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James Boswell’s East End

June 17, 2023
by the gentle author


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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.”

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

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)



6 Responses leave one →
  1. Gilbert O’Brien permalink
    June 17, 2023

    Lovely to rediscover James Boswell’s work. The pictures from the 50s and 60s put me in mind of the work of Geoffrey Fletcher — surely they must have know one another’s work? The drawings from the 30s wonderfully different and evocative I. Style of a very very different, and lost, world.

  2. Winnie permalink
    June 17, 2023

    What a wonderful artist he was. There needs to be an exhibition or he needs to be included
    in one. Important illustrator.

  3. Jan permalink
    June 17, 2023

    Lovely drawings with a hint of Edward Ardizzone I feel. Thank you.

  4. Emdee permalink
    June 17, 2023

    What a treat! I have a copy of A Kid for Two Farthings but had no idea of the rest of his work. Thank you.

  5. kathleen Patricia jones permalink
    June 18, 2023

    I loved this article I am often over that way and lived in Brick Lane in my youth (I am 77 now) and just love the East End- and absolutely loved the pictures- maybe a showing at the Whitechapel Gallery would be great and inspire the new generation

  6. Geoff Stocker permalink
    June 18, 2023

    JB did the film poster for “It always rains on Sunday “ although the film is set in the east end it was filmed in Chalk Farm and Camden Town. Boswell often sketched in this neighbourhood and his drawing of two women leaving the pub was used for the poster.

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