10 Things You Didn't Know About Edward Bawden
Many of the visitors to our current exhibition, Edward Bawden, will be familiar with his work as an illustrator and graphic designer. Bawden’s packaging designs for British household names such as Fortnum & Mason and Twinings are iconic – you may not recognise his name, but there’s a good chance you’ll recognise the distinctive style of images like Brighton Pier or the Menu for the Double Crown Club. Fewer visitors, however, will be aware of Bawden’s wider output.
An artist of many and varied talents, Bawden’s long career saw him excel as a graphic designer, illustrator, printmaker, watercolourist, portraitist and even war artist. Despite gaining popularity amongst critics and the public alike, Bawden shunned the spotlight, remaining, as Alan Powers remarked ‘a reluctant national monument’. Here we take a look at some lesser-known facts about the life of this intriguing artist
1. At Art School, tutors wrote him off as a ‘terrible painter’
In 1922, after completing several years of study at Cambridge Art School, Bawden received a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where he undertook a diploma in Illustration. Although his skill as an illustrator and graphic designer was recognised immediately, his tutors were not initially impressed with his brushwork, going so far as to deem him a ‘terrible painter’. Within a few years, Bawden shook off this reputation, establishing himself as an accomplished watercolourist.
2. He was at art school with Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and studied under Paul Nash
In the years that Bawden spent at the prestigious Royal College of Art, the college was also home to several students who would later rank amongst the nation’s most celebrated artists. Bawden’s friendship with Eric Ravilious is well documented, however he also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The faculty boasted its own crop of well-known artists and designers, including Paul Nash who tutored both Bawden and Ravilious, describing the pair as ‘an extraordinary outburst of talent’.
3. He was a keen gardener
Bawden was a keen gardener and his love of gardens greatly informed his work as a designer and illustrator. Along with his wife Charlotte Epton, Bawden cultivated and tended to an impressive garden at the couple’s Essex home, Brick House. Gardens remained a source of inspiration for Bawden throughout his lengthy career, forming the basis of numerous commercial designs and paintings.
4. He rejected any distinctions between fine art and design
Over the course of his career Bawden seamlessly blurred the boundaries between commercial design work and so-called ‘fine art’. Famed for his strong work ethic, the Essex-born artist was prolific across a wide variety of media, enjoying success as both and painter and illustrator. According to Bawden, it was only art dealers who insisted on a difference between fine art and design. Throughout his own career, both were granted equal importance.
5. He claimed not to be an artist, but only to make ‘dirty marks on paper’
Bawden’s self-deprecating sense of humour saw him reject the label of artist, claiming that he was simply someone who made ‘dirty marks on paper’. Although his beautiful paintings and illustrations eschew this disparaging view, the comment is typical of Bawden’s down-to-earth perspective on his chosen profession. Referring to himself and Ravilious as ‘odd-job-men’ Bawden subtly poked fun at the pomposity of the art world.
6. He was deeply affected by the death of his close friend Eric Ravilious
Ravilious and Bawden became friends while undertaking the same course, Industrial Design, in the same year-group at the Royal College of Art. The pair quickly formed a close personal and professional relationship which lasted until Ravilious’s death in 1942. A war artist, Ravilious was declared dead when he and his crew members failed to return form an aerial mission in Iceland. The untimely demise of the 39-year-old watercolourist profoundly affected Bawden, with possible references to the tragic event cropping up years later in works such as The Canmore Mountain Range.
7. He was a war artist in Ethiopia, and made official portraits of Italian and Ethiopian military leaders and soldiers
Like Ravilious, Bawden was selected as an official war artist during the Second World War, which allowed him to travel widely in East Africa. His portraits of Italian and Ethiopian military leaders and personnel were amongst his first attempts at portraiture, and deal sensitively and boldly with their subject matter.
8. He was the first ever Royal Academician elected as a ‘draughtsman’
Bawden’s exceptional drawing skills saw him elected to the Royal Academy in 1956. This appointment not only cemented his stature as a leading artist and designer, but also marked the introduction of a new category of Royal Academician: the ‘draughtsman’. Today, though the painters, printmakers, sculptors, architects and engravers elected to the Royal Academy are numerous, there is only one artist in this category, celebrated portraitist Leonard McComb.
9. He was reluctant to sell his works for high sums
According to his long-time friend and art dealer Peyton Skipwith, Bawden was always hesitant in raising the prices of his works. It wasn’t until late in his life that Bawden was content to price his works above £100. This was not a reflection on the artist’s self-belief however; though he was unconcerned with the pomp and bravado of the ‘high-end’ art world, Bawden ‘believed his work had an integrity that would endure’ says Skipwith.
10. He worked up until the day he died
Bawden’s long and prolific career saw him working and undertaking new commissions up until his death in 1989. Rarely taking a day off, the hardworking artist was busy completing a series of illustrations on the morning that he died, aged 86.
Image Credits: Edward Bawden, Untitled landscape with sunset (detail), 1927, watercolour on paper, Private Collection, Photo: Mark Heathcote, ©Estate of Edward Bawden; Edward Bawden, [Aesop’s Fables] Gnat and Lion (detail), 1970, Colour linocut on paper, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford), ©Estate of Edward Bawden; Edward Bawden, The Bibliolators Relaxed, Menu for the Double Crown Club (detail), 1928, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford), ©Estate of Edward Bawden.