Edward Bawden’s Visitors

This is the second 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.

It could be a crush in Brick House when Edward Bawden invited in the public. During the first of the Great Bardfield ‘Open House’ exhibitions in 1951, he wrote to his son Richard of how when ‘a school arrives or a party of WI people I nearly get pushed out of the house by the crush of bosoms’. He continued, ‘The last person to sign the book came from Madrid and others from [the] Falkland Islands, Denmark, France, Malaya and Canada’. The ‘book’, here, was a visitors’ book which Bawden kept during the Bardfield exhibitions, and which now forms part of the Bawden Estate.

As a document of the exhibitions, the visitors’ book is both evocative and revealing. Inside its maroon covers are rows of names in neat, if sometimes challenging, handwriting, interspersed with the occasional inky splodge. At the start, Bawden has diligently written in headings for date, name and address, but it was a habit he later dropped, to the detriment of neatness.

The book covers three exhibitions: the first of the open houses in 1951, held as a local event within the Festival of Britain; the first exhibition to be restricted to professional artists, held in 1954; and a follow-up, held just a year later, in 1955, with nine artists across seven locations. With the excitement of the Festival to boost numbers, the 1951 entries show 1,628 visitors to Brick House. This falls to 858 for 1954, but recovers to a record 1,848 visitors in 1955. As Bawden noted to Richard, these numbers included some impressively well-travelled guests, with the US, Australia, Spain, Northern Rhodesia and French Morocco, amongst others, added to the address list. The events were by no means, however, exclusive affairs for an international or metropolitan art crowd. Roughly three quarters of visitors came from Essex, and around a fifth of these from Great Bardfield itself, from farms and from the explicitly named ‘Council Houses’. Nonetheless, it is some of the more recognisable names that are revealing of Bawden’s friendships and connections.

Amongst the many fascinating objects in the Fry Art Gallery’s current Edward Bawden at Home exhibition is a copy of the Left Review from 1937, where two of Bawden’s satirical drawings were published. On the back of that edition is an advert for ‘The Magic of Monarchy’, a republican polemic by Kingsley Martin, then editor of the New Statesman and Nation. Bawden’s personal connection with Martin is evidenced by the latter making the journey up from London to the ‘Open House’ in both 1951 and 1954, where he diligently signed the visitors book. Bawden was a lifelong Labour supporter and two Labour party politicians’ names also appear. Lord Strabolgi (or simply ‘Strabolgi’ as he announces himself amongst the entries for 9th July 1955) was a hereditary peer who went on to become a party whip but had attended Chelsea Art School in the 1930s and exhibited paintings with Gerald Wilde. Tom Driberg visited on the same day; the colourful Essex MP was an openly gay bon viveur and possible soviet spy. The political traffic was not all one way, however, with the Tory peer Lord Mancroft, and his wife Diana Lloyd, visiting in 1954.

Unsurprisingly, 1951 saw the arrival of visitors associated with the Festival of Britain, Bawden having recently completed his Country Life mural for the Festival. Director of architecture Hugh Casson came to Brick House, as did Richard Guyatt, co-designer of the Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion, where Country Life was then in situ. Visitors from the world of modern architecture and design continued to be prominent across the Bardfield exhibitions. Individuals included the typographer Berthold Wolpe (featured in spring 2018 edition of Venue magazine) and the architect Oliver Hill whose Midland Hotel in Morecambe had been decorated with murals by Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. Family delegations appeared of Pritchards, owners of the Isokon furniture designers and the innovative Lawn Road flats in Hampstead, of Curwens, owners of the Curwen Press who placed numerous commissions with Bawden, and of Crittalls, owners of the famous manufacturer of modernist, steel-framed windows who lived nearby.

A page for 1951 showing a delegation from the Curwen Press and the art critic Robert Melville.

Graphic artists, too, arrived and signed their names in the visitors’ book. Dodie Masterman, for example, the successful book illustrator, came to the exhibitions in both 1954 and 1955. Fine artists are less visible, although John Nash, Humphrey Spender and Michael Ayrton all put in an appearance, but art entrepreneurs much more so. The open house in 1954 saw two important gallerists at Brick House: Victor Musgrave, proprietor of the pioneering ‘Gallery One’, which gave Bridget Riley, amongst others, her first show; and Robert Erskine, founder of the St George’s press and gallery, the leading outlet for prints in London in the later 1950s. In 1955 Nan Youngman visited with her partner, the sculptor Betty Rea. Youngman had chaired the Society for Education through Art and instigated their ‘Pictures for Schools’ series.

