One spring morning in 1963, a young theatre designer called Peter Avery set off by bus from London for the village of Great Bardfield in Essex. He had an appointment with the British artist, illustrator and designer Edward Bawden.
A few weeks earlier, Avery had written to Bawden after seeing some of his “astonishing” linocuts at the V&A. Frustrated with regional theatre, he decided to inquire if he needed an assistant. To his surprise, Bawden wrote back, inviting him to Great Bardfield. It was the first of many letters that Avery would receive from him, initially as his assistant and later as a friend.
“Edward’s letters tell you pretty well everything about the man,” says Avery, now 78, over tea at his flat in south London. “His precision and use of space. The beautiful copperplate – I remember the joy when you saw his writing on the envelope. The slightly mannered phrasing. And the punctuality with which he would reply. He always wrote by return: he was that sort of man.”
That punctilious first letter was a case in point: Bawden concluded by explaining that Brick House, his three-storey Queen Anne home, was located “between the Police Station & the Post Office”.
“It was a big, beautiful town house, at the top of the village, decorated with Edward’s handmade wallpapers,” Avery recalls. “My first impression of Great Bardfield, on that sunny day, was paradisiacal.”
By 1963, Bawden, then 60, and his gregarious wife, Charlotte, had been living at Brick House for decades. (Bawden’s father, a Methodist ironmonger, bought it for them as a wedding present, in 1932.) Bawden was firmly established as both a fine artist and designer. Before the war, he had won acclaim for his landscapes, which freshened up the fusty tradition of British watercolour painting. Reviewing his first solo exhibition of sharp-edged watercolours at London’s Zwemmer Gallery in 1933, one critic remarked on their “surprising flavour, like that of watercress”.
After the war, Bawden became known as a master printmaker, redeeming the unfashionable medium of linocut with his popular prints of architectural landmarks, including Brighton Pier and Liverpool Street Station, notable for their great scale and elegant simplicity.
During the war, he had served as a war artist in the British Army. He had been evacuated from Dunkirk, had survived a torpedo attack in the Atlantic and had extensively explored the Middle East and North Africa, where he met (and sketched) the exiled Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. “I was impressed by the nobility of his features, the dignity of his manner,” wrote Bawden to his father, “and the regal gestures which mark him as the greatest personality in the war on this front.”
Avery remembers Bawden recalling his wartime adventures and speaking with mischievous relish at mealtimes in Brick House about such delights as the smell of camel’s breath: “That was typical of Edward to say something like that just as you were biting into a casserole that Charlotte had made, fresh out of the Aga.”
Some of Bawden’s wartime portraits will go on display this month, among 170 artworks covering his 60-year career, in a revelatory retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. However, it was for his witty, lyrical output as a designer that he was – and remains – best known. While still a student at the Royal College, where he was taught by Paul Nash, he demonstrated a beautifully ordered, linear drawing style combined with a sardonic sensitivity to the absurdities of everyday life.
Throughout his career, Bawden relished working as a commercial designer. No job was too small. As well as designing tile murals for three stations on the London Underground, including one showing the head of Queen Victoria for Victoria station, he produced leaflets and Christmas cards, calendars and wallpaper, bottle labels for breweries, and menus for the Orient Line. He also designed scores of gorgeous book jackets, many of which have been collected in a new publication called Are You Sitting Comfortably?
In public, Bawden always remained modest about his artistic achievements. “It would be fatal to think of oneself as an artist,” he told the BBC, in a Monitor documentary about his work, filmed in 1963, in which Avery also appears. “Being an artist is a cockeyed thing to be. I’m simply a person who makes dirty marks on a piece of paper.”
According to Avery, Bawden wasn’t being disingenuous when he made this claim. “He was happy designing postage stamps and ceramics,” says Avery. “He loved being a designer who also painted.”
Initially, Bawden hired Avery to work on a specific commission: a set of four murals (one of which remains, the other three are lost) for the physics block at Hull University – something for which Avery’s background as a theatrical scene-painter stood him in good stead. Titled Atomic Bodies, Heavenly Bodies, Interference Patterns and Radiation, the murals were an unusual piece of work for Bawden, not least because they were predominantly abstract.
