Portrait of a Neighbourhood

This post started with me looking at the April 1947 edition of Lilliput where the artical Portrait of a Neighbourhood, has paintings by James Boswell with text by Eric Hobsbawm, the left wing historian. The text intrigued me, as it was based around Boswell’s paintings, but mostly it is that I had seen the paintings used elsewhere before, but more on that later.

Hobsbawm’s examination of Camden.

Camden Town, the subject (of the four pictures James Boswell has painted for Lilliput) is the western outpost of the East End of London, and does not exist officially. No authority recognises it. All that can be said about its boundaries – for it is real enough – is that they run somewhere between the Euston Road and the black, rat-ridden Grand Union Canal, the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park and the great railway jungle of King’s Cross, Euston and St. Pancras. It is impossible to be more definite, for there is no Camden Town except in-so-far as people say they live there, and not, say, in Kentish ‘Town or King’s Cross or Chalk Farm. It includes all the people who shop in the High Street and Parkway, who go to the Gaumont or the Plaza or the Bedford Music Hall, who watch the crowds streaming to the Zoo. 

How many? In all some 30,000, practically all shockingly housed. In the borough of St. Pancras in which Camden Town falls 17% of the men work in transport – mainly railways, 21%. in shops, restaurants, barber parlours and the like, 6% in metals. 18% of its women are: servants, waitresses and attendants, 11% clerks, typists and shop-assistants, and 52%, stay at home. Just over half work in the area. No doubt a good few of the 97 suicides (40 by gas), the 3 murders and 2 manslaughters of St. Pancras in the last year (when they counted such things) belonged to Camden Town.

There is nothing monumental or historic about Camden Town. Its great buildings are the pseudo-Egyptian Black Cat Cigarette factory, the barque music-hall, and the austere red brick baronial of the Rowton House lodgings for single working men. It is Victorian, except for the south-west, now blitzed and slum-cleared, and the beautiful grey, black and yellow Mornington Crescent. The Irish, with their nose for Georgian architecture, have settled there, and the coloured seamen drink in the pub at the corner, where they can see the statue of Richard Cobden, the only man in Camden Town with a monument.

What gives Camden Town its special air is simply the fact that its ordinariness is slightly démodé. Somehow it has stuck fast in the period when Sickert painted it, and Bernard Shaw campaigned to get it to elect him to the L.C.C. A few of the worst slums have been cleared, and there is better lighting. Its skilled trades are still old-fashioned – making pianos, organs, bagpipes and furniture. It has the street-crowds, the stalls of oranges, whelks and jellied eels, the odd jobs, the smell, the music-hall gilt and the greasy soot which the LNER and the LMS spread impartially over it. It isn’t as flamboyant as Stepney or Shoreditch, or as grim as Canning Town; it is just ordinary. That is why Boswell’s pictures show its people doing nothing specially Camden Townish, but simply the sort of things that are being done in scores  of neighbourhoods in Inner London. 

That stationer and tobacconist in his first picture, Little Gold Mine, for instance, is no different from other, once struggling shops. He sells maybe 5-600 daily papers (two or three dozen of them Irish, if he’s in that area), and makes his money on the tobacco. He stocks soft drinks, possibly sweets, certainly racing tips; works the shop with his wife, who handled it by herself when he was in the forces. He is probably an agent for a bookie. If he had a food shop, especially one that sold pies and sandwiches, he would do even better. One made enough in a year’s business to buy another shop. There is money about, and not enough on which to spend it, and anything sells in Camden Town. If it comes to that, everything is for sale, one way or another, within a 500 yards radius of the tube station: radios, pet monkeys, whisky, pictures of saints, model airplanes, artichokes, the works of Engels (who used to pass through regularly on his visits to Marx, stopping for a drink at the Mother Shipton). 

Another group which is not complaining is that of the street-traders like the spiv in Private Enterprise. The war has been the making of them. Previously many depended on ”governors” from whom they hired the, barrows (2/6 a week), and who bought for them and took a 33.5% share; or on moneylenders who helped them over the winter, when there were no sales. Now every man with a regular licence has an allocation of the rationed goods —oranges for instance; winter sales are brisk, and the “governors”’ are said to have lost much of their hold. Overheads have of course gone up: a barrow may be £1 & week or more, paper-bags have been up to 25′ a thousand, and a new man who wants to enter the trade may have a lot of other extras. Still, the wolf is kept from the door. Men have been known to pull in £20 a week, and if business is poor there is this and that to supplement it.

Camden Town is a smallish street-trading centre, and the 40-50 barrows are little more than half the pre-war strength. Their life is strictly balanced between a search for the best pitch and an eye on the coppers who move them on, Sooner or Later they all get hauled up; then they plead guilty. Why be awkward? For years the police have tried to make them sell in a side street, for years they have surged into the High Street. Once upon a time they sent a deputation to the Home Office, now they just sell, move off, and come back again. You can’t keep a good man down.

