This is the third 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.
For a notoriously private man, Edward Bawden doesn’t seem to have minded being in front of a television camera.
In his book Under Moonlight, Silas Clifford-Smith describes the unlikely pairing of the taciturn Bawden with a young and garrulous Alan Whicker, when Whicker was conducting interviews for a BBC story on the Great Bardfield artists. The piece was broadcast ahead of the 1958 ‘open house’ exhibition, the fourth and final time that the professional artists in the village organised a group show based around their homes.
Five years later, in 1963, a more sustained and complex consideration of Bawden as an artist came with the film ‘A Sense of Order’, shown within the BBC’s pioneering arts magazine programme, Monitor. Fronted by Huw Wheldon, and by this time in its sixth season, Monitor was an established and prestigious place for coverage of the visual arts. ‘A Sense of Order’ was directed by David Jones, who went on to a successful theatre career at the RSC, and involved Bawden in several days of preparation and shooting.
The resulting film covered a number of key projects from the time, with Bawden shown working on his murals for the Physics Department at the University of Hull and on a commission for Morgan Crucible, as well as sketching at Liverpool Street Station.
A full two decades on, in 1984, Bawden was the subject of a dedicated half hour documentary. This was produced by Anglia Television and shown as part of the ‘About Britain’ series, a weekly slot which gave regional commercial broadcasters the chance to air a factual programme across the national ITV network.
At the core of the programme, and the reason for its continuing interest, is an extended interview with Bawden that took place inside his house at 2 Park Lane in Saffron Walden, his home since the move from Great Bardfield in 1970. It’s this location which makes the programme such a perfect fit for the Fry Art Gallery’s current exhibition Edward Bawden At Home: a working life, where a copy is available to view (it has also been posted on-line, here, by the ‘Inexpensive Progress’ blog). The show makes it possible to move from the filmed scene of ‘The Pagoda’ on Bawden’s wall to looking at the same work in the Gallery.
The documentary is not without its faults. Attempts to match Bawden’s wit miss the mark: playing the sound of a horn at the mention of London Transport isn’t a joke worth making. On occasion the programme lazily plays to the idea of Bawden as a generic English eccentric, rather than tackling the more difficult job of locating his very particular eccentricity.
The interview, however, makes it worthwhile. Bawden wasn’t prone to indulging in autobiography and this is a rare reminiscence from the artist, relaxed and at home at the age of eighty. The subject of ‘A Sense of Order’ was very much a man who observed the world and engaged on his own terms. The older Bawden in ‘About Britain’, while not exactly giving himself away, does, perhaps, risk a little more.
He has a tremendous memory for earlier slights, however distant: he can name the headmaster who treated him unjustly at school. On the other hand, he shows an undisguised pride in honours received. Asked about his CBE he slips in mention of his appointment as a Royal Academician; such things are a surprise but not, he seems to imply, undeserved.
At other times the shutters come down and discussion ended. This tendency is strongest in discussion of the war. Asked about his experience being torpedoed on RMS Laconia he responds that it was ‘my first and only experience of being on a sinking boat’. And that’s that.
The programme’s most surprising moment is at its end. Shortly before filming, Bawden had completed his illustrations for the Folio Society’s edition of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and, as some of his most recent work, he discusses the project and the book. He makes a careful distinction between the witty, the comic and the sardonic, noting that the violent humour of the Morte D’Arthur is definitely sardonic. A little later, and as a kind of concluding statement, he notes how his working life was formed against the cultural background of the 1930s. Since then, he says, the world has become ‘more and more idiotic … rushing into disaster’ so that ‘like myself it faces oblivion’. It’s a devastating cultural and political statement – but all delivered with a smile that is definitely sardonic.