As might be expected, artists who were, or were to become, residents of the Bardfield area made their way to Bawden’s house. Sheila Robinson, who had been helping with the Country Life mural, visited in 1951, as did Marianne Straub. Robinson was to move to Bardfield End Green in 1954, while Straub arrived permanently in 1953; both were to take part in the last Bardfield ‘Open House’ in 1958.

There is a danger, though, that identifying the more prominent names within Bawden’s visitors’ book can give the wrong impression of the crowd at Brick House, its size and diversity. Remembering Edward’s words to Richard, we might take as more typical the arrival, on the 12th July 1951, of Mrs Howard and a dozen members of the Dedham WI, no doubt complete with jostling bosoms.

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Notes

The opening quotation from Bawden is cited in Malcolm Yorke’s introduction to Gill Saunders and Malcom Yorke, Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield (London: V&A Publishing, 2015) p.48.

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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‘Edward Bawden at Home’ at the Fry Art Gallery

For the first time, the Fry Art Gallery is to dedicate a full season and all of its gallery space to a single exhibition: Edward Bawden at Home. Opening on the 1st of April 2018 and running until the 28th of October 2018, the show will include around 200 artworks and other items. These will be displayed in the Gallery which Bawden helped to establish and which is just a short walk from the home in Saffron Walden in which he spent his last nineteen years.

Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903-89) is recognised as one of Britain’s foremost artists and designers of the twentieth century. His precise, linear watercolours of the 1930s attracted the notice of modernist art critics, whilst he went on to be probably the most important exponent of the linocut to work in Britain.

Detail from ‘Autumn’ 1950

Bawden moved unselfconsciously between fine art and commercial design, creating posters for Ealing Studios, book jackets for Faber & Faber and advertisements for British Railways. His detached but warm and amused vision of the world remains immensely popular on items from diaries to umbrellas. In recognition of this diversity, Bawden was the first artist to be elected to the Royal Academy as a draughtsman and the Fry Art Gallery’s exhibition will form part of the Academy’s RA250 anniversary celebrations. It will include display of Bawden’s RA Diploma piece, on loan from the Academy.

Book Jacket Design, 1946, ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus

After moving to Great Bardfield in North West Essex in 1932, Bawden relocated just once more of his own volition, the dozen miles to Saffron Walden in 1970, although his wartime duties as an Official War Artist meant extensive and dangerous travel through Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The Fry Art Gallery exhibition will use the theme of home to explore the full range of Bawden’s work, complementing finished pictures with sketches and letters as well as design projects such as wall papers and even a garden seat. It will show how, for Bawden, home was also a place to work, with studios in his houses at Bardfield and Saffron Walden, as well as a subject of his work, sometimes imaginatively transformed, and a psychological centre of gravity.

Detail from ‘Brick House, Great Bardfield’ 1955

The backbone of the exhibition will be formed from the Fry Art Gallery’s own collection of Bawden’s art and associated archival objects. These will be complemented by illustrations of Bawden’s home, including work by his close friend Eric Ravilious with whom he first visited Great Bardfield and with whom he lived at Brick House for two years. A number of items on loan will complete the exhibition, including some from friends and family which have not previously been on public display.

Of particular interest will be the first showing for forty years of a significant preparatory drawing for Bawden’s work on the Morley College Mural. Bawden completed the mural with Ravilious in 1930, when it was opened by Stanley Baldwin, only to see it destroyed by enemy bombing in 1940. The drawing was originally given as a gift to the Morley College bursar, Hubert Wellington, and has recently entered the Fry Art Gallery collection through another, equally generous, gift.

Detail from ‘Cat and Greenhouse, Park Lane’ 1986

The exhibition will conclude with an evocation of the atmosphere of Bawden’s home and studio at Park Lane, Saffron Walden where he lived from 1970. This will include several of his later works, many based on subjects in and around the house. It was from Park Lane that Bawden brought friends to the Fry Art Gallery in its formative years, offering his generous support to its growth as a home for the artists of North West Essex.

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