Off to war, armed with his paintbrush

Edward Bawden was evacuated from Dunkirk, walked 300 miles with a regiment trying to free Ethiopia, and spent five days adrift in an open boat after his ship was torpedoed.

Steven Russell

Edward Bawden was evacuated from Dunkirk, walked 300 miles with a regiment trying to free Ethiopia, and spent five days adrift in an open boat after his ship was torpedoed. And he wasn't even a soldier. Steven Russell learns about the Essex artist who went to war armed with brush and pencil

DURING the Gulf conflicts we heard a lot about journalists being “embedded” with British and American forces: hangers-on trying to peer through the fog of war so the viewers and readers at home could understand what was being done in their name.

It's not a new concept. During the Second World War Britain sent out a batch of officially-approved artists to record the sights and scenes and flavours of foreign lands. There was a definite propaganda motive, with their works earmarked for exhibitions back home that would raise morale and create a positive image of Britain.

The artists weren't embedded as such, being attached by the quaintly-named War Artists Advisory Committee to the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the War Office. Oddly enough, they did earn commissioned officer status, but did not fall under military discipline.

Essex-born Edward Bawden was one of the first five full-time appointments (along with the author and illustrator Edward Ardizzone, who spent much of his childhood in Suffolk).

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The essence of the years between 1940 and 1944, during which Bawden made two tours of duty in the Middle East, is captured in a new book containing 45 of his watercolours - many published for the first time.

Nigel Weaver, who has written much of the commentary, suggests that wartime was in many ways the making of Bawden as an artist, who was in his mid 30s when conflict erupted and who had a growing reputation. He was known, for instance, for his humorous advertisements for Shell and London Transport.

“For five years he was prevented from continuing to work as a printmaker, designer and book illustrator. Instead, he was employed to portray the war; his tools were pencil and watercolours. His subjects were mostly people - the local inhabitants in the main. Sheikhs, troops, an emperor, and children all found their way into his pictures; and so it was that Bawden was to develop his ability in portraiture.”

Travelling extensively throughout Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia he developed new techniques, perfected his eye, relaxed his approach and produced some of his most memorable watercolours. These gave him a new standing among contemporary artists.

“In short,” says Nigel Weaver, “it was specifically Bawden's Middle East years that developed his more powerful and imaginative work.”

He also points out how this quintessential Englishman, a man he knew well, instinctively took to that part of the world, especially Iraq. “I like the country and I like the people. I like shabby, drab old Baghdad, the mud walls and flimsy balconies . . .” the artist wrote. He was particularly keen to spend time with the people, who seemed to live in such markedly different times, and eagerly recorded the indigenous Marsh Arabs' way of life.

Poignantly, the paintings depict a Middle East that no longer exists. Within 15 years of Bawden's departure in 1944, Iraq's monarchy had been swept away and the country's transformation into a radicalised Arab state had begun.

Nigel, chairman of the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden since it began in 1985, says the book is prompted by the ongoing topicality of the Middle East.

“Since the end of the Second World War, the politics of the Middle East have seldom been out of the news: revolutions, conflicts, countries changing their administrations and even their names, the growing importance of oil in the global marketplace and, in the 21st Century, the decision to declare war on Iraq. The complicated nature of this war and its aftermath has proved difficult and has served as a stimulus to re-visit the countries that Bawden found so fascinating.”

The artist was, he suggests, “a polymath” skilled at printmaking, watercolour, illustration, mural decoration and design - and encompassing areas such as advertising, textiles, book jackets, ceramics, furniture, shop catalogues and so on.

Bawden was already accepting commissions from Curwen Press and London Transport while still a student at the Royal College of Art in London. His first major success came in 1928, when he and friend Eric Ravilious won a joint commission to create a mural in the refectory of Morley Working Men's College in Lambeth. It was unveiled by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Until the war, Bawden “remained on a plateau of success”. He earned a good living, developed poster designs for London Transport, worked on book illustration, dreamed up adverts for institutions such as Westminster Bank, and created wallpaper designs.

Then, in the spring of 1940, he was sent to France, only to be caught up in the evacuation of Dunkirk two months later, explains Nigel. By midsummer, commissioned with the rank of captain, he was posted to the Middle East by the War Artists Advisory Committee: first to Cairo and then following the allied campaign to combat Italian forces, who had united with the Nazis. Khartoum, Abyssinia, Tobruk and Libya followed, before he went back to Cairo early in 1942.

That summer he travelled the swamps of the Euphrates by boat, exploring the land of the Marsh Arabs. Bawden wrote to the committee that no-one “as far as I know (has) attempted to penetrate this wild region with a paintbrush”.

In September he was recalled and boarded the SS Laconia at Cape Town. There were 2,732 people on board, including 800 Italian prisoners of war. The ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat near the Equator. The Laconia sank and more than half the passengers died. Survivors - the artist among them - spent six days in an open boat before being rescued.

