Art review: Edward Bawden

by
24 August 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on two current Edward Bawden exhibitions

The Fry Art Gallery, © The Estate of Edward Bawden

St Paul’s, linocut, 1966, by Edward Bawden

St Paul’s, linocut, 1966, by Edward Bawden

THE Essex-born artist Edward Bawden is having something of a necessary spotlight shone on him as an illustrator with two exhibitions this year, one in Saffron Walden, where he ended up living, and the other in Dulwich.

He was, just, too young to enlist in the First World War; he was born in Braintree on 10 March 1903. He grew up in the aftermath of the war and, from 1919, attended the progressive Cambridge School of Art, founded in 1858, before going to the Design School of the Royal College of Art, in London, where he took a diploma in book illustration.

Art in the wake of the First World War, as a comprehensive exhibition at Tate Britain has recently shown, shared the experience of loss and destruction widely, even though the strategic bombing of London, Essex, Kent, and other English targets from German airships deployed as early as January 1915 is now largely overlooked.

Bawden’s RCA tutor was Paul Nash (1889-1946), who had seen the trenches at first hand. In the late 1920s, Nash painted Landscape at Iden, in which timber is stacked alongside an open stockade fence with a rolling Sussex landscape beyond. The logs were a metaphor for the piled-up bodies of dead soldiers cleared from the battlefield at the perimeter of a field of a neatly ordered orchard that has been planted beyond. Ten years later, the painting was acquired by Tate on the eve of the Second World War.

© IWM (Art. IWM ART LD 1791), © Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden, A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians, watercolour, chalk, and ink on paper

It was Nash who first helped Bawden obtain commissions from Frank Pick at London Transport — this at a time when Charles Holden and Stanley Heaps were designing the iconic underground stations of the Northern Line extension and elsewhere across the suburbs.

Nash also introduced him as a commercial artist to the Curwen Press, who published his wallpaper design of “Tree and Cow” (1927). It is used for one wall of the first exhibition gallery at Dulwich. Like many of his repeat-design papers, it was never that popular. Photographs of his house at Great Bardfield, which he shared with his wife and family, and with the artist Eric Ravilious and his wife, can be seen at The Fry.

Ravilious and Bawden had studied together and, in 1924, were awarded travelling scholarships that enabled them to visit Italy, in successive years. Somewhat surprisingly, given the poetic and pastoral nature of his later work, Bawden claimed: “If pressed for an opinion I should plump for the Baroque as the most deliriously beautiful style ever invented.”

The more immediate influences on both were, of course, Duccio and Piero, as can be seen in the mural that they jointly undertook for the refectory of Morley College, a prestigious commission, which was officially opened by the former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Bawden very much became a part of Saffron Walden when he moved there as a widower (1970), although the exhibition at The Fry might give the mistaken impression that he rarely strayed outside Essex and London.

Many of his most successful linocuts are of London; in 1967, he captured both Borough Market in Southwark and Covent Garden in line much as he had Liverpool Street Station six years earlier. His dust-jacket cover for a London A-Z by John Metcalf (André Deutsch) in Coronation Year neatly depicts the west end of St Paul’s Cathedral between Nelson’s Column and the Monument, with details of the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace above.

As an official war artist from 1940, Bawden saw more than his fair share of active service; when he drew scenes of the evacuation of Dunkirk, he was among the last to leave the beaches. Returning from Africa in 1942, he was torpedoed at sea. After five days in an open boat, he was picked up by a Vichy warship, and he was interned for two months in Morocco. Undaunted, he returned to the war in Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Persia, and Italy, and began a series of intimate and engaging portraits that, for me, show him at his best in Dulwich.

After a morning spent working on a linocut, he died of a stroke at the age of 86 in his much loved Saffron Walden.

“Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life” is at The Fry Art Gallery, 19a Castle Street, Saffron Walden, Essex, until 28 October (closed on Mondays, except Bank Holiday afternoon). Phone 01799 513779. fryartgallery.org “Edward Bawden” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 9 September (closed on Mondays, except Bank Holiday). Phone 020 8693 5254. www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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