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Barnett Freedman, Artist

March 3, 2020
by the gentle author

David Buckman profiles Barnett Freedman (1901–1958) who was born in Stepney. A major retrospective, Barnett Freedman – Designs for Modern Britain opens at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester on 14th March and runs until 14th June.

I am giving a lecture about the work of Barnett Freedman and other twentieth century artists, Street Life: Painting the East End , at Pallant House on 30th April Click here for tickets

Barnett raises his hat in Kensington Gardens to celebrate designing the Jubilee stamp for George V

Odds were heavily stacked against Barnett Freedman becoming a professional artist. Born in 1901 to a poor Jewish couple, living at 79 Lower Chapman St, Stepney, who had emigrated to the East End of London from Russia, Barnett’s childhood was scarred by ill-health and he was confined to bed between the ages of nine and thirteen. Yet he educated himself, learning to read, write, play music, draw and paint, all within a hospital ward. His nephew, Norman, recalled that “He played the violin for the king,” but that “When he acquired a bicycle his mother cut off the tyres as she considered it too dangerous for her son to ride.”

By sixteen, Barnett was earning his living as a draughtsman to a monumental mason for a few shillings a week. He made the best of this unexciting work in the day, spending his evenings at St Martin’s School of Art for five years from 1917. Eventually, he moved to an architect’s office, working up his employer’s rough sketches and, during a surge of war memorial work, honing his skills as a lettering artist.

For three successive years, Barnett failed to win a London County Council Senior Scholarship in Art that would enable him to study full time at the Royal College of Art under the direction of William Rothenstein.  Finally, Barnett presented a portfolio of work to Rothenstein in person. Impressed, he put Barnett’s case to the London County Council Chief Inspector himself and a stipend of £120 a year was made, enabling Barnett to begin his studies in 1922. Under the direction of Rothenstein, Barnett’s talent flourished, taught by such fine draughtsmen as Randolph Schwabe and stimulated by fellow students Edward Bawden, Raymond Coxon, Henry Moore, Vivian Pitchforth and John Tunnard. Eight years after his entry, Rothenstein took Barnett onto the staff.

Although he could be prickly and even alarming on occasion, Barnett was revered by his former students. My late friends Leonard Appelbee and his wife Frances Macdonald, both artists, never stopped talking of his kindness. Burly Leonard used to help lift Barnett’s heavy lithographic stones when they were too much for the artist to manage alone, and when once Leonard and Frances considered moving to Hampstead, Barnett retorted – “You don’t want to go there.  It’s an ‘orrible place!” According to Professor Rogerson, “He was a volatile character who did not respect authority and was always at war with the civil servants … yet I know people who were taught by him who say he was a very careful and punctilious teacher who paid a lot of attention to his students – though he could fire off if he was angry. At heart, I think he pretended to be a harsh kind of person but he was very good to a lot of people.”

After leaving the Royal College in 1925, Barnett had his share of problems. He painted prolifically but sold little – with his work only gradually being bought by collectors, although the Victoria and Albert Museum and Contemporary Art Society eventually bought drawings. In 1929, ill-health prevented him from working for a year. In 1930, he married Claudia Guercio whom he had met at art school, born in Lancashire of Sicilian ancestry. She also became a fine illustrator.  Their son Vincent recalls that the home they created “was a warm place, vibrant with sound and brilliant colours, excitement darting from the music at night, the pictures on the walls, and the constant talking.”

Barnett enjoyed a long association with Faber and Faber, and his colour lithography and black-and-white illustrations for Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,’ published in 1931, are outstanding. Works by the Brontë sisters, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, Edith Sitwell, William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy benefited from his inspired illustration. Barnett believed that “the art of book illustration is native to this country … for the British are a literary nation.” He argued that “however good a descriptive text might be, illustrations which go with the writings add reality and significance to our understanding of the scene, for all becomes more vivid to us, and we can, with ease, conjure up the exact environment – it all stands clearly before us.”

