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Will Edward Bawden’s lost masterpiece ever be found?

21 April 2023

In a recent article by Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper, the search for a vanished mural by Edward Bawden was revived. Titled ‘Wanted: Edward Bawden’s vanished vision of rural life’, Bailey’s article was prompted by the Rothschild Foundation’s recent acquisition of John Piper’s The Englishman’s Home, painted for the Festival of Britain in 1951, plus a different Bawden mural – The English Pub – painted to decorate the first-class lounge of the Orient Line ship, SS Oronsay. The quest for Edward Bawden’s Country Life in Britain – which was also painted for the Festival of Britain – has cropped up at intervals in my life. Unfortunately, I fear that the quest has long gone dead.

The Englishman’s Home and Bawden’s Country Life in Britain were two of the largest murals created for the festival, which was attended by millions in the summer of 1951 and was intended by its chief architect, the Labour politician Herbert Morrison, to illustrate ‘the British contribution to civilisation, past present and future’. Piper’s mural, consisting of 42 interlocking plywood panels, is long and relatively narrow, measuring some 15.5m in length but only 4.5m in height, having been created to decorate the river frontage of the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. One the other hand, Bawden’s Country Life in Britain, painted for the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion, was considerably larger and more unwieldy, consisting of 71 panels, arranged in a concertina-shaped pattern and rising to a height of 45 feet (13.7m).

At the close of the festival both of these murals were listed by the Arts Council as of national importance and scheduled for preservation. However, the newly elected Conservative government – many of whose members regarded the festival with disdain as a celebration of socialism more appropriate to the Soviet block – was anxious to clear the South Bank site as quickly as possible. Piper’s Englishman’s Home was relatively easy to deal with and over the years it has been shown either in its entirety or in sections, most recently at the Fine Art Society in 2013, and later, back on the South Bank, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Meanwhile, in the hurried disassembly of the festival, Bawden’s Country Life in Britain was consigned to a Ministry of Works storage unit in South London, which was demolished 10 years later. Although there are some records in the National Archives that it was offered to what was then the Berkshire Institute of Agriculture, the offer was almost certainly never taken up. A 45-foot-high mural in need of a home was a white elephant, and its death warrant was almost certainly signed in another document in the archive: ‘long storage has caused deterioration.’

Edward Bawden’s watercolour maquette for Country Life in Britain (1951). Courtesy the Higgins, Bedford

Some years ago, I had the privilege of hand-carrying a meticulously crafted and detailed maquette of Country Life in Britain on Bawden’s behalf from the Fine Art Society to the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford (now renamed simply the Higgins), to add to the large gift of material he had previously given to the gallery. It was both Bawden’s belief and mine that the great work itself was destroyed when the Barry Road warehouse was demolished. However, its image lives on in this maquette, as well as the photographic records of the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion.

Peyton Skipwith is a former director of the Fine Art Society and executor of Edward Bawden’s estate.