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How Edward Bawden modernised the watercolour

How Edward Bawden modernised the watercolour

He’s best known for his work as a designer. A new exhibition should change that

He’s best known for his work as a designer. A new exhibition should change that

Florence Hallett | May 30th 2018

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) thought of himself as a designer, not an artist. A respected British book illustrator and printmaker, his commercial designs for clients including Fortnum & Mason and Shell, are rightly prized as classics. But as the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London argues, his fine art has been unfairly neglected. The gallery’s new exhibition, which features his paintings alongside his book illustrations, posters and graphic designs, ought to change that. The most comprehensive exhibition since his death, it argues that Bawden reinvented the watercolour for the 20th century. 

Bawden is best known for his witty approach to linocut, a printing technique similar to woodcut, which he elevated into a respected medium. But as the exhibition reveals, Bawden was fascinated by watercolour. While he was at the Royal College of Art (RCA), Bawden, his friend and fellow art student, Eric Ravilious, and their tutor, Paul Nash, rediscovered the British watercolourists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the time – this was the 1920s – the restrained style of artists like Francis Towne and John Sell Cotman seemed refreshingly modern after decades of “blob” and “swash”, one critic’s disparaging terms for the loose style that grew out of Impressionism. In their own work, Bawden and his circle began to combine clean lines and precisely applied colour with stencilling and collage, and to borrow techniques from oil painting such as stippling, where the canvas is dotted with many small specks. In their hands, watercolour drawing went from fusty to fresh.  

“Mount Pleasant Road” (1927)

At the Design School of the RCA, Bawden’s skills were quickly recognised and he received commissions from London Underground and the Curwen Press, a publisher of fine art prints, while still a student. This copper engraving shows Bawden’s love of line, the contrast between the sharp angles of the houses and the endlessly varied sweeps and curves of leaves and branches conjuring a lively world in miniature. His sense of order is balanced and enlivened by an eye for entertaining and idiosyncratic detail, and his characters are all the more intriguing for being absorbed in their tasks. A statuesque woman waters flowers while her neighbour reads in a hammock; one man crouches to weed a flower bed, another is poised with a fork, anxiously supervising a bonfire. A regular at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Bawden was inspired by a variety of sources, from medieval manuscript illumination to Persian miniatures. His delight in tiny, busy worlds is reflected here.

 

“Untitled Landscape with Sunset” (1927)

This depiction of the Essex countryside shows Bawden’s affinity with English watercolourists of a century earlier. With their strong, unbroken lines – they were often called “watercolour draughtsmen” – and delicate, carefully controlled washes of colour, their paintings would celebrate the countryside, just as Bawden’s would. His lines here are imbued with energy and movement and the white space around the trees adds spatial depth, suggesting the play of light through leaves and branches. His designer’s instinct to simplify forms is on display here, and the “cut out” quality of the trees suggests the techniques Bawden had by now encountered, including stencil and linocut. 

 

“Rain” (1926)

The patterns, shapes and contrasts of this painting all vie for our attention: the driving rain, captured with long pencil strokes, draws the eye down the page while cheery daubs of red jump out from the gloomy grey. Yet no one element threatens to crowd out any other; the composition remains balanced. 

 

“March: Noon” (1936)

In this atmospheric work, Bawden shows both his interest in the landscape traditions of English watercolour and his admiration for Nash’s work. The title indicates his working method: he painted outdoors to observe the particular quality of light found at a certain time of day and year. More highly finished than “Rain” and more naturalistic than “Untitled Landscape with Sunset”, this watercolour appears at first to be a more traditional landscape. But the dim light – perhaps before a storm – lends an atmosphere heavy with foreboding and the shelter to the left appears oddly incongruous, its straight metal bars, evoking the man-made, contrasting with the organic shapes found in this rural scene. Such qualities align it less with traditional notions of the picturesque, a genre of landscape painting that portrayed nature in an idealistic manner, and more with the uncanny, a Freudian concept describing the jarring collision of familiar and unfamiliar. It was an idea that was central to Surrealism, which by the 1930s had become an important force in British art, and one which fascinated Nash.

 

“September: Noon” (1937)

From his home in Great Bardfield, Essex, Bawden made several trips to Newhaven on the Sussex coast during the 1930s, where he completed a series of watercolours. A tranquil scene dominated by a still life of rusty anchors is knocked off balance by dramatically distorted perspective, suggesting the motion of the sea. This is a departure from the traditional watercolour: there are no expansive washes or broad sweeps of the brush here, and paint is applied with precision with forms sharply defined. Unusually, the foreground area has been painted with a dry brush, producing a patchy, stippled effect reminiscent of linocuts.

 

“Scium Basci Tesfalidet Ghidai: Polizia Africana Italiana, Asmara. A sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians” (1940-44)

Bawden never developed a signature style, preferring instead to approach each new commission afresh. Nowhere is his ability to adapt more apparent than in the portraits he made between 1940 and 1944 while employed as an Official War Artist. As a student he had struggled with life drawing and his figures, while expressive, are often rudimentary. On a tour of Africa and the Middle East, he applied himself to painting people, his often monochrome watercolours capturing his subjects’ demeanour and facial expressions with an immediacy that makes portraiture look easy. In this portrait, the elaborate uniform, with its jubilant yellows and oranges, is a foil for the policeman’s blue face, his expression dignified but slightly anxious. 

Bawden complained that after the war “everyone had forgotten him except the taxman”. In the struggle to comprehend the immense suffering inflicted by the war, artists looked for new ways to represent the world. Next to abstraction, Bawden’s figurative and often whimsical watercolours looked dated: his response was to return to linocut. But as this exhibition shows, Bawden’s watercolours – their marriage of tradition and innovation a highpoint of British modernism – are due another look. 

Edward Bawden Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until September 9th