Great Bardfield Open House Art Exhibitions

This is a short, concise rendering of the Great Bardfield Summer Exhibitions. A detailed account can be found in Janet Dyson’s book ‘Artists of Great Bardfield’ …….go to the end of the blog.

Publicity photograph for the 1958 Great Bardfield Open House Art Summer Exhibition. From left: Edward Bawden, Walter Hoyle, George Chapman, Laurence Scarfe, Stanley Clifford-Smith, Michael Rothenstein and Sheila Robinson with daughter Chloe.

The group exhibitions date back to 1942 when the newly established Council for the Establishment of Museums and Arts (predecessor of the Arts Council) organised an exhibition of the village artists. John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, Michael Rothenstein, Geoffrey Rhoades and several local amateurs featured.

In 1951 Essex Rural Community Council sponsored Great Bardfield as a Festival of Britain village and works were displayed in the artists homes. In 1954 an Open House Exhibition was held from 17th to the 25th of July. Limited to professional artists the exhibition featured works by John and Lucie Aldridge, Edward Bawden, George Chapman, Clifford-Smith, Joan Glass, Audrey Cruddas, Walter Hoyle, Duffy and Michael Rothenstein and Marianne Straub.  Despite the lack of pre-publicity for the event 1,700 visitors enjoyed the exhibition over the ten days.

Card advertising the 1954 Summer Exhibition

A New Statesman review of the 1954 exhibition stated:” Great Bardfield, you will recall, was one of the three beautiful Essex villages especially recommended to visitors to the Festival (of Britain) three years ago. The last three weekends it has been en fete. The houses of the painters who live there have been open, with their works displayed, and the artists therefore on tap to discuss them with you. The attraction is greater because there is no ‘Bardfield School of Painting’; there is nothing in common, except technical ability, between Edward Bawden, Clifford-Smith, Michael Rothenstein, John Aldridge, George Chapman and Walter Hoyle.”

Great Bardfield Summer Exhibition: July 8-17, 1955.

With the 1954 edition a success the artists agreed that the event should be repeated but this time with better publicity. The exhibiting artists were Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, Michael Rothenstein, George Chapman, David Low, Walter Hoyle, Clifford Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Marianne Straub.

The 1955 Exhibition Souvenir Brochure. Pages from the brochure. John Aldridge’s painting ‘The Moors’ 1955.

Edward Bawden: ‘Chapman’s Cottage’ 1955. Later listed as ‘Thatching’.

Michael Rothenstein’s press release for the 1955 exhibition was particularly blunt regarding the perception of married women artists.

“Nine artists and three wives who are artists as well as housekeepers will show work of great variety…..As well Mrs. Aldridge, wives exhibiting are Mrs. Rothenstein, who shows one or two portraits in oils, and Mrs. Clifford-Smith (Joan Glass) who displays textile designs somewhat akin to her husband’s paintings and drawings.”

Visiting his weekend cottage, popular cartoonist David Low agreed to exhibit some of his work at the open house exhibition.  This helped to make the event a drawcard for many visitors. Low didn’t want visitors tramping through his Bendlowe’s Cottage, so Clifford-Smith and Joan Glass agreed to show his work at Bucks House. However, the Essex Chronicle of 22nd July commented: ’Meantime genuinely curious people are wondering why the much-advertised David Low, the distinguished cartoonist, never puts in an appearance.’

David Low: One of his cartoons which made him a priority on the Hitler hit-list ! Low’s Modern Rake’s Progress paintings.

An estimated 5,000 people visited the 1955 show with 1,200 on the final Sunday.

Some of the ‘Open Houses’. Bucks House – Stanley Clifford-Smith and Joan Glass. Brick House – Charlotte and Edward Bawden. Place House – John and Lucie Aldridge. Trinity Cottage – Marianne Straub. Ethel House – Michael and Duffy Rothenstein.

