Edward Bawden nimbly negotiated the boundary between Art and Design in a way that many of his contemporaries and predecessors would have been envious of. Not only was he a master of many different mediums and ways of working, he was also extremely open to experimentation, which in turn made his designs and commissions in every way as convincing as his actual paintings. His skill-set combined with his way of thinking meant he could effortlessly (and effectively) straddle both worlds.
Peyton Skipwith in his book ‘Design’ writes: Neither Bawden nor Ravilious compartmentalized their work. The practice of painting and printmaking proved far from unpropitious for both of them; they exploited the discipline of these crafts, which they allowed to inform their approach to other commissions, and vice-versa. As designers they were able to stand outside the art-politics, which embroiled many of their contamporaries: the clash of the Modernists versus Traditionalists; the battles of abstraction against naturalism, were of no particular concern to them.’
Now his work seems more relevant than ever. Which is probably due to the division of disciplines seeming less important somehow. Also it may be connected to the appeal of craft – something obviously worked by hand – in these digital days – Bawden’s ‘Wave’ wallpaper was originally printed on lino blocks. For us the appeal of this design in particular was that it deftly balances form and content without seeming fussy. It has a very strong (and almost abstract) graphic element running through it – the lattice structure of the waves, which is balanced by the carefree, mythical mermaids and fish who add much-needed dose of frivolity. But with them they also bring narrative and figurative elements which I think people are lusting after again. Fashion is a funny thing – it always comes full circle so you tend to end up back where you started – on the crest of a wave…
You can see more of Edward Bawden’s work at the wonderful Higgins Bedford. It is an unparalleled resource for his work. During the years 1981 to 1989, Bawden donated the contents of his studio to Cecil Higgins Art Gallery. This collection of over 3000 items covers his entire oeuvre, from his early student days at the Cambridge School of Art in 1919, to commissions from the Folio Society in the 1980s, and includes a series of linocuts based on commissioned work, and printed specifically for Cecil Higgins Art Gallery.
The association between Bawden and Cecil Higgins Art Gallery began in 1977, when he was commissioned to design a tapestry to celebrate the tercentenary of the publication of Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, and Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Soon after this, Bawden wrote to the curator :
“My own wish would be for all the jigsaw pieces of my life’s work to be together, not scattered willy-nilly to any institution… you know, I would much prefer to have my work in a good provincial gallery, than distributed amongst the great London Galleries and Museums… I must say I should feel immensely happy if I could be allowed to leave my remains to Bedford.”