This year’s summer exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is about Edward Bawden – painter, printmaker, illustrator and designer. Curated by James Russell (who was responsible for the Gallery’s excellent exhibition on Eric Ravilious in 2015) it brings together examples from across Bawden’s very diverse career and offers the chance to see some unfamiliar works.
I’m a great fan of Bawden’s illustrations and printmaking, from the delicacy of his ‘bird’s-eye views’ of London streets and gardens in the 1920s to his powerful architectural lino-cuts in the 1950s and 60s. I love the humour he injects into his work, whether it’s the joyous delineation of Brighton’s glorious Pier or the witty one-liners that became a successful series of illustrated advertisements for Shell in the 1930s. There is whimsy (Lady Filmy Fern and all those cats), but also gravitas in the strong complexities of his architectural compositions, such as Liverpool Street Station, or the London Monuments prints.
What also struck me, looking at the exhibition, was the dark undertow in some of the works. The threatening skies of some of the paintings call to mind John Piper, especially in the magnificent watercolour of the old imperial palace in Addis Ababa (painted between 1940-44 and on loan from the Imperial War Museum). This fantastic composition surveys the rooftops of the Victorian palace during a storm, relishing every detail of the balustrades and fretwork that decorate the complex of pavilions and passages. A vertiginous covered stairway links the two halves of the painting, giving a real sense of unease, but also suggesting the possibilities of spaces behind and beyond the space we see.
There is also a rich enjoyment of the darker elements of life apparent in the lino-cuts, such as the graves surrounding Lindsell Church (1963, on loan from The Higgins, Bedford), created out of exuberant patterns of lines and dots. My own favourite lino-cut, The Nag’s Head, Braintree (1954 – not in the exhibition), shows Braintree Market, with traders in the foreground selling housewares, fish and fabric, watched over by the very knowing Nag in the eponymous pub sign. With its central figure of the wide-mouthed trader selling cutlery, it has an almost Hogarthian humour.
There is an edge to Bawden’s humour, a sharpness to contrast with the delicacy and, beneath it all, a steely discipline that underlies the compositions and his approach to his formidable range of work.
The exhibition is on until September 9th and there is a comprehensive catalogue available, written by James Russell ( 978 17813 00657 – Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd £25.00)