Edward Bawden Scrapbooks
Peyton Skipwith and Brian Webb (Lund Humphries, £35)
The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden
James Russell (The Mainstone Press, £160)
ERIC RAVILIOUS and Edward Bawden, both born in 1903, met on their first day at the Royal College of art in 1922. They were seen as a pair and the centre of a movement in painting and design. They had contrasting personalities: Ravilious smooth and easy-going, if a bit mysterious; Bawden prickly and workaholic. as artists, Ravilious was the more romantic and Bawden—well, what? Not a Modernist, not a classicist, but someone with his own style of drawing and painting.
The question of what sort of artist Bawden really was comes closer to being answered by two recent books that explore complementary sides of his creativity. If you were told that the content of these books was the work of two different people, you might believe it. Edward Bawden Scrapbooks selects pages from the five volumes that he made up from his own drawings, printed ephemera, letters and other oddments, now in the collection of the Fry art Gallery at Saffron Walden, Essex. These represent Bawden’s private life and the labyrinths of his psyche.
The Lost Watercolours shows what the public would have seen in the 1930s had they attended his one-man exhibitions in London. It’s not that Bawden had a split personality, but that, like Ravilious, he approached different tasks with different media and intentions.
as a watercolour painter, Bawden was at least as prominent as his friend and received complimentary reviews that are helpfully included in James Russell’s book. His early style was a cross between a naïve painter and a distant follower of Cézanne. Sometimes, he could even be compared to L. S. Lowry. His subjects in the 1930s were entirely in the Essex countryside. Doll-like figures walk onto the set, but, often, nothing much is happening except in the paint.
Both artists learnt from Postimpressionism—and, closer to home, from the brothers Paul and John Nash—to forego the limpid washes of the supposed English tradition and work against the nature of the medium with hard-edged strokes. Bawden favoured a highly sized, almost shiny paper rather than an absorbent one. The Lost Watercolours enlarges details to show his technique close up, including the use of cobbler’s wax or heel ball, familiar to brass rubbers, as a resist.
The title The Lost Watercolours is justified because at least half the examples, beautifully reproduced in the lavish limited-edition book, have not been seen in public in living memory. The result was that only an incomplete impression of this important phase of Bawden’s career could be obtained from examples in public collections, old books and magazines or in the salerooms; by contrast, the gaps in the record of Ravilious’s work have been more thoroughly filled.
The lost watercolours did not come to heel when called, but, as the publisher of the book, Tim Mainstone, explains, each involved detective work to trace forward from records of sales and genealogical research where clues to their whereabouts might be found. an essay at the end of the book entertainingly chronicles the hunt. Some of the finds are on show at The Fry Gallery until october 30 (www.fryartgallery.org; 01799 513779) and, no doubt, more will feature in a full Bawden retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, in 2018.
Edward Bawden Scrapbooks is an eccentric delight for the eye and offers many hints for reconstructing the ethos of the group of friends who are the subject of another forthcoming exhibition, ‘Eric Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship, English artist-designers 1922– 1942’, which will open at the Towner, Eastbourne, in May 2017 (01323 434670; www. townereastbourne.org.uk).
Bawden’s humour runs throughout, as much in the juxtapositions made on each page as in the individual items, more than half of which are his own working studies for book illustration, printmaking and other projects.
Kew Pagoda in a colourful mix from Scrapbook B