Here is a fascinating selection from five fat scrapbooks assembled by the painter, illustrator and designer Edward Bawden (1903-89) over the course of a lifetime from all sorts of printed, drawn and painted materials that caught his fancy—everything from stamps and cigarette cards to letters and newspaper cuttings, photographs, ceramic designs and crests on envelopes.
These raw materials were stuck down without any clear sense of relative value, often obscuring each other in a melange that was neither chronological nor thematic, but almost wilfully haphazard. This visual treasury is, in fact, a multifarious expression of Bawden’s sense of humour and love of peculiar detail. When I interviewed him in 1988 he admitted: “I’m not a genial sort of chap. I’m sardonic. I rather like what’s grim. If you got run over outside by a great lorry, I’d rush out to see what it was like and get there before the firemen. I’d like to see whether you’d be as flat as a pancake or not.”
He relished the absurd. Each scrapbook page is an intriguing collage of images, some of which strike resonances from each other, while some seem utterly unrelated except through a sense of surrealist juxtaposition. Wallpaper designs meet decorative borders, letterheads and samples of calligraphy, costume and scene studies, Christmas cards and a laundry list.
The book has been expertly produced by the writer/designer partnership of Peyton Skipwith and Brian Webb, who already have a notable back-catalogue of books on 20th-century artists. Skipwith, a Bawden expert, contributes a reminiscent introduction to this book, which has been in the making since 1989 when he first raised the idea of publishing some of Bawden’s scrapbook material. The artist approved, even though in later years he was quite prepared to mine this quarry for inspiration and chopped out whole or part-images to reuse. Perhaps this feast of memorabilia is the nearest thing we have to a Bawden autobiography: it certainly offers a wonderfully unprecious glimpse of one of the most popular figures of Modern British art.
Andrew Lambirth was the art critic of the Spectator from 2002 to 2014. His most recent book is a monograph on William Gear (Sansom & Co)
Edward Bawden Scrapbooks
Peyton Skipwith and Brian Webb, eds
Lund Humphries in association with Fry Art Gallery, 208pp, £40 (hb)