Edward Bawden at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Two watercolours by Edward Bawden feature in a new exhibition of the artist’s work at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Government Art Collection has loaned two watercolours by Edward Bawden (1903–1989) to this exhibition of the artist’s work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 9 September.

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After the end of the Second World War, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee presented a large number of works of art to the Ministry of Works (the former government department responsible for the GAC) in April 1946. Works by artists including Bawden, Carel Weight and Roland Pitchforth among others, represented subjects they had experienced at first hand while posted as Official War Artists during the conflict.

Painted in 1944, The Showboat at Baghdad is one of several works on paper that Bawden produced while he was posted in the Middle East from 1940 until 1945. From a letter written to his son, Richard, we know that he painted this work in July 1944. His description provides a vivid narrative about the scene shown in the painting:

… this showboat … chugged up the Tigris twenty or thirty miles, and every evening as it was falling dark we stopped at a village and moored and a cinema screen was erected on the bank … Just before it was time to show the films two friends and I went out … and with us we each had a pistol. At a given signal – all the lights on the boat went out then, … one of us said ‘Now are you ready fire!’ There was a terrific bang as three rockets … burst into brilliant red, white and green and floated slowly down towards the river in a blaze of light. We fired three rounds before the films began and three more after all the films had been shown. ¹

While working as an Official War Artist, Bawden travelled extensively in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. His numerous letters home provide enlightening glimpses of the people and places that he encountered on the way. Other examples of his war works, also in the GAC, include watercolour scenes set around the village of Haji Maqtuf Al-Haji Hasan where Bawden arrived on a mashuf (a gondola-shaped boat) and enjoyed a grand feast given in his honour.

The second watercolour loaned to the exhibition in Dulwich is Now with religious awe the farewell light, Blends with the solemn colouring of the night of 1933. Its title derives from a line of an early verse, An Evening Walk, Addressed to a Young Lady (1789) composed by the English poet, William Wordsworth when he was a student in Cambridge:

Now with religious awe the farewell light
Blends with the solemn colouring of the night;
Mid groves of clouds that crest the mountain’s brow,
And round the West’s proud lodge their shadows throw,
Like Una shining on her gloomy way,
The half seen form of Twilight roams astray; ²

Bawden takes the novel approach of transferring the Romantic sentiments of Wordsworth’s poem to a modern rural scene of a woman and a man and his dog meeting each other on country path. The location of this scene is Great Bardfield, the Essex village where Bawden and fellow artists including Eric Ravilious and Thomas Hennell, settled and established a lively artistic community in the mid–1920s. In 1933, the year he produced this watercolour, Bawden also enjoyed his first solo exhibition in London; and a year later, he was appointed a tutor in the School of Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA).

Edward Bawden, painter, designer and illustrator, was born in Braintree, Essex. He studied at Cambridge School of Art from 1918 to 1922 and at the RCA where he was taught by the artist, Paul Nash between 1922 and 1926. Bawden was a contemporary of fellow student, Eric Ravilious, with whom he was commissioned to paint a mural at Morley College in London (destroyed in 1940).

During the late 1920s and 1930s, Bawden made a living through commercial art, and part-time teaching at Goldsmiths’ College and at the RCA. His earliest published lithographic works appear to have been London Underground posters in 1925. As an illustrator, he worked for the Curwen Press, the Folio Society, Chatto & Windus and Penguin Books, among others; and also for The Listener, a periodical renowned for its high quality of graphic art at the time.

Bawden’s interest in craftsmanship places him in a tradition that looks back to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Whether designing an etching, linocut or watercolour, his work revealed an understated humour and idiosyncratic flair for design based on bold outlines and contrasts of tone. Shortly after Bawden’s death in 1989, retrospectives of his work were held in London and Bedford. More recently, several major publications of Bawden’s work have brought the artist’s work to wider audiences, including Edward Bawden in the Middle East by Nigel Weaver (2008); Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield edited by Gill Saunders and Malcolm Yorke (2015); and The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden by James Russell (2016).

Further Information

Edward Bawden
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Gallery Road, London SE21 7AD

Telephone: 020 8693 5254
Tickets: 020 8299 8750
Email: enquiries@dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

¹ Weaver, Nigel; Edward Bawden in the Middle East; London, 2008; p.26–29
² Wordsworth, William; The Complete Collected Poetical Works of William Wordsworth: together with a description of the country of the lakes in the north of England, now first published with his works; Philadelphia, 1839; p. 44