Happy Birthday, Edward Bawden!
Edward Bawden, the artist who made the famous linocut of Liverpool St Station that I featured last year, would have been one hundred and seven years old last week, and curator Bridie Hall made these cakes to celebrate the opening of the small retrospective exhibition in his honour at Ben Pentreath‘s tiny gallery in Rugby St off Lambs Conduit St, that runs until Saturday 20th March. Bridie is pictured here with Neil Jennings of Jennings Fine Art, co-presenter of this appealing show that has an intriguing variety of prints, paintings, books, posters and ceramics by Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and their contemporaries.
I often stop off in Rugby St when I am walking back to Spitalfields from the West End and I am always charmed by the unlikely collection of things you can find here, from antique mochaware, old enamel teapots and exquisite pieces of coral, to plastercasts, fine woodcuts and Pollocks Toy Theatre prints. With great imagination, Bridie turned the whole place into a Cabinet of Curiosities last Christmas and now to discover Edward Bawden’s works hung cheek by jowl among all the other stock creates a fascinating and sympathetic mixture.
The birthday party became a bun fight as hordes of enthusiasts descended upon the gallery to raise a glass of champagne and a slice of cake to toast Edward Bawden, and there was plenty to celebrate because his reputation has been steadily ascendant over recent years. Today, many contemporary artists readily acknowledged his influence, including Rob Ryan and James Brown, both of whom I have featured in these pages.
After the crowded party, I was happy to return, taking a stroll over to Rugby St on a quiet morning to meet Edward’s son Richard Bawden and his wife Hattie, who came up for the day from East Anglia to take in the show. Dressed in subtle tones of grey and brown, I recognised them at once, Richard in a grey herringbone tweed coat and sporting a white beard worthy of Don Quixote and Hattie with the deepest sharp blue eyes, like marbles.
Richard and I stood together, admiring one of the Curwen Press edition of Edward Bawden’s print of Smithfield Market from 1967, reproduced below, and he pointed out the drama between the figures in this picture, that his father was so adept at capturing. Apparently, Bawden cadged a lift off the local butcher in Great Bardfield in Essex, where he lived, travelling up to Smithfield early one morning to make sketches while the butcher loaded the van with meat. I know Smithfield Market well and I think the shade of pink Bawden chose in this print is especially evocative of the livid tone of carcasses of meat. Richard explained that his father used linocut to achieve a certain quality of edge to blocks of colour but then liked to have them reproduced by lithography because he preferred the finish, as in this example.
In common with the Liverpool St Station print, there is an interesting dynamic in the Smithfield print between the vast iron building and the people who inhabit the dramatic space it creates. The Liverpool St Station print was one of the largest linocuts ever made, almost six foot long, composed of multiple pieces of lino. Far too long for the press, Edward Bawden had to make the prints on the ground and invite art students to stand on the blocks to press them down. It was a small edition, because in 1967 no-one was interested in a huge print of a smoke-blackened Liverpool St, though recently one sold for £25,000.
I was delighted to meet Richard, who is a distinguished artist and printmaker in his own right, because I have one of his linocuts of a cat hanging in my house in Spitalfields. It has a wonderful sprung energy that I recognise in my cat, Mr Pussy - as if he has just arrived or is about to run off. You can see it below in contrast with Edward Bawden’s linocut of a cat, and this pair of feline images by father and son make a fascinating comparison that speaks both of the difference and the common qualities between the two artists. In Edward’s print, his homespun modernism is immediately apparent in the bold geometric lines that give his cat a strange alien quality, whereas the realism of Richard’s creature exists in relation to a historical tradition of printmaking that includes Thomas Bewick, demonstrating anatomical study. Both prints are full of poetry in different ways and are remarkable for their vivid graphic qualities, two top cats. As Richard observed, scrutinising a linocut by his father of a scene from Morte d’Arthur, commenting as if for the first time,“He could do so much with just black and white.”