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Bawden, Edwardlocked

(1903–1989)

Edward Bawden (1903–1989)

by Howard Coster, 1946

Bawden, Edward (1903–1989), painter and designer, was born on 10 March 1903 in Braintree, Essex, the only child of Edward Bawden, a Braintree ironmonger of Cornish stock, and his wife, Eleanor Game, the daughter of a Suffolk gamekeeper. He went to Braintree high school, to the Friends' school in Saffron Walden, Essex, and to the Cambridge Art School, and then—on a royal exhibition—to the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. Here he studied writing and illumination, but took his diploma in book illustration. His design tutor was the painter Paul Nash; other contemporaries at the RCA were Barnett Freedman, Henry Moore, and Douglas Percy Bliss, his future biographer. But his closest student friendship, and the most fruitful artistically, was with someone who was in many ways his opposite—Eric Ravilious.

Nash helped Bawden to get his earliest commissions—posters for London Transport and designs for the Curwen Press. In 1928 Bawden and Ravilious worked together on a large mural in Morley College, London—the first of many mural designs; while Bawden's line drawings of English place names for petrol advertisements—‘Stow on the Wold but Shell on the road’—made him familiar to a wider audience.

In 1932 Bawden married his contemporary at the RCA, Charlotte Epton, the daughter of Robert Epton, solicitor, of Lincoln. They had a son and a daughter, both of whom became artists. In the same year the Bawdens and Eric and Eileen (Tirzah) Ravilious moved to Brick House in Great Bardfield, Essex, which they had previously visited at weekends. Here Bawden began painting the local Essex landscapes; and in 1933 he held his first one-man show at the Zwemmer Gallery in London.

In 1940 Bawden was appointed an official war artist. He went to France, where he drew scenes of the evacuation from Dunkirk; he was among the last to leave. He then went to the Middle East and Africa: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Libya. He made many fine watercolours both of the fighting and of the historic background—landscape and architectural—against which it took place. He returned by sea from Africa in 1942 and was torpedoed; after five days in an open boat he was rescued by a French warship of the Vichy government and interned for two months in Casablanca in Morocco. But he returned to the war—to Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Persia, and Italy. Much of his war work is in the Imperial War Museum in London.

After the war Bawden lived in Great Bardfield and taught part-time at the RCA under Robin Darwin; he was known as an excellent teacher. Although in the post-war climate his work now seemed less fashionable than it had before the war, he was always busy. His dexterity was not impaired by an operation he had in 1946 to remove the poisoned top joint of his index finger. He worked industriously on book illustrations—for Life in an English Village (1949); The Arabs (1947) by Richard B. Serjeant, published by Penguin; and for Faber and Faber, the Kynock Press, the Nonesuch Press, and the Limited Editions Club of New York—and linocutting, of which seemingly humble yet intractable craft he was a master. Among his many fine prints, Liverpool Street Station and Brighton Pier are outstandingly original. He also made several mural designs—that for the Lion and Unicorn Press pavilion in the Festival of Britain in London in 1951 was perhaps the most notable, and a striking example was executed for Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford. But it was his landscape watercolours—technically adventurous and highly individual—that he always considered his central activity. Photographs, self-portraits, and the early portrait by Ravilious at the RCA show him as tall, spare, and serious, and with a sharp-eyed, ironic, and humorous expression. In character, he was paradoxical: not strong as a child, but a tenacious survivor as an adult; shy and diffident, but unstoppable; insecure and highly self-critical, yet self-reliant; imaginative, yet very organized; possessing curious blind spots—such as his inability to drive or enjoy music—yet extraordinarily versatile and capable of learning anything he set his hand to—from engraving on copper to designing a cast-iron garden seat. He was not an easy man to get on with, and his ruthless determination to work bore heavily on his family. Shyness sometimes made him seem dry, mocking, and contrary, and he hated sentimentality.

Bawden's style was individual, clear, and economical; people, landscapes, and buildings were simply and unambiguously delineated. He drew animate and inanimate subjects with equal ease, simplifying complicated subject matter and making epigrammatic or decorative images out of seemingly unlikely material, and he was as skilful with a fine pen as with the thick, solid technique of linocutting. Although he abhorred influences, he has been likened to Edward Lear, whose work he admired and who in some respects—in terms of shyness, solitariness, and precision—he resembled. He was a skilful and resourceful designer, a brilliant creator of pattern when this skill was out of fashion, and a draughtsman of wit and individuality. His life's work reveals him also as a serious artist whose vision of the world around him was personal and comprehensive. Bawden's clarity may have been for him a mixed blessing, for by removing ambivalence and leaving the observer with little to puzzle over, it made him seem simpler and less profound than other artists whose work is harder to fathom. That, and the fact that he did many different things, meant that his work was accorded respect and admiration rather than the renown it merited.

Bawden became a CBE in 1946, an ARA in 1947, an RDI in 1949, and an RA in 1956, and he received honorary doctorates from the RCA and Essex University. From 1951 to 1958 he was a trustee of the Tate Gallery, London. He was given a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1989. When his wife died in 1970 he moved to Saffron Walden, where he worked steadily and fruitfully to the end of his life. On 21 November 1989, after a morning spent working on a linocut, he had a stroke and died later that day at his home, 2 Park Lane, Saffron Walden.

Sources

  • J. M. Richards, Edward Bawden, Penguin Modern Painters (1946)
  • D. P. Bliss, Edward Bawden (1980)
  • R. Harling, Edward Bawden (1950)
  • J. Howes, Edward Bawden: a retrospective survey (1988)
  • personal knowledge (1996)

Archives

  • IWM, letters as official war artist
  • BL, letters to Rauri McLean, deposit 9349
  • Tate collection, corresp. with John Nash
  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lady Sempill

Likenesses

  • H. Coster, photograph, 1946, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. Bawden, two self-portraits, pencil and watercolour, 1986, NPG
  • G. Deutsch, photograph, Hult. Arch.
  • E. Ravilious, portrait, Royal College of Art, London

Wealth at Death

£366,302: probate limited to literary estate, 6 Dec 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£117,570: probate save and except literary estate, 6 June 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]