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By Kristian Purcell

Edward Bawden is often thought of as a designer rather than an

artist, primarily because of the sheer volume of commercial work
that he produced and the popularity of that work with the public and
commissioning companies alike. But how did Bawden see his own
work? What interested him and what did he bring to those works
made for non-commercial reasons? I will examine the works he
made away from the marketing of products and hope to show a
neglected aspect of Bawden’s oeuvre.

The designer label naturally originates education at the Design

school of the Royal College of Art. At that time it was easier to apply
for a scholarship for ‘industrial design’ than the more popular fine
art, and probably suited the young Bawden and his Cambridge art
school education better. At this time this meant calligraphy, or more
specifically ‘Writing and Illumination’. This route importantly leads
him into contact with three artists that would be of such influence to
his art and life, Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, and Douglas Percy Bliss.

When Bawden joined the Design School, he had entered a school

very much considered the lesser partner to the RCA’s painting
school - not least of all by the college principle William Rothenstein.
The college had been established to improve the quality of industrial
design, but it was the belief, it seems, that the solution to this
problem was to produce painters heavily trained in figure drawing,
rather than the ‘designers’ who hadn’t required a drawing
examination to get in. Sub-standard painting applicants who didn’t
pass Rothenstein’s drawing exam were ‘kicked into the design

Writing in his book Edward Bawden, Bliss wondered if Bawden and

Ravilious had not got the better deal as the ‘Elect’ (as they
considered themselves) in the painting school had a pretty solid diet
of figure drawing and painting while over in design they had the
freedom to do pretty much what they liked. Bliss wrote that Bawden
reluctantly acknowledged that his drawing was seen as poor by RCA
standards, but always resented this. He noted the primitive nature
of Bawden’s figures, which he refers to as ‘Anglo Saxon’ in nature,
and may well owe more to the brass rubbings Bawden made at
school than the traditional life class he ‘frequently dodged’ at the
RCA, where he left it to painters like his friend Bliss to deal with
days on end shading breasts and thighs, and searching for solidity.
Examples of his brass rubbings can be seen in the watercolour of his
School room.
Branson and
the Nude,
c.1927. But Bliss doesn’t deny that these flat
figures worked for Bawden. They did
what he required of them and no more,
often vehicles for his humour or fitting
in the place of a decorative scheme
rather than realistically rendering light
and shade or even accurate form of the
human figure. It is important to
remember that a drawing should have
a purpose. It can’t achieve everything
at once and Bawden knew well what he
could and couldn’t do, and as by the
end of his time at the RCA he was
increasingly busy with graphic design Henri Matisse
commissions, his clients were also very aware Arabesque,
of what he was good at and in those on the 1924.
book at the Curwen Press he was the most
frequently used of all their artists. Bliss
summed-up his friends range at the time by
saying that ‘Line was his weapon… not solid
form, not tone, not atmosphere.’

An example of Bawden really making the most

of his abilities with line is the engraving
Branson and the Nude. Bawden first came into
contact with engraving at a regular evening
class at the Cass institute. The Detail from
Branson was George Branson Branson
and the
was a fellow student at the Nude
RCA and here stands at his c.1927.
easel, possibly in his own digs,
painting a nude. The life model
in the study is very revealing
about where Bawden’s artistic
interests lay at the time. The
figure reclines on a patterned
chair that at first evokes a
Matisse composition, but
unlike a Matisse such as
Arabesque. Matisse balances
the decorative effects of fabric
with the lines of the figure and is interested in both. In Bawden’s
work the figure is almost completely dominated by the pattern to
the point that the lines of the legs and waist are worked to fit in with
and reciprocate the floral motif than with accurate human anatomy:
in fact the lower leg seems quite dislocated from the rest of the
body. The chair is almost a cardboard cut out such is its flattening.
The shadows are interestingly dealt with in the use of a broad band
of repeated marks that contrast with the clearly delineated features
on the other side. The face is no more than fudged and shows a lack
of interest in features not ripe for a satirical or witty treatment. It
seems that rather than Matisse’s enjoyment of depicting the female
form against fabrics, as he did over and over again, Bawden shares
some of Cezanne’s discomfort in drawing the nude from life. This is
surely the only area in which Bawden allowed the shyness of his
youth to impinge on his artistic output.
Detail from
The face of Branson is much
and the more confidently dealt with:
Nude Bawden has his protagonist
c.1927. unconsciously sticking his
tongue out like a child deep
in uninhibited concentration.
In the background Bawden is
on much happier ground as
he takes obvious pleasure in
filling every available space
with little details and
beautifully executed
decorative motifs, such as
the figures of eight in the
frieze above Branson or the
fire place by the model.

