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James Boswell, Artist & Illustrator

March 31, 2017
by the gentle author

Today I feature James Boswell, illustrator of A HOXTON CHILDHOOD, whose drawings we have reproduced from the original artwork for the new edition (including A.S. Jasper’s sequel THE YEARS AFTER illustrated by Joe McLaren) which I am publishing this spring.

The launch party for A HOXTON CHILDHOOD & THE YEARS AFTER is on Tuesday 25th April 7pm at the Labour and Wait Workroom, 29-32 The Oval, Off Hackney Rd, Bethnal Green, E2 9DT. There will be live music, readings and refreshments. Click here for tickets

Drawing of Hoxton Market by James Boswell

A few years ago, I had the privilege of travelling up to a leafy North London suburb to meet Ruth Boswell – an elegant woman with an appealing sense of levity – and we sat in her beautiful garden surrounded by raspberries and lilies, while she told me about her visits to the East End with her late husband James Boswell who died in 1971. And when I left with two books of drawings by James Boswell under my arm as a gift, I realised it had been an unforgettable introduction to an artist who deserves to be better remembered.

Ruth is no longer with us. But this year I returned to that same North London suburb with designer David Pearson to meet James Boswell’s daughter Sal Shuel and enquire after his drawings for A.S Jasper’s A HOXTON CHILDHOOD. Thanks to Sal, we were able to photograph the original artwork of his illustrations and cover design, and reproduce them freshly in the new edition, A HOXTON CHILDHOOD & THE YEARS AFTER.

To introduce you to James Boswell’s work, I have selected these lively drawings of the East End done over a thirty year period between the nineteen-thirties and the fifties. There is a relaxed intimate quality to these – delighting in human detail – which invites your empathy with the inhabitants of the street, who seem so completely at home it is as if the people and cityscape are merged into one. Yet, “He didn’t draw them on the spot,” Ruth revealed, as I pored over the line 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’d just make few scribbles in there for reference.”

“He was in the Communist Party, that’s what took him to the East End originally,” she continued, “And he liked the liveliness, the life and the look of the streets, and and it inspired him.” In fact, James Boswell joined the Communist Party in 1932 after graduating from the Royal College of Art and his lifelong involvement with socialism informed his art, from drawing anti-German cartoons in style of George Grosz during the nineteen thirties to designing the posters for the successful Labour Party campaign of 1964.

During World War II, James Boswell served as a radiographer yet he continued to make innumerable humane and compassionate drawings throughout postings to Scotland and Iraq – and his work was acquired by the War Artists’ Committee even though his Communism prevented him from becoming an official war artist. After the war, as an ex-Communist, Boswell became art editor of Lilliput influencing younger artists such as Ronald Searle and Paul Hogarth – and he was described by critic William Feaver in 1978 as “one of the finest English graphic artists of this century.”

Ruth met James in the nineteen-sixties and he introduced her to the East End. “We spent quite a bit of time going to Blooms in Whitechapel in the sixties. We went regularly to visit the Whitechapel when Robert Rauschenberg and the new Americans were being shown, and then we went for 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 the housing, so we just wandered around together. It was a treat to go the East End for a day.”


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

You can see more work by James Boswell  at

You might also like to take a look at

Pearl Binder, Artist & Writer

Ronald Searle in Brick Lane

In the Footsteps of Geoffrey Fletcher

Lucinda Rogers’ East End

Joanna Moore, Artist

The Return of Joanna Moore

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part One)

The Spitalfields Nobody Knows (Part Two)

10 Responses leave one →
  1. March 31, 2017

    Fabulous, atmospheric drawings, what a talent he had. Valerie

  2. March 31, 2017

    Really interesting to see so much of his work in one place. Go to the website dedicated to him, such an interesting and varied productive artist. I particularly love the 1950s seaside paintings.

  3. March 31, 2017

    I would have liked to have met James & Ruth Boswell, so much to talk about and listen too. Although married, I am sure they were best mates as well-nice combo. Like other special people their chosen work’s go on and on, a nice time now to remember James’s work on April 25th called ‘The Years After’ gather around family and friends and reminisce. Because of his politics, his artistic work was not officially accepted in the 1940’s, however his war drawings were used by the War Office (they knew a good thing when they saw it). He went on to become an influential artist having the touch of a ‘genius’. Some may say the illustrations of this master-artist are heavy. I liked his bold vigorous approach lots of emotion in those pencil strokes. Poet John

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    March 31, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, wonderful sketches. I particularly liked Rowton House and Leather Market. Good luck with your venture….

  5. March 31, 2017

    These drawings are fabulous. Communists and Socialists always make art that stands the test of time …

  6. Catherine permalink
    March 31, 2017

    Stunning. Would love to get some prints.

  7. March 31, 2017

    You can see the links to Searle. The final trio, at least their figures, have elements of George Grosz.

  8. March 31, 2017

    A couple of years back, I bought my nephew in France a used copy of “A Kid For Two Farthings” book and the illustrations looked great. Now I see them as a part of a much bigger and more important body of work.

  9. Suzy permalink
    April 1, 2017

    Currently working towards a degree in illustration and so really loved and appreciated this. Wonderful post.

  10. Annette Keith permalink
    April 2, 2017

    Good Early Morning from The USA. This writing was extremely inviting, since to me, learning of another intellectual, cartoonist, someone who does attempt to provoke and draw empathy to a period of time on a certain place a group of people, families in a neighborhood. The author of this article has touched on a nerve and a hope, to see the world outside of one’s own time and educated family political views. These views I acquired from a grandparent who had an English heritage, served in a flotilla with Teddy Roosevelt. as a midshipman. He also served in the 1st WW. So my conservative background though moderate has always wanted to push my interests into another frame of society or political artistry.
    This James Boswell has such a great name from a historic literary background, then reading more I became acquainted with a subject unknown, but totally engaging in the history of his cartooning and life. Thanks Mrs. Arthur L Keith III

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