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James Boswell At The Art Workers Guild

March 5, 2018
by the gentle author

A rare exhibition of James Boswell’s Lithographs & Drawings opens today at the Art Workers Guild, 6 Queen Sq, WC1N 3AT and runs until next Saturday 10th March

Petticoat Lane in the sixties (Courtesy of David Buckman)

When Ruth Abel met the artist James Boswell (1906-71) in the sixties, he introduced her to the East End. “We spent quite a bit of time going to Bloom’s in Whitechapel. We went regularly to visit the Whitechapel Gallery and then we took a walk afterwards,” she recalled fondly, “James had been going for years, and I was trying to make my way as a journalist and was looking at housing, so we just wandered around together. It was a treat to go the East End for a day.”

“He was in the Communist Party, that was what took him to the East End originally,” she continued, “and he liked the liveliness, the life and the look of the streets, and it inspired him.”

James came from New Zealand to study painting at the Royal College of Art in 1925 and was shocked by the squalor and poverty he found in London. Determined to do what he could to bring about change, he joined the Communist Party after he graduated in 1932 and became a graphic artist, believing that his talent could better serve his political beliefs through painting banners, designing leaflets, and drawing illustrations and cartoons.

Although these pictures of Cable Street and Petticoat Lane were created decades apart and are executed in different styles, they reveal a common delight in human detail, with the inhabitants of the street seeming so completely at home it is as if they and the cityscape are merged into one. Yet, “He did not draw them on the spot,” Ruth revealed to me, as I pored over James’ drawings trying to identify the locations, “he worked on them when he got back to his studio. He had a photographic memory, although he always carried a little black notebook and he would just make few scribbles in there for reference.”

In 1934, James married the artist Betty Soars and then, in 1936, he joined the publicity department of Shell as a means to support his wife and daughter Sal. During the Second World War, James served as a radiographer and continued to draw, documenting all aspects of the conflict as he encountered it in Iraq and then Malta and Sicily. His Communism prevented him from becoming an official War Artist yet his work was acquired by the War Artists’ Committee even though it was not exhibited until 2006. Subsequently, he renounced Communism but remained a Socialist to the end and his graphic works were integral to the successful Labour Party election campaigns of 1945 and 1964.

After the war, James became art editor of Lilliput, a popular literary magazine, where he encouraged many younger artists including Ronald Searle and Paul Hogarth. In 1951, James painted a huge mural for the Sea & Ships pavilion at the Festival of Britain. He was a polymath whose entire working life was occupied by diverse pursuits to make ends meet. In later years, these included editing Sainsbury’s in-house magazine, producing book jackets and illustrations, designing record covers and drawing cartoons for the weekly letters’ page for the Sunday Telegraph. All this was undertaken while filling sketchbooks with drawings done in the street and continuing to paint, exhibiting regularly with the London Group over thirty-five years. In 1966, he separated from his wife Betty and lived with Ruth thereafter

James devoted the last decade of his life to abstract painting. Yet he is chiefly remembered for his influential graphic representations of the East End for Ealing Pictures’ film posters such as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), The Blue Lamp (1949) and Pool of London (1950), and through his book jackets and illustrations for A Kid for Two Farthings (1953) by Wolf Mankowitz, and A Hoxton Childhood (1969) by A.S. Jasper.

Cable St in the forties (Click image to enlarge)


Rowton House

Old Montague St, Whitechapel

Gravel Lane, Wapping

Brushfield St, Spitalfields

Wentworth St, Spitalfields

Brick Lane

Fashion St, illustration by James Boswell from “A Kid for Two Farthings” by Wolf Mankowitz, 1953.

Russian Vapour Baths in Brick Lane from “A Kid for Two Farthings.”

James Boswell (1905-1971)

Leather Lane Market, 1937

Images copyright © Estate of James Boswell


7 Responses leave one →
  1. Steve Buckley permalink
    March 5, 2018

    Some of the ‘thinner’ line drawings remind me of a tattered paperback I had as a kid – Nell Dunn’s ‘Up The Junction’ – did he do the illustrations for this as well?

  2. March 5, 2018

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen something by Boswell that I didn’t love, or that didn’t make me nostalgic for the times he portrayed. His ability to convey so much with an economy of line was sheer brilliance.

  3. March 5, 2018

    I love his energetic and ‘scribbly’ style, just wonderful. Valerie

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    March 5, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great spread. James Boswell captures so well the press of humanity against a backdrop on interesting architectural detail. His work contains a great deal of humor too…

  5. pauline taylor permalink
    March 5, 2018

    Thank you GA. How can I have missed this artist’s work for so long? It is brilliant and his talent shines through in every one, I shall now be looking out for examples of his work wherever and whenever I can. One small detail; I think he designed record sleeves, they were never referred to as covers then. A bit like dust jackets on books which people now call wrappers or covers. GRRH !!

  6. mark permalink
    March 6, 2018

    An excellent taster of his output, which was substantial. An outstanding website details all his work. Died so prematurely. Would love to have had a beer / glass of vino with this fella!

  7. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 10, 2018

    Oh that I had such talent. A few drawn lines, and a scene is brought to life.

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