Paul Johnson

CELEBRATING THE MICHELANGELO OF THE MAIDA VALE PUB

Review from The Spectator 21 March 2009

One of my favourite parts of London, in easy walking distance of my house in Newton Road, is what I call the Ardizzone country. This stretches from the edges of Little Venice into Maida Vale and is, or was until the crunch, in the process of rapid gentrification. I call it after the artist because, from 1920 until his death in 1979, he lived (on and off) at 130 Elgin Avenue, and made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little sketches of its people. He had not much artistic training, apart from a spell under Bernard Meninsky at the Westminster School of Art, but he had an extraordinary skill at doing rapid figure drawings, which he deepened by clever hatching and watercolour washes. They look lightweight at first glance, but the more you study them, the more you come to admire their quality and the amount of interesting information they convey.


Home Guards at the Local - Imperial War Museum LD 1493
Edward Ardizzone had a fine gift for drawing children, and made his living by writing and illustrating books for them. But what he most liked to do, I think, was to frequent the Victorian and Edwardian pubs, in which the area then abounded, and draw their habituees, especially women, in their usual activities: drinking, arguing, pontificating and, occasionally, fighting. He liked drawing buxom barmaids, blowsy streetwalkers, and those ample women who used to sit, quietly, behind brimming pints of Guinness. Others in his cast were men propping up bars, and occasionally wiping the foam off their Lloyd George moustaches, and old codgers, hands in pockets, greasy felt hats crammed down over their ears. There is about his work a whiff of mild-and-bitter, a hint of sex and a huge expenditure of humorous good nature, in which he obviously abounded. I wish I had known him, just as I wish I had known that card-sharping genius Thomas Rowlandson. The two have often been compared. If I were starting again, I would collect both. Neither is cheap but nor are they unobtainable. In recent shows at Chris Beetles, who now runs the best private gallery in London — in Ryder Street, SW1 — he had nearly 50 Rowlandsons for sale, and half a dozen Ardizzones.

Women in the Tube - Whitworth Art Gallery LD855
The reason why I am writing about the man I call the Michelangelo of the Saloon Bar is that I have just acquired a magnificent volume of his drawings entitled To War with Paper and Brush: Captain Edward Ardizzone, Official War Artist. It is compiled, with great devotion and delight, by Malcolm Yorke, a leading expert on British mid-20th-century artists (who earlier produced a sumptuous illustrated study, Edward Bawden and his Circle). It is published by Simon Lawrence, who founded, owns and operates, virtually single-handed, what must be the highest-quality private publishing firm in the country, the Fleece Press of Huddersfield.


Troops and Civilians Looting in the Town of Reggio - Imperial War Museum LD3453
Ardizzone was spotted by Kenneth Clark, who advised the government on official war artists, as a natural for the job. So it proved, and he turned out to be astonishingly productive (and brave) too. He did many hundreds of on-the-spot sketches, often within sound of the guns and in peril of his life, but he also recorded camp and barrack life and the roistering which went on between the fighting. His drawings form a true record of a great part of the war. He was on duty almost from the beginning, in training, in France before and during the collapse of 1940, in London during the Blitz, in North Africa for the final defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, in the Sicily invasion, the campaign in Italy, the Operation Overlord invasion of France and the conquest and occupation of Germany.

He drew it all, producing many watercolour drawings of strange charm and beauty, but also conveying much detail not to be found in photos or the work of other war artists. He drew, for instance, the interior of Warwick Avenue Tube, on the edge of his own country, when it was in use as a shelter, and his drawings convey much more information than Henry Moore’s. They show the fear, the confusion, the horrible discomfort and the friendly humanity of the ordeal. He was not squeamish. His battlefield sketches show unburied corpses, shattered limbs and men in agony. He also drew Allied troops looting Italian shops, and there is a memorable work, after the Rhine was crossed, of a German farmer’s wife dragging away her prize pig by its ears to prevent it from being ‘liberated’ and eaten. Plenty of roistering too: brass hats at the Gezira Club and Groppi’s in Cairo, an ample Italian donna leaning against a sign ‘Out of Bounds to All Ranks’, a lovely sketch entitled ‘A Musical Evening at the Ristorante Roma, Tripoli’, with a local lady singing and looking just like a Maida Vale barmaid, and soldiers gawping at the Sistine Chapel altarpiece. Ardizzone also kept an illustrated diary, and pages of this are reproduced too. The entry for 18 March 1945 reads: ‘She showed us her legs with great aplomb,’ and there is a sketch of the lady doing just that.

A German Woman Rescuing her Pig - Imperial War Museum LD5259
The Rowlandson tradition is never far away. Indeed, I am reminded that he, in addition to drawing military reviews, did a magnificent pair of drawings comparing and contrasting British and French officers’ behaviour in their barracks. But Rowlandson, or ‘Bottoms up!’ as I call him, never followed Wellington’s men into action. Ardizzone did, and closely, and his output is both spectacular and exciting, but also a poignant and intimate record of what war was really like in that tragic decade, the 1940s. The originals are mostly in the Imperial War Museum, tucked away, and to see them, in full and in colour, accurately reproduced in a handsomely bound and cased volume, is a remarkable privilege.

The man who made it possible, Simon Lawrence, comes from a family distinguished for wood-engraving, and this subtle art remains one of his chief interests. Indeed his first publishing venture, in 1980 when he was still a student, was to put out a hand-printed letterpress book, full of wood-engravings, in honour of his grandfather. Since 1986 he has made his living running a private press. He does pretty well everything himself, planning, dealing with the author, editing the text and annotations, typesetting and designing, selling and packing of parcels, the last being a task, I can testify, he carries out with impressive skill. His one-man workshop is a converted barn, on the rural outskirts of Barnsley. It houses several printing presses from the 1930s and an Albion Handpress from 1853. Distribution is from there, but he does the editorial work from home. The address of the Fleece Press is 95 Denby Lane, Upper Denby, Huddersfield HD8 8TZ; the website is fleecepress.com.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the author. First published in The Spectator 21 March 2009

Text: © Paul Johnson 2009


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