Michael Rothenstein RA (1908-1993) and Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903-1989)

We are delighted to be able to offer works by Michael Rothenstein and Edward Bawden, both eminent British artists from the middle of the 20th Century.   They are justly recognised for the groundbreaking work they produced, before, during and in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, in the world of print-making and for the huge contribution they both made to the changing face of British art.

Edward Bawden is now recognised as one of the major 20th Century printmakers, designers and watercolourists. There are two current major exhibitions of his work in England – The Dulwich Picture Gallery (www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk) and the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden (www.fryartgallery.org).  He trained at the Royal College of Art in 1922 at the same time as Eric Ravilious, who became a lifelong friend and colleague.  They both studied under the renowned 1st World War artist Paul Nash, who referred to that year’s intake as an ‘outbreak of talent’.  William Rothenstein, father of Michael Rothenstein, was Principal of the RCA during this golden period of the early 1920s and was responsible for important innovations to the curriculum of the college.  He included both artists and craftsmen and it was he who appointed Paul Nash to join the staff of the Design School in 1924 and who went on to have such an immense influence on many of the students, including Bawden.

Edward Bawden Working in his Studio, by Eric Ravillious (from the collection of the Royal College of Art)

Michael Rothenstein was born into the very illustrious artistic world of his father William, and from an early age was transfixed by the richness of colour and texture in the world around him.  He studied art at the Central School of Art, but his career was dogged by a long illness during his 20s.  At the age of 40 however, Rothenstein’s work underwent a rebirth with the shift from painting to print-making.

Bawden and Rothenstein became increasingly interested and extremely skilful in lino-cutting and print making, as well as producing etchings. Such was their enthusiasm for the new medium, they invented more and more curious ways of achieving novel effects, even employing a car to run over prints to achieve a different texture.  Thus Rothenstein became one of the most influential and experimental printmakers in the post war period, with 43 of his works being held by the Tate Gallery alone.

Michael Rothenstein RAMichael Rothenstein, Sunrise at 36,000 feet, signed in pencil, inscribed Curwen Studio 2 of 2, screen print in 7 colours, 47 x 70 cm, £1,500

Sunrise at 36,000 ft (1973) is a screen print in 7 colours.   A version of this is held in the Tate Collection as part of the Penwith Portfolio. The Penwith Portfolio is made up of an illustrious line-up of contemporary artists including Dame Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and John Piper, to name but a few.

In the 1940’s Rothenstein joined the small artistic community, which included Edward Bawden, Eric Ravillious and John Nash in the Essex village of Great Bardfield, which became one of the most artistically creative places in the country.  They put on the Great Bardfield Artists exhibitions in the 1950s, largely organised by Rothenstein who had very influential contacts in the art world and his brother, Sir John Rothenstein, who was head of the Tate Gallery at that time.  The Great Bardfield exhibitions gained national renown, with as many as 10,000 visitors in one year, to the great surprise of the artists in question

Both artists became part of the Pilgrim Trust Project of recording Britain, to portray buildings that might be damaged or demolished by ‘occurrences of the War’.   Rothenstein’s contribution to the War Artist’s Committee was to make drawings of railways and sidings for the Ministry of Transport.

Meanwhile, Bawden was sent to North Africa and the Middle East, and later Italy, Greece and Austria.   He was unlucky enough to be on RMS Laconia which was torpedoed and sunk on route from Durban to England, spending 5 days in a life raft, before being picked up and held captive in a Vichy internment camp in Casablanca.

Bawden loved a good story, stating, ‘Reading is my hobby and I love books with good illustrations”.    He did 9 linocut illustrations for the Aesop’s Fables(1970), and he was at his most inventive with the way he could make lions, eagles foxes, peacocks etc as expressive as humans.  Here his skill with the linocut is unsurpassed.  Douglas Bliss (Director of Glasgow School of Art) referred to him as ‘The Master of the Linocut’.  Rothenstein considered that Bawden was not concerned with the great issue of modernism, surrealism, abstraction. However, he was extremely skilled at design and was “possessed of an enormous decorative gift and a linear gift and an ability to see the pattern in things”.

The Tate Gallery holds 23 works by Edward Bawden, largely consisting of his work as a war artist, and from the Recording Britian project.

Edward Bawden, Peacock & Magpie, Aesop’s Fables, coloured linocut, signed, numbered, titled and dated 1970, 41 x 57 cm, £3,500

A version of this is included in the current Fry Art Gallery exhibition.

Edward Bawden, Nekayah, the Prince and Imlac in Cairo, lithograph in 4 colours, edition of 200, Curwen Press, signed, 30 x 21 cm, £1,100

From the History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson, 1975 commissioned by the Folio Society.

Around 1954, Bawden encouraged Rothenstein to experiment with linocuts when the latter was experiencing frustration at not being able to find any decent printers in London.  Bawden said, ‘Have a go at lino.  All you need is a pen-knife and a square of linoleum,”.  Rothenstein found that producing a line channelled through a resistant material had a strange physicality and a sculptural quality.

“With lino, I had wonderful freedom”.

Rothenstein would attach surfaces he found exciting to the lino, building it up in various ways.  With this new freedom, he became more and more engaged with the idea of abstraction, utilising the powerful element of nature combined with colour to find shape, form and texture.  The surface of sections through timber became ‘absolutely obsessional’ and he would collect wood from every source. He found that ‘within the wood he found the landscape’.  Rothenstein left no stone unturned to achieve new and interesting textures.

Walking in the street, if one found all sorts of metal, …old newspapers, stamped on, pressed into the pavement, all these could render what I call a trace of reality….

It was new country for me and I think it was new country in print-making.  It was immensely exciting.  I felt, ‘I’m moving along a frontier, and this must be explored.  Taken to the end”. 

He found it essential to use found material, a wonderful cut through a tree for instance.  He found a ‘pleasurable reverence in co-operating with an object that was in fact torn from the very heart of nature’.  He was committed to interacting with the world around him, and making it part of his work.

Michael Rothenstein, Romantic Sunset Colour screenprint on handmade paper Artist’s proof Signed in pencil 51 x 33.5 cm, £950

Romantic Sunset illustrates the combination of the screenprint with the more abstract impression of the wood grain.  Traditionally print-making had been played on a single instrument and Rothenstein felt strongly that the instrument needn’t always be played alone, but by using several techniques, he could create a different sort of concord or feel.

Rothenstein acknowledged that print-making has been generally regarded as a secondary activity, a sort of spin-off of other more important and central artistic activities.

Many people think of repetition, of the edition as being an important aspect of print-making and, of course, it’s the least important aspect.  The only thing that’s interesting and important about prints is when a good image and exciting image appears”.  Edward Bawden was an artist working in media such as lino, which was not considered artistic, who was interested in tehnology, industry, hobbies, urban and rural life and who was endlessly pragmatic and adaptable.

Both men lived, worked and reacted to the changing world around them and that has been the essence of their success.