THE GREAT BARDFIELD EXHIBITIONCategory: Architecture + Painting
Near to Thaxted the village of Great Bardfield is cradled almost midway between Bishops Stortford and Colchester. In recent years a small distinguished group of painters, lithographers, designers and one cartoonist have settled permanently in this beautiful Essex village. In July this year nine of these artists invited the public to an exhibition of work in their own homes. In the introduction to their catalogue they wrote: “The idea of a Great Bardfield exhibition originated shortly after the war when the town hall committee invited local painters to show their work. In 1951 the Essex rural community council sponsored Great Bardfield as a festival village and the artists were again asked to take part. On this occasion the work was shown in the painters’ own houses — an idea that appeared to meet with warm approval. We were encouraged to arrange a further exhibition in 1954, this time limiting the work to professionals.”
They point out that “the various personalities are too obviously different to suggest a common viewpoint, and beyond an active liking for Bardfield no body of shared convictions is in question.”
This statement is signed by Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman, David Low, Walter Hoyle, Clifford Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Marianne Straub, the order of precedence signifying the lenth of time each artist has lived in the village.
The artists who live in High Street accommodated the work of their colleagues who live farther afield, thus George Chapman showed his paintings and etchings of Welsh mining district in the front room of Michael Rothenstein’s cottage, and Walter Hoyle showed in Edward Bawden’s house.
It is difficult to write a straightforward critical review, because one tends to think in terms of how one wandered from house to house, from artist to artist. How nearly each artist and craftsman was engaged not only with painting pictures but. with problems of reproductive techniques for low cost prefabricated mural paintings, wallpaper designs, or the decoration of domestic utensils, or posters. The main purpose also varied widely — from the landscape paintings of John Aldridge to the brilliant theatre designs produced by Audrey Cruddas, from Marianne Straub’s strongly textured curtain material designed for mechanical production to Michael Rothenstein’s inventively patterned colour prints; then there were the satirical drawings of David Low.
In retrospect a certain pattern emerges which in workday reality contradicts the statement made in their catalogue. Whatever their convictions, these artists, unconsciously perhaps, are bound together by more than a fellowship of community coincidentally arrived at, for in fact all these artists are interested in putting some part of their abilities and talents to the service of the community. Edward Bawden, the first settler, for example, is not only a trustee of the Tate Gallery and an R. S. A. but has received from the Royal Society of Arts the distinction, Royal Designer for Industry. As is widely known he has greatly influenced the trend of design in this country. Apart from his impressive achievement as a watercolour painter the vistior to Bardfield was treated to a glimpse of his varied talents as a designer of wallpapers, carpets, domestic pottery and even beer bottle labels. Mr Bawden has also painted mural decoration including one of the Lion and Unicorn pavilion on the South Bank site of the Festival of Britain, and others in Orient ships. He has produced linocuts, engravings and illustrated books including “London is London”, and “Life in an English Village”. He is now working upon an illustrated edition of Herodotus for the Limited Editions Club of New York.
Walter Hoyle whose slightly mannered gouache paintings were exhibited in Edward Bawden’s house appears to have been strongly influenced by his host. Other work produced by this artist includes permanent mural paintings for the British Museum and the Faraday Building (the main London Telephone Exchange). He has also designed industrial and trade mural paintings including those for the British Industrial Art Exhibition in Zurich.
Michael Rothenstein says that in the last few years he has been occupied increasingly with colour prints. He has built what he calls a workshop as an extension to his cottage to print editions from both blocks and plates. He has recently developed a method of using prints for mural decoration, and a scheme is now being carried out at Bendley Secondary Modern School using a series of prints on a standard grid for an area some sixty feet long. This method which is a cross between a mural decoration and a wall paper consist of a series of ornamental designs. It is built up of decorative units 20 by 30 inches and printed on thick paper. The units are designed to be used in a number of combinations. They are quickly assembled, fixed on the wall with a plastic adhesive and then faced with a transparent medium.
He says about the content of his pictures: “I was brought up in a remote Gloucestershire farmhouse. Here the sweeping valleys of Cotswold landscapes, punctuated by sharp edges and ridges gave me a taste for forms at once sinuous and emphatic. At an early age a particular experience of seeing the sun caught in the branches of an isolated tree gave powerful impetus to an awareness of imagery which has since persisted. .Ever since the attempt has been made to join emphatic structural forms with imagery.”
The work of George Chapman, though lacking in colour, managed to convey the particular drabness and starkness of the Welsh mining areas. In his oil paintings one wished for a more painterly approach. His well designed and drawn shapes were filled in with tones from an underladen brush, altogether too monotonous in handling. His etchings of similar subjects were of greater interest, these prints were very rich and beautiful. Not only has this artist discovered the quality of the etched plate, but he has discovered and perfected a method of etching on a very large scale.
Like Edward Bawden and Walter Hoyle, Mr Chapman has produced posters, the most recent of which readers will have seen on the hoardings of the London Passenger Transport Board.
John Aldridge’s landscape painting filled most of his wall space. More painterly and less concerned with self-conscious design than most of his colleagues, he is at best a painter of solid achievement, yet one felt that of all of them his vision has become a little stale.
Reality in art arises from out of the awareness of the artist for life, for which no amount of academic objectivism can substitute. Mr Aldridge loves paint and he loves the countryside, but his pictures lacking content tend to become “views”. With Edward Bawden he has designed some elegant wallpapers, but unlike the other artists of the village, clearly says that he is disinterested in “commercial work”. ,
“I have always been chiefly interested in oil painting, my other main activity being the cultivation of my garden.”
Easel pictures, to the writer, are important: painting expresses sensation and ideas, meeting an ever-expanding need in the community,[enriching everyday life with constantly fresh individual visions which focus and express the semi-articulate feeling of the community. Painting pictures is no less“‘important than work created for new social demands (or works created within a technique allowing for wider circulation). The trouble is that Mr Aldridge’s paintings say too little not in the sense of subject-matter, but they are too matter- of-fact.
Matter-of-factness, usefulness, craft, can be found at Marianne Straub’s..Miss Straub’s fabrics are designed wherever possible directly on the hand-loom, though this is always used with the machine process in mind.
Marianne Straub was trained at the hand-weaving department of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, but she felt that to remain a hand-weaver was inadequate when the technique of mass production was so advanced. As no Swiss textile college would admit a woman she came to England in 1932 and entered the Technical college at Bradford. From 1934 onwards she worked in the woolen mills of Wales, designing tweeds, coloured blankets1 and upholstery fabrics.
Miss Straub also works with architects on individual schemes and her fabrics have been on Gunard liners and the ships of other companies.
Of the artists mentioned earlier Miss Cruddas has worked for Michael Benthall and has designed costume and decor for the Shakespeare Memorial theatre, for Covent Garden and for the Old Vic theatre. Her Caesar and Cleopatra, taken to America by Sir Laurence Olivier, received the American Donaldsen Award for the best costume design for the season 1951—52.
This artist is capable of the most powerful dramatic imagery and of sharp characterisation expressed through a realist style. This is an important contribution to the theatre which today sometimes attempts to shock through abstract, naturalistic or symbolic generalisations.
The exhibition was organized with efficiency, and the public were met at Bishops Stortford station to be transported by bus to Bardfield. On a fine summer day there could not have been a more delightful way for anyone to spend an afternoon.
Normally this quiet village in the gentle Essex countryside would seem to the innocent traveller just another isolated rural community. How little reality reveals itself on the surface of things.
(The Great Bardfield Exhibition by Gerald Marks, Realism, August — September 1955)