Design Classics

Rating: 4

Edward Bawden

by Hugh St Clair

From the 1930s to the 1970s, the hand of painter Edward Bawden was everywhere. the prolific artist and illustrator produced wallpaper and fabric patterns, images for cigarette cards, Fortnum & Mason and Orient Line menus, and advertising posters for London Transport and Ealing Studios.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of books about Bawden's illustrations in lithograph form for Kew Gardens and London Transport, as well as his private doodles and scrapbooks. the most recent publication, Are You Sitting Comfortably (Mainstone Press), features his numerous book jacket designs.

This exhibition offers a selection of his work in these fields over his 85-year life. The curator obviously shares Bawden's view that good design has as much credibility as painting. As a student at the royal college of Art in the 1920s, Bawden wasn’t admitted to the Fine Art department but sent to design, viewed then, he said, ‘as the habitat of the lowest of the low.’

Another exhibition showing the breadth of Bawden's work is running concurrently at the fry gallery in Saffron Walden, where much of the artist’s work is held.

There were a number of excellent landscape artists in Essex in the middle of the 20th century. Bawden lived in great Badfield near his great friend Eric Ravilious, and John Nash was near Colchester. All depicted local landscapes and gardens in watercolours and their work shares some similarity.

At the Dulwich show, there are some lovely landscapes and gardens from the 1930s by Bawden, but they do not have the originality and atmosphere of Ravilious.The most interesting and original plant study, Agave, is from the 1970s, where Bawden is not obviously influenced by Ravilious and nash. Both Ravilous and Bawden were war artists, and represented in the Dulwich exhibition are Bawden's portraits of rather serious-looking police officers, coffee sellers and an Iraqi Jew he found in his travels across the Middle East and North Africa.

Also on show are his watercolours of the wartime destruction of bridges and buildings in northern Italy. Bawden cannot be described as a revealing portrait artist. Notwithstanding, Bawden's commercial work has a liveliness that is quintessentially English and shows well how he helped influence, and was influenced by, the design language and typography of each different period.

Edward Bawden is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London until 9 September: 020-8693 5254, www.dulwichpicturegallery.

Bawden at Home is at Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, Essex until 28 October: 01799-513779,