Boswell’s third picture, Saturday Night, shows one of the borough’s 267 pubs, one of its 304 restaurants and one of its 73 fried fish shops. The girls in front might work in Carreras cigarette factory or in a shop, and are on the way the pictures, or down the Hampstead Road towards Tottenham Court Road and the dance-halls, Perhaps even or even to Camden Town’s pride, the Music Hall. The café is probably run by a Cypriot who lives, with several thousand compatriots, just south of the Euston Road, the man against the walk might be an Irish builder, a railwayman, just possibly a demobbed Pole.

Camden Town pubs run to brass and engraved glass rather than neon lights, though modernisation is creeping up in the main street. Later on in the evening the police will run in a few drunks, who, with shopbreakers and touts, provide most of the local crime. There are no pickings for classy criminals around. here. The couple in Spring Fever are probably in that alley because, like most Camden Towners, there is no room for them at home.

In summer they would go to Regent’s Park or up to Hampstead Heath. Had they married before the war, they could look forward to 1 3/4 rooms between them; now to less. If they have a child it may be one of the 70 out of every 1,000 who die before reaching the age of one in this district. Also the chances are just over 1 in 10 that it will be illegitimate. It is unlikely that they are worrying about this now. Spring blows into Camden Town from the hills of Highgate and Hampstead, and across from Regent’s Park, a few minutes away. The barrows will be shining with fruit, the pubs will be lit up. If the evening is quiet they will hear the northern trains and between them, faintly, the roaring of the animals in the Zoo.


About the images.
James Boswell – Saturday Night, 1947

Now to address the images, according to his widow, Boswell has been painting these scenes of Camden Town for Ealing Studios to use on a poster for the movie It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). The painting Saturday Night is used for the poster (below) Boswell then made a collage of work to deliver to the studio with the added the arch and wall, printers at this time copied and translated designs, cleaned them up and really rearranged them however they wanted.

It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947. Poster designed by James Boswell.

At this time in his life, Boswell was living in Hampstead with his Canadian wife and their daughter Sally. He was also the editor of Lilliput magazine for a time. The painting must have made a good impression as Boswell completed the others on the power of the poster.

But Saturday Night wasn’t the only design I had seen before, on the front of the essay is a little drawing of a cafe. It appeared again in this lithograph produced in 1940 (I think likely designed for the AIA Everyman series, but not used). Being a print and drawn to a lithographic stone, the sketch would have looked the same until he went to print it, then it would be printed backwards. Thankfully he must have been aware of this as he put the Cafe Rouge and numbers the correct way around. (But you would be amazed how many artists and students forget).

By the look of it, the building must have had some bomb damage next door with the props up from the recently demolished neighbour. The building has got taller in the lithograph and given it was printed in 1940, it was likely so the building would stand against the barrage balloons in the background.

James Boswell – Quiet Evening, 1940

As a bonus and interesting fact about the movie, It Always Rains on Sundays, is that the title card has a picture by Barnett Freedman behind it.

Barnett Freedman’s title card drawing for It Always Rains on Sundays.

Change The Space

Years ago I was walking to Pall Mall from Kings Cross, and walked into Trafalgar Square only to find that 2,000 square metres of turf has been laid over the stone flags. The turf was from Yorkshire and then it was used in Bishops Park in Hammersmith.

As part of a festival to promote all the green spaces in the London Boroughs, Talbot Farm Landscape joined County Turf to turn Trafalgar Square green. We are no strangers to strange requests having landscaped the Teletubby village and turfed the interior of the Grosvenor Hotel but it was certainly a fun and unique challenge!

Talbot Farm Landscapes Ltd

The scene reminded me of If London Were Venice Oh! That It Were from The Harmsworth Magazine Volume III August 1899 – January 1900. These were edits of photos of Venice and London made in the Victorian era. Rather remarkable really to see such photo editing, though I would imagine these were made as collages from printed images.

But it is important to think how to change the dynamic of a space for the public. Be it the pedestrianisation area, or adding more seating. Once Trafalgar Square was an island locked into four roads, now the area outside the National Portrait Gallery has been converted into a piazza of buskers and ticket touts. In Cambridge there are plans to pedestrianise areas of the city for bars and cafes to have more space to sprawl. Though the drinking culture of the continent isn’t evident outside a Weatherspoons pub when last orders bells has been rung.

Landscapes can be dramatically changed in many ways, the artist Agnes Denes created this wheatfield in New York on some land that was about to be developed. Naturally this says more about primitive farming and the contrast of big business and skyscrapers than one could ever say, but I think the point was about human labour and trade. About nature and managed landscapes.