He was also an outstanding commercial designer, producing a huge output of work for clients including Ealing Films, the General Post Office, Curwen Press, Shell-Mex and British Petroleum, Josiah Wedgwood and London Transport. The series of forty lithographs by notable artists for Lyons’ teashops was supervised by Barnett, including his famous and beautiful auto-lithographs ‘People’ and ‘The Window Box.’ Barnett wrote and broadcast on lithography and other aspects of art, with surviving scripts showing him to have been a natural talent at the microphone.  When artists were being chosen for the series ‘English Masters of Black-and-White’ just after the Second World War, the editor, Graham Reynolds included Barnett among an illustrious band alongside George Cruikshank, Sir John Tenniel and Rex Whistler.

Barnett joined that select group who served as Official War Artists. Along with Edward Ardizzone and Edward Bawden, he accompanied the expeditionary force in the spring of 1940, before the retreat at Dunkirk, yet Barnett did not shed his iconoclasm and outspokenness when he donned khaki. Asked if he would paint a portrait of the legendary General Gort, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Barnett’s response was, “I am not interested in uniform … Oh well, perhaps I might if he’s got a good head?” On his return, Barnett continued to produce vivid, powerful pictures for the War Office and the Admiralty, gaining a CBE in 1946. But despite hobnobbing with military luminaries, Barnett never became posh, retaining his East End manner of speaking. Vincent Freeman recalls how Barnett once hailed a taxi-cab, “‘to the Athenaeum Club’, to which the incredulous driver retorted – ‘What, YOU?'”

After hostilities, Barnett remained busy with many commissions until in 1958, when he died peacefully in his chair at his Cornwall Gardens studio, near Gloucester Rd, aged only fifty-seven. Vincent recalls his final memory of his father, “discussing a pleasant lunch he had enjoyed with the family’s oldest friend [the artist] Anne Spalding.” Barnett was widely obituarized and his work was given an Arts Council memorial exhibition and tour. Subsequently, exhibitions such as that at Manchester Polytechnic Library in 1990 and new books have periodically enhanced his reputation.

Barnett Freedman is among my top candidates for a blue plaque, as one of the most distinguished British artists to emerge from the East End. There was a 2006 campaign to get him one in at 25 Stanhope St, off the Euston Rd, where he lived early in his career, but English Heritage rejected him, along with four others as of “insufficient stature or historical significance” – an unjust decision exposed by the Camden New Journal. The artist and Camden resident David Gentleman was one among many who supported the plaque, writing “He was a very good and original artist whose work deserves to be remembered. He influenced me in the sense of his meticulous workmanship. He was a real master of it.”

Professor Ian Rogerson, author of ‘The Graphic Work of Barnett Freedman’, considers Barnett “the world’s best auto-lithographer … A lot of people who do not seem to have contributed as much to the arts have managed to get blue plaques. Freedman’s work is being increasingly collected – and he is being recognised more and more as a major contributor to British art.” Of Barnett’s remarkable output, his son Vincent says – “A huge optimism and compassion shows itself to me in all his work and life. Humanity was his central driving force.”

Freedman family portrait with Barnett standing far left.

Barnett painting on the roof top as a war artist

Barnett shows his wife Claudia a mural he painted as the official Royal Marines artist.

Recording the BBC ‘Sight & Sound’ programme ‘Artists v Poets’ in February 1939, Sir Kenneth Clark master of ceremonies with scorer. Artists from left: Duncan Grant, Brynhild Parker, Barnett Freedman, Nicolas Bentley, and poets – W. J. Turner, Stephen Spender, Winifred Holmes and George Barker.

Barnett enjoys a successful afternoon fishing at Thame, Buckinghamshire, in the thirties.

Designs for the ‘London Ballet.’ (courtesy Fleece Press)

The Window Box, lithograph.

Advertisement for London Transport from the nineteen thirties.

Advertisement for the General Post Office rom the nineteen-forties.

Advertisement for Shell at the time of the Festival of Britain, 1951.

Design for Ealing Studios.

Cover for ‘Memoirs of a an Infantry Officer,’ Faber and Faber.

Cover for Walter de la Mare’s 75th Birthday Tribute, Faber and Faber.

Barnett Freedman’s ‘Claudia’ typeface.