Here Bawden is in control and the way he has laid out the
composition cleverly puts the viewers focus where he wants it. Later
on in his career Graham Sutherland referred to Bawden’s line
engraving as ‘the epitome – the very heart and flesh of engraving.
The lines are resonant and astringent. Its technical origins may be
found, perhaps, among the early masters of art’. Indeed, even in
those early years everything he did had line at the very heart of it.
A master engraver then, but the Snowstorm,
printing medium that Bawden is 1956
most famous for is lino cutting. By
the mid ‘50s Bawden had been
working with lino for 30 years,
mostly for commercial
commissions, and was an
incredibly experienced exponent of
the medium. Pieces like Brighton
Snowstorm (1956) and
Liverpool Street Station (1960) are incredible technical
achievements and highly innovative in terms of the way that lino
can create textures, patterns and tones. The semi-translucent
cream-coloured ink partially obliterates the carefully depicted
features of the pier and is strongly contrasted by the clarity of the
areas not covered, such as the life boat and figures. The length of
the pier takes your eye into the heart of the snow storm and then
along a montage of Brighton motifs: a café, promenade, and, the
onion domes that reference the pavilion.

Liverpool St.
Station , 1960

The epic and gothic Liverpool Street Station is not only an excellent
example of his treatment of the lacelike ironwork that would later
feature so strongly in his series of markets, but also is surprising for
his use of ‘washes’ of colour. Bawden was highly creative in the
inking stage and the dusty pink in the background and the fading
out of the details of the wing of the station under the arch are not
just lino cutting effects but are created by careful use of the roller
and very particular translucencies of ink – in effect Bawden is
printing painted marks more like
Tower of a one-off monotype. These
London, 1966 layering effects and inventive
processes are less the province of
block-printmaking (especially
when you consider the variation
between impressions) and seem
to me to relate to the painting
world. Bawden’s son Richard has
described the process used on
The Tower of London (1966):
‘Here my father is using the width
of the roller like a paintbrush in
the sky area’.

Such a painterly approach and the dark gothic mood of the mid-
sixties work evokes the work of an artist that both worked with The
Curwen Studios as Bawden did and was also born in the same year
as Bawden: John Piper. His Little Cressingham was made in the
early 1980s but is typical Piper – dramatic, full of contrast, and use a
mixture of wax, ink and watercolour to create light and texture. The
Nine London Monuments and images like Lindsell Church evoke
Westminster Piper, not least because of the
Abbey, 1966 handling of the architecture but
also for their tone and
atmosphere - those
characteristics Bliss accused the
early drawings of lacking. By
scratching on the lino on a piece
like Westminster Abbey(1966)
Bawden creates an effect similar
to the wash and wax resist of
Piper or scratching through the
paint layers like a Turner or

In his actual painting John Nash,

Bawden started far less Berkshire
assured, with small
date unknown.
studies in wash and green
ink. It was the
watercolours of Paul Nash
and his brother John that
showed Bawden how one
might go about making
larger pictures in
watercolour. John Nash’s
Berkshire Landscape(date
unknown) in the Cecil
Higgins collection is a classic example of the style and subject
matter that inspired Bawden and his close friend and painting
companion Ravilious. When working on pictures for a group show
with Ravilious and Bliss in the late ‘20s he struggled with the
transition to these larger works but was resolute in the direction he
needed to go. Ravilious was concerned to see his friend having
difficulty with his pictures but Bawden affirmed that ‘there was no
turning back possible’ and he claimed it was easier painting large.
While Ravilious could be said to exceed in technique the example of
his tutor, as can be seen in the striking image of from his Sussex
Downs series, Bawden’s watercolours by 1935 still retained a
flatness and lack of depth, as can be seen in that year’s 8.30
Sunday Newhaven.

