. Shepherd or Ardizzone.

There’s something a little more staid and reassuring about his illustrations, something very 1950s. Although the huge map of Scarborough at the start of the show features animals and a few fantastical creatures on it, they are somehow tamed to the scale of the English imagination. Clear brightly defined lines. Humorous stylisations. Nothing too unexpected or strange, thank you.

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

If you like Bawden this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity not only to see a wide selection of his work, but to read a number of private letters in which he discusses his approach as well as examining preliminary studies, preparatory drawings and unfinished designs he made, especially for the murals – a really thorough exploration of his achievement.

It’s all a must for the Bawden completist, and the comprehensive exhibition catalogue fleshes out many of the themes and ideas here with additional biographical facts and illustrations.

And comparing and contrasting Bawden with Nash, Ravilious and Ardizzone as I’ve done, brings out for me a greater understanding of his strengths – less soft and rounded than Ravilious, maybe more penetrating in his landscapes; and more incisive and architectural in his war work that Ardizzone; less immediately appealing and yet, when you look closely, much more composed, detailed and sometimes disturbing.

This exhibition is an enormous pleasure.

P.S.

Bawden was commissioned to design a series of eleven murals for the First Class lounge of the P&O liner Oronsay, which was launched in 1951. The theme was ‘the English pub’ and Bawden depicted traditional pub names, such as the Rose & Crown. One of these murals is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, until 17 June.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

     /  June 5, 2018

    Cool retrospective, thank you!

    Edward Bawden (1903-89) was a quality printmaker, illustrator and watercolourist, but a lot of his career came too late for my blog. Thus I can identify Bawden’s Landscape at Sunset and Noon, 1936 easily. Ditto Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930) and Eric Ravilious’ The Waterwheel (1938). But I might struggle a bit with Albert Bridge (1966) and Borough Market (1967). What happened to the gentle colours?

    Reply
  1. Edward Bawden @ Dulwich Picture Gallery — Books & Boots – 365posterblog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: