Edward Bawden: the exhibition exploring an artist and designer all-rounder

Dulwich Picture Gallery curator James Russell introduces some definitive pieces by Edward Bawden who is the subject of a summer exhibition of his work as a printmaker, illustrator, watercolourist and designer.

Tree and Cow wallpaper

Edward Bawden, Tree and Cow, 1927, Wallpaper design, five colour lithograph after colour linocut, © Estate of Edward Bawden

In later life Edward Bawden became renowned for his monumental linocuts of Brighton Pier and Liverpool Street Station, but he first explored the medium in the mid-1920s, when studying at the Design School of the Royal College of Art. According to his own – fairly unreliable – testimony he started fiddling with a scrap of lino one evening and produced a cut of a cow. By the morning he had, so he said, a small herd. Like so many of his early experiments in linocut, these cows found their way into a wallpaper design he made for the Curwen Press, which was printed lithographically and sold in the late 1920s.

London Zoo map

Edward Bawden, London Zoo, 1937, Colour line drawn illustration. Reproduced courtesy of ZSL Library and Archive, © Estate of Edward Bawden

From his student days onwards Bawden spent much of his time in London, and was commissioned to produce drawings and prints of almost every notable landmark. Even as a young man he had a (very unfashionable) passion for all things Victorian, and in the 1950s began studying London’s great 19th-century buildings. But though he evidently felt an affinity for the splendours of Victorian ironwork, he was not an enemy of modern architecture per se. True, he found little inspiration in buildings and structures that offered no decorative interest, but he seems to have enjoyed drawing Berthold Lubetkin’s spectacular penguin pool – a structure which introduced the general public to the strength and flexibility of reinforced concrete.

Kew Gardens poster

Edward Bawden, Kew Gardens London Transport poster, 1939, © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection, © Estate of Edward Bawden

So numerous were the posters commissioned during the 1920s and 1930s by Frank Pick of London Underground that designers needed considerable powers of invention to make their work stand out. Bawden was an ideal candidate for posters advertising the delights of Kew Gardens, since he had been inspired since his student days by its varied flora and exotic architecture, and he certainly had the necessary skills and imagination. For one poster he used a parched style of linocut familiar from his book jacket designs, while in this instance he simplified the forms of plants and structures to give a fresh impression of the gardens.

Hors d’Oeuvres and Savouries

Edward Bawden, Hors d’Oeuvres and Savouries, 1936, brochure, Collection of Fortnum & Mason, © Estate of Edward Bawden

As a designer Bawden was too wildly imaginative to be universally popular among commercial clients. Brilliant and hardworking though he may have been, he was almost incapable of restraining his surreal sense of humour. To take one example, he illustrated the title page of a cookery book with a drawing of a cat hunting a mouse through a Gruyere cheese, an image some might have found off-putting. Nevertheless, certain clients appreciated Bawden for the maverick he was, and chief among them was (improbably perhaps) Fortnum & Mason. Among the advertising brochures he designed and decorated for the venerable Piccadilly retailer are some comical treasures, like this.

Coloured proof from English as She is Spoke

Edward Bawden, Coloured proof from English as She is Spoke by Pedro Carolino, 1960, Photo: Brian Dicks, © Estate of Edward Bawden

In a film made in the early 1960s for the BBC’s flagship arts programme ‘Monitor’, Bawden suggested that he had little interest in his designs once they were finished. It was the process that he cared about. With this in mind we have included a number of studies and unfinished works in the exhibition, so visitors get an idea of Bawden’s creative processes. Here we have a humdinger, a drawing roughly but beautifully coloured to show the publisher how the illustrations to this book might look. The book itself is an oddity, a new edition of a hilarious 19th-century guide to the English language, purportedly for Portuguese speakers.

The Edward Bawden exhibition is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, SE21 7AD until 9 September.

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