Bawden spent some time in a military hospital at Colchester and the following autumn returned to Egypt and on to Baghdad. He went to the Munafiq province to visit the Marsh Arabs (later to be persecuted by Saddam Hussein, points out Nigel Weaver). In the summer of 1944 the artist travelled to Persia (now Iran), an important route for badly-needed supplies to Russia, which had entered the war in 1941 on the side of the allies. Spells followed in Italy and Greece.

He was later awarded the CBE for his services as a war artist.

Critic and writer JM Richards said that while Bawden had a considerable reputation before the war, his work in the Middle East “gave him an entirely new standing among contemporary artists . . . he rose powerfully to the translation from rural Essex to the raw strangeness of the Middle East, endowing all things with a touch of poetry and peculiarity”.

Or, as Bawden himself put it: “I really learned to draw.”

During his time away, the artist also wrote two articles for The Geographical Magazine: on the Marsh Arabs, and about Saudi Arabia, which he visited with members of a British anti-locust mission. They were published in 1945 and are featured in the new book.

Bawden wrote well, says Nigel Weaver - bringing “the acute eyes of a designer to the task of description”. His slightly detached view of life, caused by his shyness, often left him an observer rather than a participant, but it was an effective gift for a wordsmith.

Bawden wrote about how he was impressed by the Marsh Arabs - “by their good manners and simple dignity, above all by an amazing sensitiveness to friendship which seemed to draw no intolerant line between differences of colour, race or religion, but, as with conversation, tried to ignore the existence of a barrier”.

He didn't feel the same way about many of his countrymen.

Nigel explains how Bawden described some fellow officers as “almost insupportable in their narrowness and lack of any conversation”. His letters home, now in the Imperial War Museum, show he found the native inhabitants more to his liking “than the Brits playing at being British whilst surrounded by sand, locust and stifling heat”. The artist was clearly happier in his work than shooting the breeze in the officers' mess.

Bawden seemed “impressively able to cope with the physical vicissitudes of life in the desert, in an open boat, or in a prison camp, and with three bouts of malaria, but close relationships with people he did not find very congenial were a greater trial”. Shy, solitary and industrious, he disliked any “hale and hearty” extroverts with whom he came into contact.

The artist went back to Great Bardfield, near Braintree, when he was demobbed. Subsequent work included book illustrations, a major mural in the 1951 Festival of Britain, film posters, catalogues for Fortnum and Mason, mural commissions for ships, boardrooms, colleges, churches and others, and teaching.

The period from 1945 to 1970 was the heyday of The Great Bardfield Artists - a community of artistic folk who settled and worked in the village and, to a large extent, clustered around Bawden.

Their large open-house exhibitions attracted national, and international, media interest. These reviews, and the novelty of looking at pieces of work in the artists' own homes, brought thousands of visitors to Great Bardfield in the 1950s.

In the 1970s, however, Bawden's work began to fall from favour, says Nigel Weaver. The nature of society had shifted, as had art. Abstract expressionism had led to pop art, then minimalism and conceptualism. Bawden, however, maintained “a steadfast continuation of the solid, English pastoral tradition, excelling in the countryside, in the architectural legacy of England, of the Greek classics and of well-executed craftsmanship and design”.

Though the artist was “unwavering in his commitment, and his eye remained steady, the rest of the world moved on”. In the 1930s he'd illustrated in whole or in part 20 books, for instance; in the 1970s, only three.

After wife Charlotte died in 1970 he moved to a small house in the centre of Saffron Walden “and, at the age of 67, rebuilt his life”. He had exhibitions in London and made a living, also teaching part-time, though these were “down years”, admits Nigel.

Another writer, Dr Malcolm Yorke, says that as a widower Bawden “became known as the curmudgeonly sage of Saffron Walden, living with his cat Emma Nelson and painting some of the finest watercolours of his long and distinguished career”.

Later, with Bawden well into his 80s, the Kent Institute of Art and Design at Canterbury had the idea of an exhibition. In 1988 it also toured three other provincial venues before proving the core for a major retrospective in London in the autumn of 1989.

“The London exhibition received enthusiastic reviews in the national newspapers, and so in his 86th year Bawden was accorded a final high point,” says Nigel Weaver.

“Sadly, he was too enfeebled by a series of mini-strokes to attend the Victoria and Albert exhibition, but weeks before his death in November the same year he was uncharacteristically 'boasting' to his friends as he sat in hospital, surrounded by rave reviews, bouquets and awestruck nurses, 'I'm famous, I'm famous'.”

Edward Bawden in the Middle East is published by Suffolk-based Antique Collectors' Club at £25. ISBN 981851495658.

Bawden basics

Born 1903 in Braintree

His father was an ironmonger, his mother the daughter of a Suffolk gamekeeper

Married Charlotte Epton, a potter and painter

They settled at Brick House in Great Bardfield

Two children were born in the mid-1930s

Last autumn the Antique Collectors' Club published a biography by Malcolm Yorke called Edward Bawden and His Circle (£35; ISBN 9781851495429)

The artist died late in 1989, aged 86