Design for Dartington Hall, Devon.

Lithographs for ‘Oliver Twist,’ published by the Heritage Press in New York, 1939.


Barnett Freedman works courtesy Special Collections, Manchester Metropolitan University

Barnett Freedman is featured in my book East End Vernacular, Artists Who Painted London’s East End Streets in the 20th Century

Click here to order a copy of EAST END END VERNACULAR for £25

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 3, 2020

    Lovely drawings and lithographs, and great use of line and colour.

    The Oliver Twist ones were my favourites – especially the moving and unusual pose he has used for Nancy.

  2. March 3, 2020

    What a career! What a legacy! So unfortunate that an “up or down” vote on a plaque should
    be a viable indicator of his vibrant career. Harumph. Let the WORK speak for itself. Freeman was an undisputed master of drawing, painting, print-making, typography, murals, and illustration. (and broadcasting…….wow…….truly a man for all seasons)
    He brought such a fresh outlook to every assignment he received. I greatly admire this artist and am glad he is being recognized once more.
    Thank you GA.

  3. Marie permalink
    March 3, 2020

    What talent and tenacity in overcoming poverty and illness. My favourite is the Window Box. So delicate and detailed. Look forward to seeing the exhibition at Pallant House.

  4. March 3, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a varied and prolific career Barnett Freedman had in the art world. I enjoyed the part about his association with Faber and Faber where he certainly was in good company. If I recall, T. S. Eliot worked there for years.

    As he said, “however good a descriptive text might be, illustrations which go with the writings add reality and significance to our understanding of the scene…” I can just imagine him pouring over the texts of the Brontes, Dickens, Tolstoy et al to get his characterizations and backdrops “just right.”

    I also loved “The Window Box” lithograph – great play of light on the girls and the flowers.

  5. David Green permalink
    March 3, 2020

    GA: This is one of the most delightful of your columns that I have read in a while, for two reasons: as someone who has been in the printing trade for –is it– 30 years already?!, seeing artwork like that by Mr. Freedman is sheer delight. Few tablet-and-stylus-wielding Gen-y or Millennials could produce that type of work today, with the understanding of colour, form, and typography that one learns only from creating on paper and etching on stone or plate. It’s a lost art.

    Secondly, “obituarized”–what a lovely word. It’s never occurred to me that it exists! But, I wonder, should it not be ‘obituarised’? Is the use of the ‘z’ not (for shame!) American spelling?

  6. March 3, 2020

    Peerless Barnett Freedman! So many don’t know his name and yet will recognise his work: especially his book jackets. I am so glad that the Pallant Gallery is holding this exhibition, curated by Emma Mason, whose gallery in Eastbourne is a treasure trove. Looking at the website it appears there will be a display of work by Enid Marx, Bawden, Ravilious et al too.

  7. March 4, 2020

    I Love Mr. Freedman’s drawings. I am sure there is much more and I will be looking for more!!!??????

  8. March 4, 2020

    Extraordinary Graphic Design from Times gone by… everybody have seen it, but didn’t know its Creator!

    Love & Peace

  9. March 11, 2020

    Quite an interesting post!! It’s an honor to read about this great artist, a legend in his kind. The lithographs and the paintings were beautiful, and it was also amusing to watch the handcrafted advertisements of earlier days. Barnett Freedman had led an exciting life, and this post is a great memoir. Thank you so much for taking us through the memory lane and explore the gem of a man!!

  10. April 23, 2020

    My teacher at the music institute is also a good artist. She was telling me about Barnett Freedman. I am not much of an artist myself. But I guess I should ask her to read this blog. She might find something useful and insightful. It is interesting to note that he illustrated the works of Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy!

  11. Ann Vosper permalink
    April 26, 2020

    What a brilliant artist Barnett Freedman was! I first discovered his work about 15 years ago when I bought 5 (sadly not the full set of 6) pen and ink sketches by him, dated 1935. Last year I bought one of his Lyon’s lithograph prints entitled MUSIC. It has pride of place on my dining room wall. I love his work, and he deserves a Blue Plaque, he was a genius.

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