Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Edward Bawden's Imagined Gardens

At last the sun is out, and I feel incredibly lucky that I can enjoy it safely distanced in my own garden. As parks and gardens become even more precious to all of us, I thought I would write about Edward Bawden’s love of them. Grand parks, small back yards, plants and flowers are the subject of much of his work, in fact there maybe even more horticultural references than there are cats.

Every day he would spend an hour in his own Great Bardfield garden before starting work upstairs in his attic studio. It could be a dangerous hobby, the top joint of his index finger had to be removed after he caught it on a rose and it turned septic. It didn’t slow him down; he was starting to write legibly whilst still in the hospital. My favourite Bawden gardening story though is from the Chelsea Flower Show, to which he apparently advised prospective visitors to take an umbrella and secateurs for covert clipping!

For this blog, as so many of us are without access to a garden, I thought I would share a couple of Bawden’s imaginary gardens from the 1920s. The first is from when he was a student at the Royal College of Art in 1924, ‘Francis Bacon’s Garden’. He was asked to contribute to a book on imagined architecture and although the book was never published, Harold Curwen at The Curwen Press editioned Bawden’s work as a lithograph. The print is based on Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Gardens’ from 1625 and follows the text closely, condensing the 30 acres Bacon suggests for a perfect garden into miniature, populated by lords and ladies promenading and the occasional gardener at work. Bacon’s banqueting house is there in the centre, so are the side gardens with their shaded alleys, plenty of fruit trees and at the bottom honeysuckle and sweet briar selected by Bacon for their ‘delightful’ scent.

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) Francis Bacon’s Garden, 1924  © The Edward Bawden Estate

An equally formal garden is the ‘King’s Garden’ from ‘The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins’ by Robert Paltock. Published in 1928 Paltocks book is similar in plot to Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, the major difference being the inclusion of Glumms and Gawreys; flying humanoid creatures who inhabit the island on which the hero Peter is stranded. 
Edward Bawden (1903-1989) The King’s Garden, 1928 © The Edward Bawden Estate
Illustration in ‘The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins’ by Robert Paltock

Again, this time I imagine much to his own dismay, Bawden followed the author’s description. Paltock’s gardens don’t have flowers but are instead a court of sculptures. ‘These gardens are in perfect architectural accord with the house they adjoin; nor do the changing seasons play havoc with their beauty’. Just behind this plant-less garden, however, there is a touch of greenery which I like to think was of Bawden’s own invention.

Written by Victoria Partridge, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Bedfordshire’s Breweries - The Higgins & Sons Brewery

Charles Higgins and his family moved to Bedford in the 1820s. He was proprietor of the Swan hotel and founded the brewery on land owned by the Duke of Bedford at Castle Lane. The brewery was built 1838 and Charles built the Higgins family home next to it in 1842. The family business was very successful and they were influential figures in the town for over a hundred years.

Bradford Rudge (1813-1885) Bedford Times Coach © The Higgins Bedford Collection. Charles Higgins standing in the door way to The Swan Inn in the red slippers.

As well as founding the brewery, Charles Higgins (c.1789-1862) was a successful Liberal politician and Mayor of Bedford. During his tenure as Mayor he was presented with a silver salver (now on display in the Mayor's Parlour) commemorating the ‘zeal, ability and humanity extended by him’ during the cholera epidemic of 1849. Following Charles Higgins' lead, the Higgins family remained devoted to Bedford life. George Higgins (1816-1883), Cecil's father, was a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Town Council and a Trustee of the Harpur Charity. Lawrence (1849-1930), Cecil's brother, was also a Justice of the Peace, and Cecil (1856-1941) was a local magistrate for many years.

(Left) Higgins Brewery c.1895 (Right) Plan of brewery site and Higgins family home at Castle Close

Charles Higgins’ son, George, ran the brewery in partnership with Charles and then passed the baton to his second son Lawrence. Cecil, the youngest of the family, moved to London and enjoyed the high life, visiting the opera, gallivanting around in his Rolls Royce, and collecting decorative pieces of furniture for his home. The brewery and house buildings were bought from the Duke of Bedford by Lawrence and Cecil in 1908 for £13,250.

(Left) Photograph of Cecil Higgins © The Higgins Bedford Collection (Right) Higgins and Sons Ltd bottle, BMG.25

The brewery was very successful and the brothers bought over 40 local pubs, including The Case is Altered at Ravensden and the Cat and Custard Pot at Shelton. Eventually Lawrence retired from the operational side of the business and Cecil was given responsibility for the brewery. It remained in the Higgins family for over 90 years until brewing ceased on 5 October 1928 when Cecil Higgins, then over seventy, decided to sell. In 1931 competitors Wells & Winch Ltd. of Biggleswade bought the brewery for £180,000 and promptly closed it down.

