Two posts today because we have a birthday to remember.
Born on this day in 1903, it is time to wish Edward Bawden a very happy birthday, and how much I am enjoying reading for and writing these ' On This Day...'series of blog posts. It feels so much more optimistic somehow to celebrate a day of birth rather than to mourn a day of death.
I am not sure that coffee table books always make the best of reading for me. Usually too heavy to hold for any length of time, and if I do pick one up my butterfly eye flits over pictures hither and yon, flicking back and forth with no semblance of sense or chronology and often to the detriment of the text.
In fact to be very honest I had really ordered a copy of Edward Bawden and His Circle by Malcolm Yorke for the pictures. I have a growing collection of Eric Ravilious-related books but nothing on Edward Bawden, and that was a balance to be redressed given their close friendship and artistic collaboration. At 271 pages the book is certainly hefty and is generous with illustrations, but it is also blessed with a genuinely interesting biography of Edward Bawden's life.
I had been unaware that Edward Bawden, like Eric Ravilious, had done service as a war artist, enduring hellish conditions as he trekked around and recorded the war zones of Africa, before sailing for home from Cape Town on board the Laconia. Edward Bawden was not to know that on the second day of that voyage, Eric Ravilious, 'the closest and dearest friend he was ever to have' was killed in Iceland, lost at sea. Edward himself was almost lost at sea too and reading the account, some of it in his own words, it becomes clear that Edward Bawden was one very cool, calm customer under pressure.
The Laconia, a liner converted into a troop carrier and sailing without an escort, was hit by German torpedoes, holed below the water line and quickly sank. Up to ninety people, including Edward Bawden, were drifting in each lifeboat for five days before rescue, and with some very peckish sharks nuzzling at their side. The rescue was unfortunately effected by the 'wrong ' side, thus imprisonment in an Italian internment camp beckoned. but true to his remit Edward Bawden continued to draw what he saw. When news of the death of Eric Ravilious reached him his letter to Tirzah Ravilious, Eric's widow, offers a rare glimpse into the heart of man who by all accounts didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve very often...
'I simply can't tell you - or anyone else, or even myself what it is, or how much it is I miss by losing Eric - I find myself in tears at the moment ...'
Incidentally if you missed last week's series of Persephone Posts on Tirzah Ravilious you can catch up with them here. It became equally apparent to me, on reading Edward Bawden and His Circle, that in Charlotte Epton (married to Edward Bawden in 1932 and bringing with her the wedding gift of Brick House, in Great Bardfield) there was another example of a talented and long-suffering wife. Charlotte, it would seem uncomplainingly, subsumed her own skills in painting and pottery-making to the needs of a demanding and often self-centred husband, and one capable of being 'cruelly dismissive' of her talents.
Trained in graphic design and with a strong sense of order and organisation it is clear that Edward Bawden had a different emotional approach to that of an 'artist.' His pictures are the product of close study and drawn with a sense of 'detached regard' which seems like a perfect fit for a post-war world of austerity and rationing and economy. Indeed, on returning from the war Edward felt forgotten by everyone bar the income tax as he immersed himself in commissions and life back with his family in Great Bardfield.
By all accounts something of a law unto himself, disciplined in the extreme with regard to his work, a shrewd professional and one who didn't suffer fools, Edward Bawden was capable of being both intimidating, tactless, unkind and rude to some, whilst showing others a generous and supportive degree of sympathy. I fully understood Malcolm Yorke's tactful assertion that he was not an 'easy man to be around' .
But, setting personality aside, I had been quietly unware too of how much of Edward Bawden's work has become iconic, taken for granted by me for sure, little knowing that he was the creator of that wonderful mural in Blackwell's book shop in Oxford...
or the Heartsease crockery for Wedgwood..
or the poster for that loveliest of films The Titfield Thunderbolt..
And the times when I have bought books at a P.B.F.A. Book Fair (Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association) brought the book home and discarded the yellow paper bag with the nice print of the cat on the front, little knowing that I was unwittingly disposing of an Edward Bawden linocut circa 1983.
As I turned each page of this beautiful book, each successive picture became my favourite until I reached P167 and saw this...
A watercolour study for a free-standing screen painted for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and depicting 'The British Character and Tradition' as shown in rural life, and the closer I looked the more I saw. The whole thing would have measured 36 by 45 feet with each panel cleverly concealing a series of 'visual puns'...can you see the ploughed furrows becoming the corrugated tin roof on the next panel (if you click on the picture a slightly larger version should pop up) As Malcolm Yorke suggests it is a 'triumph of design ingenuity' and what a tragedy that in the post-exhibition demolition the screen was dismantled and somehow lost.
There is so much more to this book I hardly feel I can do it or Edward Bawden justice in a single post, but hopefully this from David Gentleman's introduction will help..
Bawden was an artist of a high order. Yet he never became a national treasure or icon, a household word...Looking afresh now...at the whole sweeping output of his long and productive life, two things are most striking. The first is his intense individuality, doggedly independent of the reverently or credulously accepted artistic fashions of the time. The second is the intelligence and independence of mind that enabled him to leave behind, and to communicate to a still-growing following, a substantial, vivid, coherent and honset record of his whole life's experience - of time not only well, but intelligibly spent.'
What better tribute can there be to an artist whose work seems to me to be timeless; as much of this moment as of that one, more relevant today than ever, and long may it and Edward Bawden's memory live on.