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James Boswell’s East End

June 17, 2024
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.”

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)

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg T permalink
    June 17, 2024

    Very reminiscent of the late Ronald Searle?

  2. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 17, 2024

    Visually, a great talent! Thank you for sharing.

  3. June 17, 2024

    In the 30s, Boswell worked closely with two other Jameses – Jim Fitton and my father, James Holland. You may find these links of interest, as a different perspective and pre-Ruth days.

    There will be an exhibition starting in the next couple of weeks at Tate Britain called Artist International: the First Decade which will also cover the three Jameses and their chums, including Pearl Binder, Nan Cutler and Misha Black

  4. June 17, 2024

    What a feast for the eyes! I especially loved the panels that included the shop fronts with riotous packaging and signage. So much to look at, and savor. Really gave a sense of how enticing and welcoming each store front was — everything arranged to look bountiful and alluring. Ladies bundled in their wool coats and faux fur collars, reviewing all the useful items. Keys cut. Oh, good.
    A slightly stooped older gal chats with a proprietor, as doll-like mannikins peer from the next-door shop window. “And what can I help you with today, madam?” And the gaggle of men in their various hats, leaning in to see the latest bargains and widgets. “Step right UP, gents…….”. A human drama captured in line and wash. Well-done, Mr. Boswell.

    I love visiting the markets, here at Spitalfields Life; whether photographic or illustrated.

  5. Mark permalink
    June 17, 2024

    Mr Boswell was the bees knees.
    You can walk into his sketches can’t you.

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