John Aldridge and his wife Lucie Aldridge (née Brown) frequently opened Place House for the summer exhibitions in the village. These well-organised shows attracted thousands of art lovers. In 1955, Aldridge told a London Observer reporter that “people seem to prefer this domestic informality to galleries”. At these summer exhibitions, Aldridge exhibited his oils while Lucy exhibited her hand-knitted rugs. Although Aldridge’s work was well-received, it seemed the most conservative of the Great Bardfield Artists as it possibly reflected the art scene of the 1920s and 1930s in Britain.

The Daily Mail quoted a woman emerging from the Rothenstein’s Ethel House: “The pictures, oh the pictures I didn’t have time to look at them, it was their houses I wanted to see.”

The most intriguing newspaper report for me was published in the Bolton Evening News of the 27th July 1955. As a 13- and 14-year-old in Bolton I worked from 4.30pm until 7pm delivering the teatime and final editions of the BEN. The report featured a conversation overheard in a local pub (was it the Vine, White Hart or the Bell?).

First Villager:” Lot o’ peculiar folk knockin’ about.”

Second Villager: “Aye an’ a lot o’ peculiar pictures at this exhibition.”

First villager: “One I seed looked a bit mucky to me. It weren’t like what it said at all.”

Second Villager: “It ain’t meant to be. That’s art that is.”

Stanley Clifford-Smith: ‘Sisters’ 1955. This oil painting was sold to an American living in Chicago and its whereabouts are now unknown, no colour photo of this image in known.

1956 Exhibition at Clare College, Cambridge.

The Great Bardfield artists exhibited at Cambridge in November and December 1956.  Four guest artists also exhibited – Denis Wirth-Miller, Charles Howard, Geoffrey Clarke and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Poster advertising the Great Bardfield Artists Exhibition in Cambridge 1956

1957 Great Bardfield Artists’ Travelling Exhibition.

The artists were joined by newcomers Bernard Cheese and his wife Sheila Robinson. The tour started on the 31st August at Southend then travelling to Shipley, Nottingham, Sheffield, N. Ireland, Eastbourne, Brighton and finally Wakefield finishing on the 23rd of August 1958.  The souvenir booklet with Walter Hoyle’s cover design went on sale for two shillings.

1958 Great Bardfield Artists’ Summer Exhibition.

The 1958 Great Bardfield Open House Summer Exhibition souvenir brochure, the cover design by Walter Hoyle

At the same time as the travelling exhibition was at Brighton the newly formed Great Bardfield Artists’ Association decided to repeat the open house format which had been so successful in 1954 and 1955. Clifford-Smith was appointed secretary and the souvenir booklet was revised for the occasion.  Guest artists Peter Whyte and Laurence Scarfe joined the resident artists for the show. In early July a young TV presenter Alan Whicker interviewed Joan Glass and Edward Bawden for a BBC programme on the Great Bardfield art community.

The page in the 1958 brochure for Audrey Crudas. Costume design for Ann Todd as Lady Macbeth by Audrey Cruddas, Macbeth, Old Vic, September 9th 1954

Thousands of visitors flocked to the village and the exhibition received national coverage. The surge of visitors resulted in traffic management problems for the local police. It was estimated that a staggering 19,000 visitors had viewed the art works and the artists sold a collective £5,000 worth of work.

You’ll wish you could go back in time as at the 1958 exhibition Bawden’s lino-cut ‘Road to Thaxted’ went for 7 guineas. Bawden’s watercolour of Lindsell Church was priced at 35 guineas and Aldridge’s Bluegate Hall at 33 guineas.

1959 Great Bardfield Exhibition in Bristol

The exhibitions came to an end in Bristol with eight Great Bardfield artists exhibiting at the Royal West of England Academy displaying over 170 works. Following this exhibition, the group fractured with many moving away from Great Bardfield. Edward Bawden, John Aldridge and Marianne Straub remained through the sixties with only Aldridge still resident in 1971 living in the village until his death in 1983.

Janet’s fabulous book ‘Artists of Great Bardfield’ can be purchased via:

Bucks House now functions as a lovely B & B.

Graham Bennison September 2021.

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