This is the fourth 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.
Early in his career, in the 1930s, Edward Bawden produced a significant body of work in watercolour. Along with Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious, he introduced a new, modern style of clean lines and precise brush strokes which banished the prevalent tendency for watery atmospheric effects. The story of these early paintings was recently told in the Mainstone Press’s The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden. The pictures were ‘lost’ in the sense that they were dispersed in private collections, as well as being cast into shadow by Bawden’s later reputation as a printmaker and illustrator.
Bawden, of course, continued to paint watercolours throughout his life. As he passed his eightieth birthday, in 1983, and with his mobility increasingly restricted, he embarked on a new project, using watercolour to record his home at 2 Park Lane, Saffron Walden, along with its views and his life – still a working life – within it. This remarkable series of late works could also be described as ‘lost’. They too have entered the closed world of private collections and, like the early watercolours, they offer a very different vision to Bawden’s best-known graphic fantasies of the mid-century or even his illustrations for the Folio Society’s The Hound of the Baskervilles completed in 1987.
The inclusion of eleven watercolours from the middle and late 1980s is thus a fascinating aspect of the Fry Art Gallery’s current Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life exhibition, with some of the pictures on loan from their current owners.
One might expect Bawden to have felt constrained by a life increasingly dominated by home, but the atmosphere of the pictures suggests the very opposite. There is a continual transformation of the immediate into the exotic. In garden scenes such as Seat in the Garden (1987) or Cat and Greenhouse (1986) ferns and bamboo, along with every shade of green from near black to turquoise, turn a small space into something tropical and abundant, while the sun over the co-op car park, in View from the Back of Park Lane (1980s), burns equatorially. In a view of the attic bedroom, Camels and Cat (1987), it is the exaggerated presence of Bawden’s own wallpaper design, ‘Sahara’, from 1928, that again makes the homely strange, and in Ajax, Fairy and Orchids (1987), the flowers do something similar to the kitchen products – or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Such metamorphoses of the everyday co-exist, however, with close observation of reality. That might be of a discarded cup in Tulips and Drawing Board (1989), an Asian mother in Park Lane from the Landing (1980s) or advertising slogans in Ajax, Fairy and Orchids. Appreciation of the quality of Bawden’s observation is helped by the inclusion in the exhibition of Roy Hammans’ photographs. These were commissioned by the Fry Art Gallery, shortly after Bawden’s death, to provide a detailed record of 2 Park Lane, its contents and arrangement.
Home, for Bawden, was a place to relax (especially for his cat, Emma Nelson, a constant presence in the pictures) but also to work. He shows his studio, his drawing board and, in two slightly earlier pictures, from 1983, the cut and inked lino block, neatly surrounded by tools, which he had used for two of his recent prints. If the latter pictures suggest a willingness to be open about the process of making art, that fact is borne out by the retention of extensive under-drawing in several of the watercolours. Skeleton buildings can be seen to the back of Park Lane and shadowy, pencilled objects in Tulips and Drawing Board. In Daffodils, from 1989, Bawden’s death before the picture’s completion means even more of this scaffold of drawing is revealed. Compass-drawn circles define where flower heads would form.
In his contribution to the book which accompanies the exhibition, Peyton Skipwith recalls how he gently nudged Bawden back to work in the mid-1980s, after he had talked of retirement. The resulting pictures, however, as the document of a life nearing its inevitable conclusion, show no hint of fading artistic vigour. Rather there is a mental robustness in the way the domestic surroundings of 2 Park Lane are analysed in terms of space and pattern, and an unsentimental pleasure in the arrangement of immediate surroundings, a point which is particularly clear in the very last flower paintings, Tulips and Drawing Board and Daffodils. One repeated motif across these late watercolours is Bawden’s own work, displayed with an unostentatious naturalness throughout the house: wallpapers in Two Chairs and a Cat (1987) and Camels and a Cat; his cast-iron bench in Seat in the Garden, and his print from 1950, The Palmhouse, Kew Gardens, reused in Cat and Palm House (1987). As a result the set of watercolours taken together become a kind of self-portrait through time, a portrait of a working life, a life that has been self-made with care, craftsmanship and delight.
Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life is at the Fry Art Gallery from April 1 to October 28, 2018. The accompanying book, Edward Bawden at Home: A Working Life, is published by Random Spectacular.