Edward Bawden was one of the Twentieth Century’s most popular artists and illustrators. Even if you don’t think you know the name, the style is instantly recognisable and characterises much of the look of the middle of the period. Bawden was prolific, producing murals for the Festival of Britain, countless book jackets, station panels for the London Underground and even garden furniture. A fellow student of and later collaborator with Eric Ravilious, the pair were described by Paul Nash as “an extraordinary outbreak of talent”.
All artists need a point of reference and Edward Bawden’s were his numerous scrapbooks. These are much more than casual collections of a dilettante magpie, but rather carefully curated collections that the artist kept up for a period of more than 55 years. It is a mark of how much he valued them that virtually all of them survive today.
The Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden in Suffolk is the repository of what we might call the Bawden archive. That’s to say: it has a remarkable collection of his work and also, importantly for the present consideration, the scrapbooks. If you ever needed an excuse for a holiday in East Anglia, this would be it.
You might be forgiven for thinking that an artist’s scrapbooks are interesting, but not that interesting, that they’re a handy footnote for the serious student, but not much else. However, when there is the volume we have here, and it’s as thoughtfully compiled, the result is a history of the art and design of the period, as well as an insight into a thoroughly creative mind. Pay that visit and you can see how the one plays off against the other.
There is no doubt that the greatest value in this volume is when seen alongside the works that Bawden produced under these influences. However, even stood alone, it’s a fascinating piece of what is relatively recent history.
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