Such is the veneration in this country for the St Ives school of painters, it’s easy to forget that other art colonies existed, let alone thrived, in the mid-20th century: that in Great Bardfield, Essex, perhaps chief among them.
The village near Saffron Walden was home to the likes of John Aldridge, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden (1903–89). Maybe it’s going a bit far to say there has been a resurgence of interest in this loosely affiliated group of figurative artists. But it’s certainly a welcome coincidence that, following the success of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s superb Ravilious exhibition last year, comes the publication of Bawden’s scrapbooks — assembled by him over 55 years and
reproduced in a single volume by his erstwhile dealer Peyton Skipwith, together with Brian Webb.
Many contemporary artists compile scrapbooks, but often these are carefully conceived works of art in themselves, their contents forming a deliberate whole and intended for display. Bawden’s scrapbooks, by contrast, were intended for his eyes only and are of a more amateurish, traditional kind. We duly come across bus tickets, coin rubbings, cigarette cards, newspaper
cuttings and other ephemera.
Some of his juxtapositions are so quirky they border on the surreal: the wrapper for a tin of Portuguese sardines shares a page with the ink sketch of a girl’s doll. A photograph of the England cricket team on board SS Liverpool bound for Australia appears beside a note from a friend thanking Bawden for the ticket to a flower show, and a flyer for the exhibition of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ at New Burlington Galleries in 1937.
Bawden always insisted that, as an artist, good design was what mattered to him. He wasn’t interested in baring his soul on canvas, van Gogh-style. And the same can be said of his scrapbooks: there aren’t too many moments we meet the real, raw Edward. Indeed, when one comes along, it packs a surprise, emotional punch. A telegram announcing the death from cancer of his friend — and fellow Great Bardfield artist — Tirzah Garwood is pasted above the Christmas card she sent Bawden the year before, featuring her evocative engraving of snow-topped local farm buildings.
Letters abound in these pages, two in particular standing out. One, from the Lord Privy Seal in response to a note from Bawden critical of the government’s handling of the Suez crisis, contains the confession: ‘Although our aim was good, we may have failed — tragically failed.’ Another, a curiously unexplained letter from Buckingham Palace, thanks Bawden, on the Queen’s behalf, for the gift of a cot cover. The scrapbooks mix entries of purely personal and occasionally global significance throughout.
They function as a kind of diary, albeit one without chronological order (most of the entries being undated). It’s also unfortunate that the most fascinating period in Bawden’s life — when he was a war artist in Dunkirk and the Middle East, and later a POW in Casablanca — was one in which he (understandably) didn’t do any scrapbooking.
These pages won’t interest everyone. Indeed, apart from doodles of anthropomorphic ants and trial designs for the cover of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, there isn’t even much here to interest lovers of Bawden’s art. What we do get, though, is an insight into the world of a very English eccentric, engaged in what now seems a quaint and innocent pastime, scissors and glue in hand. Pretty much every page raises a smile.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.