‘Lost’ Edward Bawden set for London sale

A rare watercolour by Edward Bawden, lost since the 1940s, has come to light at Olympia Auctions, London, where it will be included in a sale of Fine Paintings, Works on Paper and Sculpture on June 12.

The painting entitled The universe is infinitely wide is estimated to fetch £5,000-7,000.

'The universe is infinitely wide' by Edward Bawden

Edward Bawden (1903-89) is widely admired today as an illustrator and printmaker, but until recently, his role in the 1930s as a critically-acclaimed modern painter, has been largely overlooked. 

Tim Mainstone of Mainstone Press and Bawden expert James Russell set out on a quest to track down Bawden’s pre-war watercolours. It took them three years. They documented all those they found in public and private collections in a magnificent book but six watercolours proved elusive. However, a few days ago Tim Mainstone spotted one of them illustrating the cover of the forthcoming Olympia Auctions’ sale. Excited to share his discovery, he posted on Instagram:

In 2016 we published “The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden”, a book that documented a quest undertaken by Tim Mainstone and @jamesrussell66 to locate EB’s “missing” 1930s watercolours. Many were exhibited in 1933 at the Zwemmer Gallery in London and later at the Leicester Galleries in 1938. Both shows were commercially successful. Almost all the paintings were sold to private collectors and had not been seen since…One 1932 watercolour shown at Zwemmer’s had the intriguing title, “The universe is infinitely wide.” It was purchased by Montague Shearman, a fascinating character, friend of the Bloomsbury set and a major art collector. Shearman died in 1940 and despite our best efforts we could not locate his Bawden painting. What we did find however, in a small, little-known London archive, was a black-and-white photograph of the watercolour. Ever since I’ve wondered whether it would pitch up and have always wanted to know what it would look like in colour… Well, I’m delighted to announce that it has just come to light and will be sold @olympiaauctions in June. I can’t wait to go and have a proper look and see what it makes on the day…”

When Montague Shearman died in 1940, the Redfern Gallery London held a posthumous exhibition of his collection and sometime around then this picture was acquired by Sir Duncan Oppenheim who went on to become Chairman of British American Tobacco and Chairman of the Council at the Royal College of Art as well as being a painter himself. 

It is being sold by the family of Duncan Oppenheim who remarked: “Our father loved this watercolour and it hung on the landing in his London house in Edwardes Square W8 until his death in 2003. We had no idea it was being so keenly looked for by Tim Mainstone and James Russell but are pleased that in bringing it to Olympia Auctions for sale, they and many others now know more of its history and will have a chance to see it in all its glorious colour.”

At the time Bawden executed this watercolour, he was in his 30s, living and working in the rural idyll of Great Bardfield, Essex which he found to be a welcome escape from the bustle of London. He initially took rooms in Brick House with his friend and fellow artist Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). After marrying Charlotte, his father purchased the house for the newly-weds and it became their permanent home.

'Brick House' by Edward Bawden

Bawden’s 1933 exhibition was reported in glowing terms in The Times while the reviewer in The Week-End Review said of the present work ‘Mr Bawden has also a delightful sense of humour, which, in a painting like The World is Infinitely Wide, goes deeper than many men’s solemnity (The Week-End Review, October 21, 1933).  It was Gwyneth Lloyd Thomas, a close friend of Charlotte Bawden and academic at Girton College, Cambridge who selected the literary titles for each work before they were exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery. The gallery cut out the line titles from their catalogue and pasted them to the backboard as can be seen on the reverse of the present work. The title is the sixth line of Sonnet XIV by William Wordsworth composed in 1833, one hundred years before the work was exhibited:

Desire we past illusions to recall?
To reinstate wild Fancy, would we hide
Truths whose thick veil Science has drawn aside?
No, – let this Age, high as she may, install
In her esteem the thirst that wrought man’s fall,
The universe is infinitely wide