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.
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.
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.