Here’s what artist Edward Bawden pasted into his scrapbooks
An invitation to the private view of Picasso’s Guernica in London in 1938, sketches of rhubarb, a snippet from Wisden (courtesy of Eric Ravilious) and various clippings from the Daily Telegraph; the scrapbooks of Edward Bawden offer a uniquely personal and idiosyncratic window into the mid-century art world.
Painter and illustrator Bawden loved his scrapbooks. He would stick and paste everything from postcards, telegrams and letters from friends to sketches and private view cards into them.
Eventually, after 55 years of arranging and fixing, he had filled five of them to form a captivating collection of ephemera stretching across seven decades and reflecting his tastes and those of his fellow artists of the Great Bardfield area in Essex where he lived.
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Art publisher Lund Humphries has recently published a beautiful monograph featuring a selection from these fascinating glimpses into the life and work of one of the most popular artists of 20th-century Britain, with choices made by Bawden’s former dealer Peyton Skipwith and the designer lecturer Brian Webb in association with the Fry Art Gallery, where the originals are housed.
The gallery in Saffron Walden is in effect home to the national collection of the Great Bardfield artists – the mid-century group of figurative painters, designers and illustrators, including Bawden, Bernard Cheese, Michael Rothestein, Kenneth Rowntree, Marianne Straub and, for a time, Eric Ravilious. Between the 1930s and 1970s, they lived as a sort of artists’ colony in the bucolic Essex village.
But it is Bawden and his design-centric vision of mid-century England who remains the group’s and the gallery’s central figure – and it is the scrapbooks that provide possibly the most immediate route into his world.
Bawden, Ravilious and their scrapbooks
“I say to people there are several PhDs in these scrapbooks,” says the gallery’s Honorary Secretary, Gordon Cummings, one of an impressive band of volunteers who have made the Essex gallery into one of the most popular small galleries in the UK.
“It’s wonderful looking at them – it’s a huge privilege,” he adds. “Not only do we have the five scrap books that Edward Bawden made, we also have the four that Eric Ravilious made and scrapbooks by Bernard Cheese and textile artist Marianne Straub.”
The Ravilious scrapbooks are much smaller; one of them is more like an archive dominated by woodcut proofs with the others full of pictures of flying boats and balloons and aeroplanes – an obsession which led to his death when he jumped onto a plane for an air sea rescue mission off Iceland in 1942.
“But it’s the Bawdens which are full of the most extraordinary stuff,” says Cummings. “There are letters and Christmas cards from friends, private view invites, invoices, sketches of things that he’s going to work up later. They are absolutely not chronological and we don’t know exactly when they were all put together.
“He probably had a great pile of stuff and from time to time he would put it all into a scrapbook.”
Where the gallery has been able to they have “peeled the odd intriguing letter away from the pages”, but mostly they are as Bawden created them. Since acquiring them from the Bawden family “for a considerable sum”, the Fry has spent several thousand pounds on their conservation.
“We had them scanned before we actually acquired them,” adds Cummings. “The family let us digitise them because it was never absolutely certain they would come to us. But we really wanted to make sure they didn’t disappear into private hands – and who could blame the family because they were very valuable.
“Had they gone onto the market their value would have been several times more because there are original watercolours and drawings in them, which would have been ripped out, framed and sold.”
Ben Nicholson and David Jones
A flick through the happily preserved pages reveals original works and sketches by many of the key artists of the era, including Ben Nicholson, David Jones, Evelyn Dunbar, Ravilious and Hugh Casson.
Then there are the innumerable sketches by Bawden himself; a beautiful watercolour of the Pagoda at Kew; complex designs for wallpaper; pen and wash studies of petals and plants and fascinating preliminary studies for murals, ceramic decorations and illustrations for the Curwen Press.
“There is too much to have a favourite,” adds Cummings. “There are watercolours, drawings, newspaper articles, Christmas cards and photographs. Victorian photographs of things that just amused him.”