Statement on Painting

In 1951, Keith Vaughan was asked by Michael Rothenstein to record his feelings about painting. Rothenstein was editing a book based on artists perspectives on modern painting, however the publisher (Graywells Press) didn’t proceed with the project leaving Vaughan’s text behind.

The difficulty of saying anything about one’s aims as a painter is rather similar to the difficulty I always experienced as a child when confronted with that question — so beloved by adults – ‘and what are you going to be when you grow up?” In the first place I usually had not realised, being so fully occupied with the experience of being a child that I should have to grow up. And in the second place the attraction of any one thing I cared to name was instantly dimmed by the thought of all the other desirable things that choice would necessitate renouncing. Of course I could always name many things I did not want to be, and so now it is always easier to talk about what one is not trying to do than about what one is.

Indeed it is only necessary to mention any of the contemporary ‘schools’ of painting — abstract, Surrealist, English Romantic, etc., for me to feel quite unable to belong to any of them. Each has something to offer, something on which one can build, but none seems comprehensive enough to include all one’s aspirations. Aims and their fulfilment, in painting, are concerned, after all, with vision. They are conceived in silence and executed in silence. Some artists can live and work better as members of a group with constant interchange of ideas and doctrinal justification of their efforts. For better or worse I find myself to be one of those who gropes his way alone, relying on nothing more than ‘his little sensation’ as Cézanne called it. And amidst the vast artic freedom that reigns over the whole of painting today, it seems to me to be the only sure thing one can cling to.

Like many other painters today I find the impulse to paint comes from within me rather than from outside; from a deep-seated need to realise one’s own self, rather than a desire to affirm or describe what already exists outside. The outside world, or nature, furnishes the material for that realisation and also the common language through which one hopes to communicate with others. And since in any case one exists only as a receptacle for the forces and events outside oneself, it comes to much the same thing in the end whichever way one works, one might perhaps say that one’s aim is to paint a picture which is as a mirror to one’s own soul. A mirror which would give back a true and unclouded image of one’s innermost self.

‘If you feel strongly enough about a thing you will find the way to express it’, a friend once said to me, ‘but the thing is to feel strongly’. But one can feel strongly about things in ways which have nothing to with painting. One can feel strongly in a physical, moral, or merely sentimental way, and indeed one needs to be exceptionally simple-minded or exceptionally well insulated from the life of today to become wholly absorbed in the look of things. But to be a painter it is necessary to transpose all one’s feelings into visual terms, even quite private feelings.

As I look out of my window across the garden towards evening, the upturned surfaces of the leaves seem to become brighter as the sky grows darker. Each leaf becomes a tiny mirror to the sky, stretching out to hold as long as possible the cool violet light that falls on it, Between the thick inner branches the sky is visible also, a deeper, more intense blue, cut up into small irregular shaped pieces by the interlacing branches. Presently one gets the impression that the sky is really inside the tree, enclosed by it, and at the same time surrounds it.

With a sudden violent agitation of the leaves, like the scattering of a tray of jewels, someone is reaching up to gather a low hanging fruit. Some of the violet light pours off the leaves on to their upturned face, part of their face is green where the light is filtered by the leaves, at the same time it is also the colour of flesh and blood. It is warm but the tree is cold. The line made by their up reaching arm is the same as the line of the down reaching branch. The articulation of the arm joint in the shoulder is the articulation of the branch in the tree trunk, and the folds of the shirt round the arm pit are the folds of the bark round the tree-joint. Hands are like leaves. The taut, tight curve of the spine is only warmed and more human than the curve of the tree trunk. Each part of the one is interchangeable with the other, yet the harmony is achieved without losing a shred of separate identities, the one a human being, the other a tree in the garden.

It is this sense of tenseness and wholeness which I want to express in my painting: the absolute harmony which results from the simultaneous interdependence and antagonism of objects of different natures; the stability which results from perfect balance of movement.

This paradox is most clearly stated for me in situations which have as their main theme a figure in a landscape. Two entirely complete complex living organisms which, without lose of identity, without sacrificing the essential reality of their natures, have to be reconciled in one whole aesthetic unity. Consequently | find myself returning, as a leitmotiv, over and over again to subjects of this nature. Indeed it is hard to find a subject in which to some degree the paradox does not exist, even an apple lying on a table. The variations are endless, and with each new attempt one brings such experience and knowledge as has been gained in the meanwhile. The problem remains always the same — to put it in technical terms it is to find a form which at one and the same time describes the essential reality of the thing in question and also fulfils its function as a unit in the construction of the painting.

Of course one does not often succeed. Failure to maintain this dual state results in one of two things. If one’s awareness of the identity of the object slackens, the form becomes generalised, geometric, the structure of the painting too perfect, the picture decorative. Or if this same awareness is allowed too much liberty, no cohesion at all takes place. The painting remains a sum of isolated statements.

