Edward Bawden at the Tate

This is the first in a series of blog posts to coincide with the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition Edward Bawden at Home: a working life which runs from 1st April to 28th October 2018.  Each of the posts will look at an aspect of Bawden’s diverse – and often surprising – career.

There is no evidence as to why Edward Bawden was appointed as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1951. His work in the preparations for the Festival of Britain, alongside, perhaps, a certain down-to-earth reputation, seem to have commended him to someone in Government. At all events, the Tate’s constitution required that four of its Trustees were practising artists and, with the Camden Town painter Henry Lamb retiring, the invitation to Bawden was made. As a result, he served until 1958, his tenure coinciding with those of figures such as Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, John Piper and William Coldstream.


Bawden’s tenure as a Tate Trustee coincided with a time of high drama at the gallery. In particular, the year’s 1952 to 1954 saw the height of the so-called ‘Tate Affair’, when a varied group of malcontents attempted to unseat the Director, John Rothenstein, who was the brother of Bardfield artist Michael Rothenstein. Events included a vicious press campaign and questions in Parliament, but reached a climax when Rothenstein finally roused himself against his enemies and punched the critic and collector Douglas Cooper in the face at a gallery party. It was a time for partisan positions and Sutherland, in particular, chose to align himself with the Douglas Cooper faction. Bawden, on the other hand, seems to have sailed serenely and neutrally through the line of battle, and to have emerged unscathed.

The Original Cheap Jack
Edward Bawden, ‘The Original Cheap Jack, 1956


The minutes from the Trustees’ meetings of the time can be consulted via a rather rackety microfiche reader at the back end of the Tate’s archive and library. The report of Bawden’s first meeting sets the tone for his tenure: he is registered as present, but makes no further appearance in the text. Indeed, looking through the minutes, and also at the correspondence file that the Tate keeps for each of its Trustees, suggests that there were just three issues on which Bawden made a sustained intervention.


The first was to press Rothenstein, and through him the rest of the Board, to consider strengthening the collection of English watercolours, with a special plea put in for Vivian Pitchforth, who, like Bawden, had been an Official War Artist. The Tate’s limited collection of Pitchforth suggests that this fell on deaf ears.


More surprising was Bawden’s brokering of a meeting between some of the artist Trustees and their colleagues from the Royal Academy, in order to discuss purchases using the Chantrey Bequest. The Bequest had been a source of tension between the Tate and the RA for many years, largely due to a fundamental flaw in it conception: the RA got to choose the pictures purchased, but the Tate had to hang them. The result, in the Tate’s view, was that it was foisted with second-rate paintings by superannuated academicians. Things got a little better in 1949, when the Tate gained joint representation on the purchasing committee, but relations remained frosty. Bawden’s initiative, however, gained a positive response from the RA President, Charles Wheeler, and seems to have led to a real improvement in joint working.


The last and  most revealing of Bawden’s interventions related to the display of watercolours and drawings. He found the basement space allotted to them by the Tate unspeakably dreary and set out his own vision for its rejuvenation. Whilst oil paintings were like a public speaker, he suggested, watercolours and drawings were like a conversation. They needed an intimate, relaxed setting, with plenty of space, no frames, and comfy seating for visitors. All in all the ideal atmosphere for their viewing would be, he said, like that of a milk bar – a comparison with a winning 1950s naivety. Rothenstein’s response to these ideas, however, was polite but negative: frames helped with conservation and a lack of funding ruled out any possibility of redecoration.


In May 1958, as Edward Bawden’s term of office expired, the Chair of the Trustees regretted the loss of his services, even though Bawden himself was absent from the meeting.  His association with the Tate was over, without a bang or a whimper, but rather a polite nod of the head and, one senses, a shrug of the shoulder on both sides.


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