Lantern Slide of The Case is Altered, Ravensden, Walter N Henman, 1939, BEDFM 1974.27.599

After the sale, Cecil devoted his later life to collecting fine and decorative art with the aim of founding a museum ‘for the benefit, interest and education of the inhabitants of, and visitors to Bedford’. Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in 1949 in the Higgins family home. The brewery became Bennett’s Clothing factory for a time and during the Second World War factory workers made shirts for the military. Later the buildings became a postal sorting office. When this closed in the 1960s the building fell into disrepair and was nominated for refurbishment by the Bedford Borough Council so that Bedford Museum could move into the former Higgins & Sons Brewery building in 1981, housing the Bedford Modern School collection. The brewery and house opened as The Higgins Bedford in 2013 following refurbishment and extension of the buildings as one complete site.

Written by Lydia Saul, Keeper of Social History

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Edward Bawden and the Russell Square Twins

To help my wellbeing during these strange times I have been trying to limit the amount of time I spend looking at social media and read books instead. It is helping me to feel saner and it is so satisfying to tackle the huge pile of books I own and haven’t yet read.

I have just finished reading Faber & Faber – The Untold Story by Toby Faber which tells the tale of the London publishing house from its beginnings in the 1920s. I started it hoping that there would be some interesting insights into Edward Bawden’s work for the company (it turns out he is only mentioned once) but I wasn’t disappointed as the firm’s history was fascinating and included lots on Berthold Wolpe, another of my favourites.

The one thing I did know about Faber & Faber before reading the book was that there was only one Faber, Geoffrey the chairman. According to legend it was the poet Walter de La Mare who suggested the company’s name saying that you can’t have too much of a good thing!’

In the book, Bawden corresponds with Walter’s son and Faber & Faber’s executive director, Richard de La Mare. In 1932 he is looking for someone to illustrate Good Food by Ambrose Heath (one of the few books not in the Higgins Bedford archive) and approaches Bawden, by then a well-established illustrator. Bawden responds ‘I think I have a certain capacity to illustrate this book in the fact that I am a keen gardener and by no means indifferent to good cooking’.

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) Christmas Puzzle List, 1934 © The Edward Bawden Estate

In 1934 Bawden turned the imaginary Russell Square twins into Lewis Carroll’s literary duo Tweedledum and Tweedledee with just a slight tweak to the name. Faber & Faber included a crossword with their Christmas catalogue throughout the 1930s.

Bawden began illustrating
book jackets for Faber in the late 1920's. In the archive there are jackets dating from the firms first incarnation as Faber and Gwyer right up to 1969 with a cover for Phocas the Gardener by Paul Bourquin. My favourites from the collection are two he illustrated in the 1930s: A Problem a Day by R.M. Lucey and Archy does his Part by Don Marquis. Both are in typical Bawden style and cleverly use the space provided. They are also both full of fun which is a welcome tonic at the moment.

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) Book Jacket: A Problem a Day © The Edward Bawden Estate

A Problem a Day contains a problem for every day in the year, along with solutions at the end of the book. Hocus and Pocus, depicted in Bawden’s illustration, refers to a puzzle about the number of pages left in a book:

‘You’re a long time getting through that book’ remarked Hocus to his friend. ‘True’ replied Pocus, ‘but I’m nearing the end.’ ‘How many pages are there?’ persisted Hocus. ‘Since you are so curious,’ said Pocus, ‘it may interest you to know that the average number of words per page in this book is 248. The first page contains only 15 words, the last only 5, and the average number of words per page on all the other pages is 249. Now I hope you are satisfied.’

Can you work out how many pages there are?’

Edward Bawden (1903-1989) Book Jacket: Archy does his Part © The Edward Bawden Estate

The Archy of the title is a cockroach poet who befriends an alley cat called Mehitable, who thinks she was Cleopatra in a previous life. The pair feature in a series of books based on Don Marquis' Archy newspaper columns, first published in the New York Evening Sun.

Written by Victoria Partridge, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Covid-19 Update

Following the announcements made by the government on Friday 20th March to tackle the spread of the coronavirus, The Higgins Bedford is now closed until further notice.

The health, welfare and safety of our staff, volunteers and visitors remains our top priority.

We will be contacting all customers who have booked and paid for event tickets to process their refunds.

We will provide further updates as soon as possible. You can stay in touch with us through our website and social media channels: FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

New Bawden Exhibition Now Open

Edward Bawden: Architectural Elements, a new exhibition showcasing Edward Bawden’s passion for architecture is now open at The Higgins Bedford.

Architecture is a reoccurring subject throughout the extensive body of work of influential British artist and designer, Edward Bawden (1903-1989).

The Higgins Bedford is displaying a number of these works, featuring prints, advertising campaigns, private commissions, personal Christmas cards and wallpaper designs, some of which have never been on display.

It was often said of Bawden that he had a ‘unique way of seeing the world’. This is seen in the unconventional architectural prints and illustrations he created. He cropped buildings to reveal hidden details and changed the perspective to show the beauty of the buildings from all aspects.