I mentioned just now the need for finding a form. This seems to me a very different thing from inventing a form. It is much easier to invent a form, which serves only a decorative or at most a structural purpose. Whereas only those forms discovered by analysis of nature, or in a state of imaginative awareness of nature, have real significance and vitality.

In my own case I am more disposed to work from an imaginative recollection of the subject than by analysis of the object in front of me. Each method has its own particular difficulties. Some, such as getting several people to stand knee-deep in water beneath trees in some isolated spot of the countryside, whither one has also transported canvas, easel, painting equipment, etc., being insuperable. So the method is partly dictated by circumstance, But whenever it is possible to have the subject at hand, as in the case of a still life, or a figure at a table, I prefer to do so, even though I hardly look at it while I am actually painting.

On good days I like to start painting directly on to the canvas without any notes or studies. In this way the full intensity of the idea is brought straight into contact with the medium without being dissipated through preliminary drawings. This entails a certain amount of anxiety in the early stages owing to the length of time the canvas remains in a state of chaos, and the necessity of maintaining against this a clear sensation of the goal one is aiming at. At the same time I find by this method that a painting retains a certain vitality through all its stages, and a sense of excitement and adventure. Sometimes I like to start two or three canvases of different sizes at more or less the same time all directed towards realising the same idea. In this way one can be built up against another, and discoveries made in one can be made use of in another and so on. When a section becomes difficult to resolve, it is then that I like to refer to notes and studies made from nature in the hope of finding a clue. Or better still to go for a walk with one’s head still full of the problems on hand, so that one has an eye only for those things which might be useful. In this way too one can keep a constant check on the reality of what one is doing.

Ideas for paintings come at various times: when walking about, just before going to sleep, or when actually working. The important thing I find is not to wait for ideas. There are so many, and they follow each other with such rapidity at times that one could easily spend all one’s time just thinking about it, and the moment when one felt ready to start would get more and more difficult to approach. ‘Good’ ideas seldom make the best paintings: they are too good as ideas. Often it is quite small] ideas, rather unformed, which serve best because they grow up and take shape in the process of painting and so are inseparable from it. But really it would be more accurate to talk of sensations rather than ideas at this stage because the idea is usually only apparent when the work is finished. The sensation is what matters.

Word from Wormingford

Recently I bought a book on John Nash and it came with a signed letter. Dated 16 October 1967, Nash would have been 74. It is a funny but ill tempered letter with some honesty. It seemed to be written to the artist Clifford Knight who sounds like he is trying to make contact with the artist via flattery and having it fail.

Dear Mr Knight. This book you refer to should not have been under the heading “on contemporary artists” but referred, as you rightly say, to John Nash the Regency Architect. I am sorry to say that I can not recommend any books on contemporary English watercolour painters because in the main they do not exist. There were I think 2 Penguin books, one on my brother Paul Nash and one I think on John Piper. issued about 1940 in colour. The illustrations are not confined to watercolours. In my own care I have had only had one small book done on my work in a series “British artists of today” The Fleuron (Curwen Press). Halftone plates that was in 1925 and is out of print. It is in fact rather a grievance that in nearly 50 years of work and with a large retrospective exhibition now on at the RA there is no book on my work available.

However at my age I feel it is too late to worry or care much about this! You must not take my word as gospel but I think you will have great difficulty in procuring what you need. I am sorry I cannot help further.

Yours sincerely,
John Nash.

Beryl Maude Sinclair

Beryl Sinclair is one of those names that I love to find. Born in 1901, Beryl Bowker was the daughter of the Dr. G. E. Bowker, a Physician at the Bath Royal United Hospital. She lived with her mother and father in Combe Park, Bath. She studied at the Royal College of Art alongside Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.

She was both a painter in oils and watercolours, as well as a potter.

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 Eric Ravilious – Morley College Mural – Life in a Boarding House, 1929

At the RCA she was known as Bowk. Ravilious painted her twice that we know, once into the Colwyn Bay Pier Murals by Ravilious in the kitchen with a plant and then again in one of the ‘lost’ Ravilious oil paintings – ‘Bowk at the sink’, 1929-30.

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 Eric Ravilious – Newhaven Harbour, 1935

She married Robert Sinclair, a London author and journalist, who wrote the Country Book on East London in 1950. The painting above by Ravilious was bought from the Zwemmer Gallery by Beryl Sinclair.

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 Beryl Sinclair – Regents Park, The Horseguards

They were living at 170 Gloucester Place, London. It might explain why many of her early paintings are of Regents Park as it’s less than 200 metres away.

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 Beryl Sinclair – Regents Park, Sussex Place

In 1939 she was part of the Artists International Association – Everyman’s Print series contributing two prints, The Row and Riding Procession. The AIA Everyman Prints exhibition was opened on 30 January by Sir Kenneth Clark.

In the early 1940s she was the Chairman of the Artists International Association.

