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James Boswell’s East End

May 1, 2021
by the gentle author

A few years ago, I visited 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. She pulled pictures off the wall and books off the shelf to show me his drawings, and then we went round to visit his daughter Sal who lives in the next street and she pulled more works out of her wardrobe for me to see. 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.

From the vast range of work that James Boswell undertook, 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 the 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.”

James Boswell’s work is featured in East End Vernacular

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 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)

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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. May 1, 2021

    These drawings are full of vitality. I particularly like, I think it is the seventh one down, with the old girl and the stall holder having a good natter. These illustrations capture a vanished world that I remember from my childhood.
    Thank you for sharing, GA.

  2. May 1, 2021

    James Boswell’s drawing and painting work is something special. His view of London’s East End is unique.

    Love & Peace

  3. Peter Hart permalink
    May 1, 2021

    Beautiful drawings by James Boswell. Thank you so much.

  4. May 1, 2021

    Jim Boswell was one of my father’s best friends, while his first wife and his daughter are my two godmothers. Ruth was unlikely to comment, but during the Thirties, the Three James’s were a cartooning force for the left and for the Peace movement – Jim Fitton, James Boswell and James Holland. My father went into the Ministry of Information during the War, and was one of the Chief Designers of the Festival of Britain. All three did cartoons for the likes of Left Review. The website link will take you to a blog I curate about my father’s work, including bits of aut0biography, which include him getting to know Boswell and Fitton – if you are interested.

  5. May 1, 2021

    These drawings by James Boswell are beautifully observed and drawn.
    Thank you for sharing them with your readers. I particularly like the lady wearing the coat with the fur collar, all dressed up to ‘the nines’ to go to the market!

  6. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 2, 2021

    These are wonderful, thank you. Yet another treat.
    I especially like the Fishmonger’s stall; how he has conveyed exactly what it is without there being an overt fish shape anywhere. Brilliant. Gravel Lane with its herring bone patterned cobbles is another favourite.

  7. May 2, 2021

    What an amazing artist James Boswell was. His detailed drawings show so much vitality.

  8. Robin permalink
    May 2, 2021

    Wonderful dry expressive line. Thank you GA & Jane Holland for the fascinating contextual information.

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