For anyone with an interest in English art history, the scrapbooks are a trove of treasures and surprises
Like the photo of the Victorian English test cricket team, sent with a note from Ravilious: “For your scrapbook – it came out of last year’s Wisden”. Or the enigmatic design, described by Cummings as “a kind of helical drum thing”, which, the gallery discovered was a preliminary sketch for Bawden’s theatre designs for The Tempest after they were featured in an exhibition at the Fry in 2014.
A telegram from Charlotte Bawden informing her husband of the death of Tirzah Ravilious, in March 1951, is pasted carefully above Tirzah’s hand coloured engraving, Farm Buildings, Copford Place. She had sent this along with greetings from her second husband Henry Swanzy and the Ravilious children as her 1950 Christmas card.
The links and sense of serendipity are everywhere. For anyone with an interest in English art history of the period, the scrapbooks are a trove of treasures and surprises.
There is the private view card of Guernica, which was displayed at the Burlington Galleries in 1938, and an invoice for a set of six porridge bowls from Michael Cardew, who had worked with Charlotte Bawden. Her invite from Cardew (“plus husband”) to a London exhibition has also been glued into the pages alongside a private view card for a Paul Nash exhibition.
“Somewhere in there is an invitation to join the Great Bardfield Bowls Club,” adds Cummings. “It was probably hugely amusing to him as it would have been the last thing he would ever do. He wasn’t very clubbable. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and he could be quite sharp with people, whether intentionally or not. Often if he thought something, he just said it.”
‘I’m a designer. I’ll design anything for anybody.’
Cummings tells the story of how Bawden, when serving as an Official War Artist during World War Two, was torpedoed in the Atlantic. After three days on an open boat he was towed by the U-Boat that sunk his ship into Casablanca, where he was interned for six months until the Americans liberated him on their sweep through North Africa. His time in Casablanca gave him a lifelong hatred of the French.
“Walter Hoyle, a friend and pupil, told me that when they went on a painting holiday in Sicily in 1951, Edward didn’t speak from Calais to the Italian border.”
But what is it about Bawden beyond his personality and the locality that led one of the country’s most popular smaller art galleries to successfully base their collection around him?
“If you look at a piece of art and you say: ‘that’s fifties’ without knowing the artwork or the artist, whatever that quality is, Bawden is partly responsible for it,” explains Cummings. “I think it was his view of the world. He always claimed that he wasn’t an artist. He said, ‘I’m a designer. I’ll design anything for anybody.’”
The Royal College of Art
This sense of pragmatism, says Cummings, may stem from his time at the Royal College of Art, where he and Ravilious entered the Design School rather than the Fine Art School.
“Some people think this was possibly on class lines, because they were bourgeois. They weren’t posh. Bawden’s father was an ironmonger and Ravilious’s was somewhere between a junk dealer and an antique dealer. They were shop keepers. They were ‘in trade my dear’ – and that mattered in the 1930s.”
The gallery’s collection celebrating this ‘bourgeois’ artist and his peers is today one of best known “secrets” in the art gallery world. Their collection and temporary exhibition programme attracts thousands of visitors every year – just reward for the people who established the collection in the 1980s and who knew and collected the artists.
“They knew Edward, Kenneth Rowntree and Walter Hoyle so they were actually known to us. I met Edward just a few times. Olive Cooke was one of the founding trustees of the gallery so it was based on some sort of impossible affection as much as anything.
“We collect in depth,” adds Cummings. “We are dreadfully avaricious so we collect everything to do with our artists – not just the works – we collect letters, ephemera, photographs…
“And we keep our own scrapbook in the Fry Art Gallery – anything relating to the gallery or the artists we paste in the scrapbooks. We have got 30 years of the gallery’s history in the scrapbooks – we have press clippings, catalogues, publicity that kind of thing.
“Ours is much more organised than Bawden’s of course,” he adds. “And it is strictly chronological – should any future researcher wish to look at it.”
Edward Bawden: Scrapbooks is published by Lund Humphries, priced £35. The Fry Art Gallery is open from the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October, annually.
The Fry Art Gallery
Saffron Walden, Essex
The Fry Public Art Gallery houses an impressive number of paintings, prints, illustrations, wallpapers and decorative designs by artists of the 20th century and the present day who have local connections and have made a significant contribution to their field. There is a special emphasis on those who for a…