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Essentially set up as a radically left political organisation, the AIA embraced all styles of art both modernist and traditional, but the core committee preferred realism. Its later aim was to promote the “Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development”. It held a series of large group exhibitions on political and social themes beginning in 1935 with an exhibition entitled Artists Against Fascism and War.

The AIA supported the left-wing Republican side in the Spanish Civil War through exhibitions and other fund-raising activities. The Association was also involved in the settling of artists displaced by the Nazi regime in Germany. Many of those linked with the Association, such as Duncan Grant were also pacifists. Another of the AIA’s aims was to promote wider access to art through travelling exhibitions and public mural paintings.

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 Beryl Sinclair – Lake District

In late 1940s she was the Chair of the Woman’s International Art Club. The Women’s International Art Club, briefly known as the Paris International Art Club, was founded in Paris in 1900. The club was intended to “promote contacts between women artists of all nations and to arrange exhibitions of their work”, it provided a way for women to exhibit their art work. The membership of the club was international, and there were sections in France, Greece, Holland, Italy and the United States.

During WW2 she was part of a touring exhibition of art:

John Aldridge, Michael Rothenstein, John Armstrong, Kenneth Rowntree, Beryl Sinclair, and Geoffrey Rhoades. The paintings are touring Essex. They have already been to Maldon, Colchester, and Braintree.

She then joined the Council of Imperial Arts League in 1952 becoming the chairman in 1958.

During the war she was commissioned by Sir Kenneth Clark to execute paintings for the Civil Service canteen. She also contributed to the Cambridge Pictures for Schools scheme. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, New English Art Club, the London Group, Women’s International Art Club, Artists International Association and shows at Leicester Galleries. Her work is in the collection of the Arts Council, The British Government, The Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art, Buckinghamshire County Museum

When married she moved to White Cottage, Grimsdell’s Lane, Amersham in Buckinghamshire. She died in 1967.

 Beryl Sinclair Studio Pottery Mark.

Chelmsford Chronicle: Friday 13 November 1942
Wikipedia AIA

Modernist musings

It is not easy for us to experience the shock of new things. At our fingers today we can type into the internet anything from Japanese Flute Music to American desert road signs and get the answers we expect. Television also exposed us to the world and so now, few things shock us. But try to think what you might have felt seeing an impressionist painting for the first time, if you had only been surrounded by Titian’s; or the wartime work of Paul Nash would have said to you if you had been surrounded by Constable paintings all your life? And where did you see these new paintings, was it in a gallery or in the press with an editorial of the erosion of society? Pick up any book on art history textbook and you won’t find anything considered modern in there until the mid 1920s.

This rejection of a fear of the new was felt by Frank Rutter, who in 1905, set up the French Impressionist Fund, with the support of the Sunday Times. This fund was open to the public to donate to, for the acquisition of an impressionist painting to be given to the National Gallery. Contributions slowly mounted up to £160, sufficient at that time to buy a top class Impressionist painting. This was mostly supported by the intellectual circles of London, from Virginia Woolf to Sickert. Rutter’s choice of painting to be picked was Monet’s Vétheuil: Sunshine and Snow, however the National Gallery did not accept work by living artists in 1905; and the gallery trustees also found Manet, Sisley and Pissarro, who were all too advanced. Rutter wrote: “They were certainly dead – but they had not been dead long enough for England”, adding “I nearly wept with disappointment.” The compromise was Eugène Boudin’s Entrance to Trouville Harbour, 1888. The National Gallery accepted this painting, although Rutter didn’t believe he was a true Impressionist, being at the start of the movement, but he compromised to get something rather than nothing, in the collection.

Eugène Boudin – Entrance to Trouville Harbour, 1888

In the 1920s art galleries were also not free to enter, and were mostly obsessed with paintings from 100 years in the past. I think it is fair to say the public of Britain was not an engaged with the art world and so that, and so without the demand of an audience, there was no reason to change in the hanging of galleries; it was still an old-boy-network. For the modernists, their efforts of self promotion was to mix collectively in magazines that era. These mostly feature, poetry, pictures and prose. They also have an underground feeling, from Blast to Words and Letters, they all have the look of 1970s punk zines, cheap paperbound magazines done on a small press or duplicator.

However, the vibrations and shockwaves of Post-Impressionism and the modernist movements of the First World War (Vortist, Futurist, Dadaism) had been washed around in an ocean of ideas, and these lapped like water at the feet of the art students of the 1920s. From this era of artists, the new ideas formed into two camps: the minimal modernists and the maximalist surrealists.

