Barnett Freedman 1901 – 1958)

Barnett Freedman by William Rothenstein.

Barnett Freedman was, in the words of Paul Nash, one of “an outbreak of talent” that came to study at the Royal College of Art in 1922. But, unlike his contemporaries, Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Douglas Percy-Bliss, etc. Freedman’s path through early life and to the RCA was not an easy one.

Born to Jewish immigrants from Russia his childhood was marked by ill health spending four years in a hospital bed between the ages of nine and thirteen with respiratory and heart problems. With little formal schooling behind him, Freedman used these years, to learn to read, write, play music, draw and paint. By the age of fifteen his health had improved, and he secured a job as a draughtsman to a monumental mason. In the evenings he attended St Martin’s School of Art until 1922. For three years in succession Freedman had unsuccessfully tried to win a London County Council senior scholarship which would have enabled him to enter the RCA. Finally, a frustrated Freedman approached RCA Principal Sir William Rothenstein, himself no stranger to prejudice. The LCC judgement was reversed and with a grant of £120 a year, Freedman was able to study under the guidance of Rothenstein. Freedman was primarily a painting student but in a few years time he became an expert practitioner in lithography.

In 1926 Freedman married a fellow student Claudia Guercio, a ceremony kept a secret from her disapproving parents. Another period of ill health followed but during the late 1920’s Freedman, after hard times, enjoyed a series of successful book illustrations with Faber and Gwyer. Faber gave Freedman his first major commission illustrating Sigfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer published in 1931.

Claudia Guercio

Freedman was an early exponent of auto-lithography working with Harold Curwen from the early 1930’s. Freedman was key in persuading friend Eric Ravilious to try his hand at lithography. Freedman was a key part of the brave pre-WW2 experiment Lithographs for Schools, a series issued by Contemporary Lithographs Ltd.

In 1935, Freedman was commissioned to design a special issue of stamps to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. King George’s Jubilee stamp which would become one of a long 20th century line of everyday collectables.

George V Silver Jubilee Stamps.

Also, in 1936 Freedman was given the task of illustrating George Borrow’s novel Lavengro, commissioned by the Limited Editions Club of New York. The full-page lithographs used in this novel were later repeated on a larger scale for Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Lavengro was an edition of 2,000 and War and Peace 1500 copies making some of Freedman’s finest work highly collectable today at soaring prices !

Prior to the war two books occupied Freedman – Henry IV and Oilver Twist. Unfortunately, both were published by American book clubs and therefore not available to the general public.

Illustrations for :- Lavengro, War and Peace, Oliver Twist and Henry IV.

Freedman believed that “the art of book illustration is native to this country … for the British are a literary nation.” He argued that “however good a descriptive text might be, illustrations which go with the writings add reality and significance to our understanding of the scene, for all becomes more vivid to us, and we can, with ease, conjure up the exact environment – it all stands clearly before us.”

Like Ravilious and Bawden, Barnett Freedman was commissioned as a war artist accompanying the expeditionary force in the spring of 1940, before the retreat at Dunkirk. Returning from France Freedman continued to work for the War Office and the Admiralty, gaining a CBE in 1946.

15-Inch Gun Turret, HMS Repulse, August 1941, Lithograph on paper
Painting on the roof top as a war artist

In post-war Britain lithography became an important tool in bringing art to the people. Prints could be made relatively affordable and available to a wider audience. Freedman was involved with a number of projects including the much-loved Lyons Tea Rooms Lithograph and Guinness Lithograph projects.

Lyons Tea Room: People, 1947, Lithograph on Paper

Sadly, Freedman with his reoccurring health problems died of a heart attack in January 1958 at the age of just fifty-six while working in his studio.

Not as well known as Ravilious and Bawden, Freedman, however, ranks as a major British artist whose work deserves to be more widely known, like his RCA colleagues Freedman bridged the gap between fine art and design. I hope this blog will, in some small way, help to bring his work to a wider audience.

Graham Bennison

2 thoughts on “Barnett Freedman 1901 – 1958)

  1. It’s so good that Barnett Freedman is getting more attention now. Freedman was also a guest lecturer at Blackheath School of Art in the 1930’s, invited to speak by the Principal John Edgar Platt. His last lecture was entitled ‘The Artist Today’ and delivered on 6 March 1940. Sadly the school closed in September of that year, and only re-opened in the early 1980’s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s