For Avery, the swoops and arcs of the Hull murals, which were meant to evoke molecular structures, represented Bawden “coming to terms with the Sixties and what was happening”. In those days, Bawden often wore a denim jacket and jeans – a habit he’d picked up in Canada while teaching for a year in 1949.
“That’s why the period when I was working with him is so interesting,” Avery says, “because the work was surprisingly radical. Here was this lovely, quiet English village in the Sixties. Elsewhere, all this amazing stuff was going on – a real explosion of film-making and painting. But Edward was always on the ball. He loved Rauschenberg’s big screen-prints, for example.”
Avery worked on the Hull murals in a large, high studio at the back of Brick House with a mezzanine at one end where Bawden would work, overlooking his beloved garden. “The garden was really important to Edward,” says Avery. “He had a man called Clapson who did all the heavy work and crude stuff like grass-cutting. Edward would go out there and be creative for an hour or two every morning. He loved decorative, big-leafed things like gunnera [giant rhubarb], which you can see in front of the Palm House at Kew.”
Bawden was besotted with Kew Gardens: in 1963, with Avery’s assistance, he created a spectacular 4ft-long colour linocut of the Great Pagoda. Avery continues: “He also loved hogweed, which would virtually kill you if you touched it.” He pauses. “I always remember Edward saying, ‘If you go to the Chelsea Flower Show, take an umbrella and some scissors – so you can snip a cutting and drop it in’.”
Days in Bawden’s studio were long, albeit with a two-hour break after lunch, and quiet: by 1963, the artist was deaf – “strategically so,” says Avery, with a smile – so there was never music playing. As a young man, Bawden was excruciatingly shy, while, in old age, he earned a reputation as a curmudgeon. Avery says he found him “very reserved. Small talk wasn’t something he would do, but I understood that – he wasn’t a talker. I got used to the silence.”
Over time, though, a friendship developed between the two men: “We got on,” says Avery, who also enjoyed a warm relationship with Charlotte, whom he describes as “the power behind the throne”: “She was a wonderful organiser. And a very good painter and potter.” Avery chuckles. “Her driving was legendary: she used to come through the village at 60 miles per hour. She was fun.”
Even though Avery was married to a costume designer called Lyn, he spent several nights a week at Brick House. Looking back, he has always wondered if Bawden took a shine to him in more than a platonic sense. “There was an edge of gayness to Edward,” says Avery, “which, coming from theatre, I was alert to.” He pauses. “Edward used to bring me a cup of tea in bed, if not every morning, then fairly regularly.”
Did he ever feel a wandering hand on his back or knee? “No, he wouldn’t do that,” says Avery. “I just had an instinct. And there is one astonishing, emotional letter, in which he does give himself away.”
He shows me a short note, dated September 29 1963, in which Bawden thanks Avery for his “guidance & vigilance” as a “collaborator”, before remarking cryptically: “I cannot guess why you should have wanted to come here, but I have a hunch that you were sent by Providence to see me through my present difficulties. That being the case you have fulfilled your mission most successfully.”
After the Hull murals were finished, Avery stayed on as an assistant for another year. Eventually, though, he left Brick House, and was hired as a designer by the Irish broadcaster RTÉ. Avery kept in touch with Bawden until his death in 1989, however, and would occasionally return to Great Bardfield to visit him before the elderly artist moved to the nearby market town of Saffron Walden (where, coincidentally, both men had attended the same Quaker boarding school), following Charlotte’s death in 1970.
Today, Avery’s front room is decorated with several prints by Bawden, including a panorama of Braintree’s cattle market, and a view of St Paul’s Cathedral inscribed: “To Peter & Lyn from the Bawdens for Christmas 1964”. Avery says they remind him of an important time in his life.
More than half a century on, is he still passionate about Bawden’s work? “Absolutely,” says Avery, who is now a theatre director. “Edward was able to condense what he saw into completely new forms: beautiful designs that still got the qualities of his subjects. His pictures are gorgeous things.”
Edward Bawden is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254), from May 23. Are You Sitting Comfortably?: The Book Jackets of Edward Bawden is published by Mainstone (£35)