The modernists were mostly British. The most accoladed of these young artists today are Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who took the ideas of primitive sculptures and ethnographic items and thought about what modernism really was by rejecting was it wasn’t. Though the teaching of the British art schools at this time still was looking to Italy and Europe for definitions of aspiration, many of these students had all been aware of Egyptian and pre-Columbian sculpture from local museums and magazines, and they had observed the same effects of those on Impressionist painters. It is also very likely with all the colonial propaganda of the British Empire, they were more exposed to the ancient worlds and tribalism of Africa, though with empirical projections of the ‘savage’ than of aboriginal artists. But we know Hepworth and Moore most certainly observed ancient artifacts during 1921 in the British Museum, Moore making hundreds of sketches and after learning how to carve sculpture, would reference these inspirations.

These young artists wouldn’t have made it alone. Older artists like Picasso were getting public attention and these young students were all championed by the art critic and poet, Herbert Read who was their life-long supporter. The British students had exhibitions and became part of the 7&5 Society and that was a nucleus for what was hip and happening in the avant garde art world in 1934 and 35; though the exhibitions they had were not sensations, they focused the press attention on this group and the movement looked more mainstream as a group.

At attitudes of the British public to art had changed in the 1930s, but by this point, modernism wasn’t so new, and art deco white sugarcube houses were appearing all over the country. Magazines also were hungry for content and twenty years on since the First World War, these ideas had become palatable and intriguing to their readers. When Henry Moore became an official war artists during the Second World War he was already famous by this point. I think it was Moore’s shelter scenes of the London Underground (as make-do bomb shelters) that added a level of emptaphy with the public and helped elevate his contemporaries after the war.

Henry Moore – Shelter Drawing, Seated Mother and Child, 1941

Visual Diary

This is a visual diary of my day in Grantchester, while visiting the studio of the potter, Elspeth Owen.

On the edges of Cambridge, Grantchester is now known more for the television show of that name, but the village has meaning to different generations. To the scollar, it was once the home of Rupert Brooke, and when cycling around, I met a pilgrim looking for the Old Vicarage, Brookes home for a time, where this pilgrim was looking to sit down and read from his book of verse. To the student in the late 1960s, Grantchester is a picnicking area immortalised by the Pink Floyd song Grantchester Meadows. Since then it has been an area for students to drink and be social, joggers to get fit and tourists to seek a beautiful chocolate box village or a place to punt to. The village itself extends out on the roads that link it each end to Cambridge, with the centre being a triangle of pubs and the church. Not far down the road however, in the shade of the trees is an old cricket pavilion. It is the studio of the pottery Elspeth Owen.

This pavilion, like Grantchester Meadows, is owned by Kings College, but Owen has been a tenant there for 47 years. The tree lined seclusion of the hot July heatwave only lead to the surprise of not being alone at all. The studio was full of buyers and locals curious of the interior. Though Elspeth Owen is far from being unknown.

An experimental artist working with clay, photography and live art. She has taught and performed in many different settings village primary school, the Open University, special schools, the Museum of Mankind, the Taxi Gallery. She was one of the women who started the Greenham Common peace camp. She likes to forget the boundaries between life and art.

Visualizing Anthropology – ed. Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz (2005).

Owen took a traditional route into ceramics, that was to work with the materials and experiment. She got into Oxford, arriving on her birthday aged 19. Her time there gained a third class degree and she got a job with Encyclopedia Britannica as an editorial assistant. Not having a formal art school education isn’t really surprising, many of the great potters took to ceramics because they were apprenticed under others. Owen became involved with a community of people in Dartington and there she first made pots and got involved in feminist politics. The first pot she made was thrown on a wheel and fired without glaze, she recalls not liking the result. Marriage followed and children. After a diploma in Social Administration at LSE, Owen became a social worker. She moved to Cambridge in 1966, living at first on a houseboat on the river.

Owen took a B.A. in modern history at Cambridge and started a family. In the 1960s she became involved with the First Women’s Liberation group in Cambridge. Their first action of defiance to the press was to push pushchairs across King’s College grass. She moved to Granchester to school her children. In 1974 she went to evening classes to learn the skills of the potter after becoming inspired by Mick Casson’s tv show The Craft of the Potter on the BBC and liking the pots of Dan Arbeid who was living in Audley End at that time.

Owen then went to the Cambridge Technical College (now called Anglia Ruskin University) and was taught by Zoe Ellison who ran the Cross Keys Pottery in Cambridge with her husband Jan Ellison. At this time she read Finding One’s Way with Clay: Pinched Pottery and the Color of Clay by Paulus Berensohn. Not having to use a potter’s wheel was a more intimate way of making pots and in 1975 Owen moved her studio into the Cricket Pavilion in Grantchester.

Several exhibitions happened but it is likely to say the big break for any potter in the 1980s would be to be taken on by Henry Rothschild’s gallery Primavera.

  • Originally set founded in 1945 in Sloane Street, London, Primavera became the authoritative selling space for craft in Britain. The Cambridge branch of Primavera was opened in 1959. The London branch closed and the Cambridge branch was managed by Ronald Pile. Following Rothschild’s retirement in 1980, Pile took over the shop, which he ran until selling to Jeremy Waller in 1999.

