History On Our Doorstep | The Great Bardfield School

History On Our Doorstep | The Great Bardfield School

At Sworders we have particularly close ties with East Anglia and, in particular, Great Bardfield, which is less than 15 miles from our salerooms in Stansted Mountfitchet. As keen supporters of the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, which has an emphasis on the artists' community which settled in Great Bardfield, Sworders have led the way with the Great Bardfield school alumni achieving several world record prices.

7 February 2023

The Great Bardfield School has its artistic origins dating back to around 1925, when friends Edward Bawden CBE RA (1903-1989) and Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) discovered the sleepy village while cycling. In 1925, the pair took lodgings in this newfound haven from an eccentric widow, named Mrs Kinnear in the now famed ‘Brick House’. In 1932, Bawden married fellow alum of the Royal College of Art, Charlotte Epton (1902-1970), a potter and as a wedding gift, Bawden’s father purchased the house for the newlyweds. Together with Charles Mahoney RA (1903-1968), who was then also a regular visitor, Bawden then took to revamping the garden of Brick House, which had previously been a coffin-makers’ workshop and a saddler’s property and suffered from many years of neglect. Soon Brick House became known for its gardens, which attracted the attention of his neighbour and fellow artist, John Aldridge RA (1905-1983) – perhaps Great Bardfield’s most well-known artist – who became Bawden’s closest gardening companion who moved there himself in 1933. Next came John Nash CBE RA (1893-1977) in the nearby town of Wormingford who by the 1950s led the way in illustrating the botanicals that the School came to be known for.

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) 'THE JAMES' AND 'THE FOREMOST PRINCE'

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), 'THE JAMES' AND 'THE FOREMOST PRINCE', Signed and dated 'August 1934' l.r., watercolour, 50 x 58cm, Sold for £110,500

In the late 1930s, Brick House became the local headquarters for the Labour Party, and just prior to the Second World War, it housed two exiled Republican Officers from the Spanish Civil War, and two Jewish refugees from Germany. The Spaniards earned their keep by cutting hair and sang Flamenco songs for all that would listen.

During the Second World War, many of the artists who lived and worked in the Great Bardfield area were employed in war work, ranging from painting murals to inspire morale, to intelligence services, and the more expected position as Official War Artists.


Edward Bawden RA (1903-1989), Ives Farm, Great Bardfield, 1957

Edward Bawden RA (1903-1989), Ives Farm, Great Bardfield, 1957, linocut in colours, artist's proof, signed, inscribed, dated and numbered 32/35 in pencil, image 40.5 x 61cm, Sold for £4,160

Soon after the outbreak of war, Bawden would leave Great Bardfield for an extended period for the first time in almost a decade, having been appointed by Kenneth Clark to the War Artists Advisory Committee. With Bawden on service duty and his wife and children taking refuge in Cheltenham, Great Bardfield took a slightly different feel to its pre-war environment. During the war, Ravilious was appointed an Official War Artist was presumed dead when his aircraft failed to return from an attempted search and rescue mission in Iceland in 1942. Nash too was appointed in the same capacity, and it was during this period that he created some of his most recognisable works.

Brick House was also damaged by bombings during the War, with some of the earliest post-war work by Aldridge depicting workmen fixing damage to the rear of the house. His work had changed while working as an Official War Artist, become more linear in style.

Edward Bawden RA (1903-1989) 'The Rookery'

Edward Bawden RA (1903-1989), 'The Rookery', signed and dated 'Edward Bawden/1954' l.r., gouache, watercolour, ink, pencil and coloured pencil, 56.5 x 45cm, Sold for £14,300

In 1941 Michael Rothenstein RA (1908-1993), who was too sickly for war service, moved to Great Bardfield with his wife painter Duffy Ayres née Betty FitzGerald (1915-2017) and rented Chapel Cottage from Aldridge. It was perhaps his influence that led the School in the post-war period to put increasing emphasis on printmaking. Rothenstein was an avid printmaker, writing two books on printmaking in 1947 and 1966. By the mid-1950s he had almost abandoned any artistic form other than printmaking – linocuts being a favourite.

The 1950s also marked new-found interest in the area and the artists working with the greater area, with a series of open-house exhibitions being held by many of these artists in 1954, 1955, and 1958 largely organised by Rothenstein. The novelty of being able to view modernist artworks in the homes of their creators (along with Rothenstein’s ability to promote the exhibitions through his brother, Sir John Rothenstein, the then director of the Tate Gallery), drew thousands to the area during the summer months, dramatically increasing visitor numbers to the sleepy town. The 50s were the heydays for the School, with it beginning to fragment in the 1960s, with Aldridge being one of the few to remain in the area until his death in 1983.

John Aldridge RA (1905-1983) 'Hayfield, North Essex'

John Aldridge RA (1905-1983), 'Hayfield, North Essex', signed 'John Aldridge' l.l., inscribed with title on artist's label verso, oil on board, 76.5 x 115.5cm, £27,300

The Great Bardfield School style is very much informed by these artists’ love for the English countryside and nature. From Aldridge and Nash’s love of gardening, there was no lack of different natural subjects for the artists based there to capture. The Great Bardfield School artists’ subjects are often quintessentially English in so many ways – from the bright flowering springs, the dreary winters. Even the works completed by these artists when away on war duties, evoke a great, albeit sympathetic understanding of nature.

Find out more about Great Bardfield Artists at Sworders, and view our Artist Directory here

To discuss a valuation or find out more about our upcoming Modern and Contemporary Art sale please contact pictures@sworder.co.uk | 01279 817778





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