A prolific printmaker, graphic designer, illustrator and painter Bawden was born in Braintree, Essex in 1903. His early education took place at the local high school then at the Friends’ School in Saffron Walden. An only child, Bawden spent much of his time drawing and from the age of fifteen he attended the Cambridge School of Art, where he became interested in calligraphy, and in the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Richard Doyle and William Morris. Four years later he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (1922-26) where he took a diploma in book illustration. Taught by Paul Nash, his fellow students and future RDIs included Enid Marx, Alistair Morton and Barnett Freedman. He was also instrumental, at this time, in regenerating the student magazine, Gallimaufry. With his closest student friend, Eric Ravilious, Bawden was commissioned to paint a series of pictures for the refectory at Morley College for Working Men and Women. Originally Bawden had painted scenes from Shakespeare’s plays but bombing during the Second World War destroyed these murals and he replaced them with a series of paintings based on The Canterbury Tales for the rebuilt refectory.
Between 1930 and 1940 Bawden returned to the Royal College of Art to teach graphic design, and again between 1948 and 1953 under Robin Darwin. He also taught design and book illustration at Goldsmiths College of Art in the 1920s. At the age of 65 he became a tutor at the Royal Academy Schools and Senior Lecturer at Leicester College of Art and Design. Bawden was appointed an Honorary Associate of Manchester College of Art (1962) and Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art (1963) and he received Honorary Doctorates from the RCA and from Essex University. The Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers appointed him Honorary Fellow in 1979. In 1951 Bawden provided the Circulation Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum with a series of blocks for his print ‘Autumn’ to be sent on loan to UK art schools in order to inspire students by demonstrating the process used to make a linocut print.
From 1924 until 1986 Bawden undertook a variety of projects for the Curwen Press. He designed wallpapers, illustrations, posters, advertisements and tiles for Poole Pottery. From the 1950s until his death he produced drawings for many of the books published by The Folio Society. His illustrations can also be found in works published by Penguin, Faber & Faber, the Kynock Press, the Nonesuch Press and the Limited Editions Club of New York. His fine linocut prints include the highly original Liverpool Street station and Brighton Pier and several film posters for Ealing Studios. Bawden also produced designs for the catalogues issued by Fortnum and Mason from the 1930s to 1959 as well a lithographic transfer printed pattern called ‘Heartsease’ for porcelain made by Wedgwood for the Orient Line in 1952.
In 1932 Bawden moved to Great Bardfield, Essex, where he painted the local landscapes that featured in his first one-man show at the Zwemmer Gallery, London in 1933 and became an important member of the Great Bardfield Artists community. An Associate of the Royal Academy (1947) before his appointment as a full Academician in 1956, Bawden was a regular exhibitor at the RA’s Summer Exhibitions (1948-86).
An official war artist, Bawden went to France and drew scenes of the evacuation from Dunkirk, then to the Middle East, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Libya. Returning from Africa his ship was torpedoed and he spent five days in an open boat before being rescued. Much of his output as a war artist is in the Imperial War Museum and in 1946 he was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire.)
Appointed Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1949 for his work as a graphic designer, Bawden went on to design the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) 1961 Christmas card on the theme of the International Exhibition of 1862. His designs were on display at the British Art in Industry exhibition (1935), in the British Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (1937) as well as Britain Can Make It in 1946. Bawden produced a large mural on the theme of ‘English Country Life’ for the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain (1951).
After working with the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in 1977 on a tapestry design, to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Bawden wrote to the curator to say that his wish would be, 'for all the jigsaw pieces of my life’s work to be together, not scattered willy-nilly to any institution', and he offered them the contents of his studio. His offer was accepted and between 1981 and 1989 the museum received 3,000 items representing his entire oeuvre over sixty years of activity.
Bawden never stopped. On the morning of 21 November 1989 he had been working on a linocut, and died later that day.
Bawden is featured in the Britain Can Make it Exhibition catalogue as follows:
Photograph courtesy of Peyton Skipwith/Brian Webb