Barnett Freedman’s style is very much ‘of a period’, which includes such other names as Edward Burra, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. At the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, Paul Nash described these artists as ‘an outbreak of talent,’ adding the potter Norah Braden, textile designer, Enid Marx and photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer to the list. Of the students at the Slade in the 1890s, including Gwen and Augustus John, Spencer Gore, Ambrose McEvoy, William Orpen and Percy Wyndham Lewis, Professor of Drawing Henry Tonks would later dub this era the Slade’s first ‘crisis of brilliance’, which became the title of another gem of an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2013. Of the ‘crisis of brilliance’ members, only Ravillious and Nash went on to become Second World War artists, being joined by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Evelyn Dunbar and Edwards Bawden and Ardizzone, the latter whom Freedman befriended in Arras in Northern France, before eventually being evacuated through Boulogne on an ammunition boat in 1940. He was originally meant to be shipped out on an old cross-Channel steamer with Ardizzone, but went back to their hotel to pick up an oil painting he had forgotten, and subsequently missed the boat. As one of Kenneth Clark’s Official War Artists, he was commissioned to paint coastal defence batteries, and sailed onboard HMS Repulse, where he painted his masterful 15-inch Gun Turret in 1941, and then a series of paintings of submariners aboard HMS Tribune. He also did some large-scale paintings of briefings for D-Day and the entire company of the submarine in small pen and ink and watercolour drawings.
In the 1930s, he worked as a book illustrator for Faber and Faber, and as a graphic designer for Shell-Mex, the Post Office and London Transport, with a turning point in his career coming when he designed the commemorative stamps for the Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935. He became a master lithographer, preferring to draw directly onto the stone himself, rather than have a technician translate his work. The resulting ‘softness’of his imagery, together with his ideosyncratic hand-drawn typography, ensured a distinctive style that defined an age in graphic design history. His illustrations and book jackets for Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Oliver Twist and Walter De La Mare’s Ghost Stories, could not be confused with the work of any other artist, and, after the war, he worked for Shell, Guinness, BEA, J Lyons & Co, designing decorations to decorate their shop-fronts on the occasion of H M The Queen’s Coronation in 1953, as well as the decorative logo for Ealing Studios. Although perhaps not as widely-known as Bawden or Ravilious, both of whom have had major exhibitions at Pallant House, Freedman’s retrospective is long-overdue. There is an excellent catalogue at £25, with interviews with the artist, writing about the art of book illustration, and his experiences of painting aboard a submarine, as well as essays about his methods of working and his war years. He remained an Eastender all his life, and loathed the open air. ‘There’s nothing I hate more than fresh air and wide open spaces. I love London and the people who live in it. I can’t stand all this business of having to get into the country or the seaside if you want to enjoy yourself.’
Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain
Until 1 November 2020
Image© The estate of Barnett Freedman