From the 1930s onwards Bawden’s prime concern became his

watercolour painting, even holding a successful solo show at the
Zwemmer Gallery in 1933, but it wasn’t until World War II that his
technique really improved. The challenge of working as a war artist
did Bawden’s painting the world of good. As well as the sustained
focus on watercolours he needed to develop and mature with that
medium, it kept him away from the demands of commercial work,
and gave him a broad range of subject matter and technical
Sheik challenges that he thrived on. His
Hammuda al- progress is quickly stunning, especially
in his portraiture. He uses a limited
collection colour range in his study of An Iraqi
unknown Jew(1943) to powerful effect. The
modelling of the face with subtle layers
of wash is solid, realistic and far beyond
the young student who avoided life
classes nearly 20 years earlier. His study
of Sheik Hammuda al-Muzai’il has all
the richness and tonal range that a picture like Newhaven lacked.
You can almost sense the heat outside and he never succumbs to
shattering the illusion with the decorative flourishes that came so
easily to him. His lines create texture. While the Sheik’s face is
sculptural and solid, the child’s face has a curious expression that is
pure Bawden. He hadn’t completey shaken off the Nash influence,
and when he came across this scene of war damaged trees in
Gallabat: Guns Firing on Metemma 1940 his mind must have
been taken straight back to one of the most powerful images of the
First World War,
Audley End
All throughout his career the Park II, 1974,
watercolours were the Private
backbone of his output, Collection
regularly taking painting trips
to Ireland or elsewhere. In
these landscapes he saw
patterns everywhere and
developed a style that blended
his new abilities with depth to
his eye for decoration in
pictures such as Carsaig,
1950. In 1957 he inducted
into the Royal Academy and
provides them with a moody
picture of Lindsell Church as
his diploma piece.

His blending of decoration and

effects of light and space ar
most notable in his pictures of
woods such as Audley End
Park III, 1974, each leaf is
carefully outlined in colour but
in clever way tha doesn’t
flatten out the overall composition.

In the later years his watercolours depict the things around him: his
house, his cats, his garden. He takes liberties with appearances: ‘ I
generally paint in front of the motif even if it is not as I see it… I
don’t wish perspective to be my master’ tipping up floors, cat
baskets etc at will to satisfy the composition. … the abstract design
underpins every image.’

On seeing his exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 1983,

Bawden said:

It is interesting to me as a reminder of places that I was

thrilled to visit – such is one’s romantic nature - and now as an
old wodger interesting because I can trace a development in
the work from stiff simple drawings to late ones that are
rather more dashing, more accomplished, the medium used
more flexibly and fearlessly

When asked in 1982 if he had gradually stopped being a designer

and become an artist, he replied

But there’s no difference between one and other. All my life

I’ve been intermittently been doing watercolour drawings, and
I’ve been interested in line engravings, lithographs and
linocuts. I turned my interest to any direction.

Art and design are very much two sides of the same thing, but at
the same time a piece of design has a particular purpose: message
to get across or adds a memorable or enjoyable element to a
product or message. Bawden’s art is not merely design work with no
product or commercial message. At his best he makes the eye dart
between witty details, abstract decorative patterns and often
startling effects of colour layering. Bawden’s design work taught
him many technical things, but he applied them as an artist.

All images copyright of the Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery,
unless stated. Text: Kristian Purcell, 2009.