Owen has exhibited in an extensive list of galleries and exhibitions, in national craft circles and has been written about by Tanya Harrod. Her works can be found in the V&A and Fitzwilliam Museum, to name a few.

Return to Subtopia

BBC Radio Link

Ian Nairn, was a maverick young architectural journalist, who invented the word “Subtopia” in the mid-1950s, when the Architectural Review ran a campaign against unsightly clutter and the blurring of distinctions between town and country.

Nairn drew upon a recent road journey he had made, stating that the outcome of “Subtopia” would be that “the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”

He continued uncompromisingly: “The whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns. Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.”

Gillian Darley brings together lively original archive featuring Nairn himself, Gilbert Harding, Sir Hugh Casson, Sir John Betjeman and others, to re-trace the story.

She talks on location in Southampton with the architectural photographer Gareth Gardner about his new project to re-trace and photograph once more the locations which Nairn visited. In the studio, she explores the original and contemporary picture with the architect Janice Murphett, and the architectural writer, Gavin Stamp.

And she wonders whether, if the short-lived and unhappy Ian Nairn were alive today, what would he feel about the British landscape?

The Hobson Gallery

To me, the discovery of the Hobson Gallery, in Cambridge is rather surprising. Short lived, it opened in the late 1970s and was located at 44a Hobson Street, Cambridge, above where Reeds hairdressers are now. It was opened by Karen Wright, who ran it showing a surprising abundance of contemporary art, below is a list of all of the exhibitions I could find.

  • 1978: February.
    Ted Hughes reads from Moon Bells and other Poems, recorded by Norwich Tapes.
  • 1978: 4 April-6 May
    Chris Castle. Drawings, graphics, photos and paintings.
  • 1978: 21 May-8 July.
    Ivor Abrahams. Prints 1967-78, & selected sculpture, a retrospective exhibition.
  • 1978: 18 July-19 Aug.
    Malcomb Ryan
  • 1978: 1 Oct-4 Nov.
    William Tillyer. Paintings, watercolours and graphics.
  • 1978: 10-27 October.
    Gunter Grass. Drawings, Etchings, Lithographs
  • 1979: 20 Jan-10 Feb.
    John Lyall, David Spence, James Ward. Paintings
  • 1979: 17 April-12 May.
    Christine Fox. Terracotta sculptures.
  • 1979: 22 May-16 June.
    Giséle Celan-Lestrange Etchings
  • 1979: 22 May-16 June.
    Works by R.B. Kitaj, Jim Dine, David Hockney.
  • 1979: 14 July-11 Aug.
    Brian Shaffer. The Wordforms/Logmorphs Exhibition.
  • 1981: 7-25 April.
    Ivor Abrahams. Recent Prints & Works on Paper.
  • 1981: 7-25 July.
    Leonard Baskin. Prints.
  • 1981: 13-31 October.
    Zelda Nolte. Sculpture & Graphics. Poster.
  • 1982: 5-23 October.
    Paintings by Julia Ball and Ceramics by Elspeth Owen.
  • 1982: 2 Nov-18 Dec.
    Prints from the Eastern region : an exhibition selected from open submission.
  • 1983:
    David Kindersley Workshop. 12 Alphabets.
  • 1983: 12 April-7 May
    Michael Ayrton : sculpture, paintings, drawings, prints 1954-1975.

The owner of the gallery was Karen Jocelyn Wile Wright. An American editor and journalist. Born in 1950, in New York. She was educated at Brandeis University (BA), before coming to Great Britain to study History of Art at Cambridge University (MA), then moving to the London School of Business Studies (MSc).

As mentioned before, she was the founder of the Hobson Gallery, 44a Hobson Street, Cambridge, UK. This ran from 1975 to 84. In 1985 she worked for Bernard Jacobson’s art gallery in Cork Street, freelanced helping with art shows at the Whitechapel Gallery and then in 1987 Wright became a co-founder of Modern Painters Magazine with the art critic Peter Fuller.

The magazine was backed by Bernard Jacobson and David Landau, founder and then editor Print Quarterly. However, three years into the magazine, aged 43, Fuller died while driving to Cambridge to see Wright in 1990. Wright bought Fullers share of the magazine and took over the editorship in the same year. In 1994, David Bowie was invited to be on the magazines board and accepted. Bowie’s work writing for the magazine was interviewing artists (other than one response to the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat and reviewing the Johannesburg Biennale). Wright was the editor until the magazine was bought in 2004 by the American company LTB Media. In 1998 Wright published The Penguin Book of Art Writing with Martin Gayford, the colouring book Colour for Kosovo in 1999. The Grove Book of Art Writing in 2002 and Colour in 2004.

In 1998 Wright edited William Boyd’s famously fake biography of artist Nat Tate (Named after the National Gallery and Tate). A joke on the art world that included Gore Vidal and David Bowie all providing endorsements and attending the launch party of the book.

She has been writing freelance for various newspapers, most lately, The Independent.

Edward Bawden Obituary

Edward Bawden – Frontispiece from ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

This is the obituary of Edward Bawden by Quentin Blake from the RSA Journal, February 1990.

Edward Bawden was born in Braintree in Essex in 1903. His father was an ironmonger, and Bawden has claimed to be, from his father’s point of view, something of a failure in that he did not follow him into that calling. He went instead to Cambridge Art School and then to the Royal College of Art. There (where he also met Eric Ravilious) he was influenced by Paul Nash, who was a visiting tutor at the time.

The Nash influence is evident in his earliest work, but Bawden very quickly found his own way of doing things, and a variety of commissions, many of them from the Curwen Press, which in those days (the late twenties and early thirties) was able to commission work much as a good design group might today. Among these projects were many small drawings for advertisements and brochures, as well as illustrations for books. Some of these were tasks that many another illustrator would have thought humble enough not to demand much attention but Bawden carried out the smallest drawing with complete professionalism and engagement. Each is beautifully and economically designed, with an unerring sense of the effect of the drawing on the page, and spiked with idiosyncratic wit and vivacity.
In 1932 Bawden married Charlotte Epton; they had two children, Joanna and Richard (himself an artist). They lived at Great Bardfield in Essex, in the house that Bawden’s father had bought for him. Bawden’s practice continued to expand. It embraced book illustration, posters, prints, watercolours, murals and wallpaper; and this despite the fact that he lacked what any young illustrator today would regard as an essential piece of equipment, a telephone. Urgent messages came, apparently, via the butcher next door.

All this was interrupted, or at least given a new direction, by the outbreak of war. Bawden was appointed an Official War Artist. He travelled in France, in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa. He seems to have relished even the vicissitudes. In 1943 the ship on which he was returning from the Middle East was torpedoed and he spent five days in an open boat. “There was quite a lot to watch’, he observed characteristically, in a recent interview for the Artist’s and Illustrator’s Magazine, ‘sharks nosing round all the time, plenty of dead bodies floating about in different positions.”

The rich store of work that he brought and sent back in these war years was perhaps less about the experience of war than about Bawden discovering new possibilities of his art in the traditional British role of the solitary traveller. ‘Ravilious and I were detached observers, watching and waiting…, he once wrote. It was this balance of detachment and enthusiasm that helped to give his work its distinctive quality; and explains his success at giving an intimate sense of England that was nonetheless free of nostalgia. Love is expressed by the quality of observation. Bawden was an observant traveller in Essex as well as among the Marsh Arabs, and saw with the same eye.

After the war he was immediately back to another forty years of work: impossible to mention it all. His unsentimental eye for the Victorian was just right for the Festival of Britain, and his huge, coloured, spirited Lion & Unicorn presided over that pavilion as it has done, subsequently, over so many degree-giving ceremonies at the RCA. Particularly significant, it seems to me, were the books that he illustrated for the Folio Society such as Gulliver’s Travels and Rasselas. Not ‘commercial’ editions nor éditions de luxe but books as they should be: balanced, intelligent, witty, well-designed. In the early eighties (and in his early eighties) the Folio Society invited Bawden to illustrate a book of his own choice. The Hound of the Baskervilles took them completely by surprise but it became, once again, an emphatic and characteristic work.

In the spring of 1989 I visited Bawden in his studio in Saffron Walden. We looked at both the wallpapers he had designed in 1928 (printing them from linocuts on the floor of his bed sitting room in Redcliffe Road) and a new linocut of a frog that he had just completed, sixty years later, to go on sale at his new exhibition at the V & A. It showed no diminution of authority in its handling. On that occasion we walked down from the Fry Art Gallery, where Bawden’s work appears among that of other Essex artists, to his home. Bawden was using a stick, and, though he didn’t much seem to need it, at one point he staggered slightly. His friend, the artist John Norris Wood, who was with us, said ‘Be careful language for use at sea. Edward. You’re falling into the gutter’. Bawden picked up the message through his deafness. ‘It’s where I belong,’ he said cheerfully. ‘It’s where I belong.”

However, he was not in the gutter, and nor, indeed, is his reputation. It is gratifying to think that he lived to see it enhanced anew, with a range of exhibitions, interviews and commentary. Yet I wonder if I am alone in thinking that we have not quite yet arrived at a full estimate of his worth. To have found a way of being modern without being ephemeral; to establish a high quality of design without foregoing idiosyncrasy; to master so many disciplines, and continue to do so over so long a period: this seems to me no small achievement.

And his working life is in itself a strengthening example to anyone involved in art and design. One is heartened, and not surprised, to learn that on the last day of that inspiring life he was at work cutting a new piece of lino, starting a new print.