Douglas Percy Bliss, a friend and biographer of Bawden, said that his art ‘includes all aspects of Design, Architecture and Gardening’.

Edward Bawden (1903—1989) Nine London Monuments - Palace of Westminster, 1966 ©The Edward Bawden Estate. 
Courtesy of the Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).
Bawden spent most of his working life in London and much of his work portrays the city’s buildings. Some of his most recognisable works are featured in the Nine London Monuments series. These atmospheric, detailed prints have been described as ‘among the finest things he has ever done.’

Bawden’s work not only details London’s historic monuments but reflects the changing face of the city, from the uninterrupted skyline during his time as a student in the 1920s, to the aftermath of the Second World War, to the uncertain fate of the buildings facing demolition in the 1960s.

This exhibition explores Bawden’s interest in architecture through a variety of mediums, displaying his originality, wit and skill in giving character to the buildings featured in his work.

The exhibition is FREE to visit and will be accompanied by a series of gallery tours later in the year, offering more insight into the works on display. Visit The Higgins Bedford website for more details.

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Volunteer's Biggest Nightmare?

I’m holding an object that was turned off a potter’s wheel when the big game in town was Athens v Sparta, and Plato and Socrates were living celebs. This ancient Greek vase survived the Romans, the Vikings, the whole of the medieval period, Shakespeare, two world wars and the British Empire. 

When I wrap my fingers around its body and lift it up, oh my, what a weight! This vase has lasted for thousands of years intact. I feel the tiniest twinge and the premonition of a loud crash and a hundred tiny pieces scattered all over the floor. Dropping and breaking an irreplaceable antique – the volunteer’s biggest nightmare! Gently, gently, into the glass case, lower, and… breathe.

Why move it at all? Shouldn’t this vase stay in one place to be safe? One of the remarkable features of any museum is the “behind the scenes” part of the work, looking after the objects securely packed away in our stores. Why not put it all out? Well, we’d need a humungously big museum to have everything on view at once.

There’s a case for treating the museum as a shop window – we can ring the changes, refresh what we have to offer with new exhibitions and make sure that there’s always something different for visitors to see. Some of our galleries are “permanent”; others alter on a regular basis.

But what of our Greek vase, newly brought out of the archives, dusted down and mounted in the Collectors Gallery for all to see? Well the vase will be photographed and catalogued and then the fun part of discovering its story will begin. The who, the why and when of any good mystery!

Written by Derek Niemann, Collections Volunteer.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Home and Abroad Exhibition Coming to an End

Closing Sunday 26th January, this is the last week to visit our current Edward Bawden exhibition; Home and Abroad

Edward Bawden (1903—1989), Castelo Blanco from ‘Edward Bawden in Portugal’, 1962 ©The Edward Bawden Estate

A keen observer of the world around him, Edward Bawden visited many places around the world. He embarked on his first trip abroad to Italy aged 22. This was an experience which he recalled, 'gave me the biggest shock of my life'. He returned to Italy while serving as an Official War Artist in the Second World War, travelling to many parts of Africa and the Middle East. In later years he taught at the Banff School of Fine Art in Canada and visited Portugal in 1962, which resulted in the 'Edward Bawden In Portugal' lithograph series depicting Portuguese towns and were printed in Motif magazine. 

Edward Bawden (1903—1989), Covent Garden from 'Six London Markets', 1967 ©The Edward Bawden Estate

Bawden also found inspiration in the places he visited in England, particularly London where he spent much of his working life. He first came to London while studying at the Royal College of Art where he formed a friendship with the artist Eric Ravilious. Many of London's landmarks, parks, gardens, bridges and stations are portrayed in his work. The most popular being the prints in the ‘Six London Markets’ series from 1967.

Edward Bawden (1903—1989) Ives Farmhouse, Great Bardfield, c.1956 ©The Edward Bawden Estate

However, it wasn't just Bawden's adventures abroad or the rush of city life that was the subject of his work. Born in Essex and living in Great Bardfield for over 40 years, Bawden often found inspiration in the surrounding countryside, churches and farmyards for his watercolours and prints. He was an important member of The Great Bardfield Artistsa community of artists and designers famous for their open house exhibitions from the 1930's to the 1970's. While artistically diverse, the group shared a love for figurative art and was pivotal in influencing Edward Bawden's distinctive style of art. 

Edward Bawden: Home and Abroad is closing on Sunday 26th January and is free to visit. 

The Edward Bawden Gallery at The Higgins Bedford will be closed from 27th January to 7th February while the new Edward Bawden exhibition is installed. Architectural Elements opens Saturday 8th February. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas from all at The Higgins Bedford!

Edward Bawden (1903—1989) Robin's Christmas Party, 1956-59 ©The Edward Bawden Estate.

Thank you to all of our visitors, collaborators and volunteers for making 2019 such an amazing year at The Higgins Bedford.

We've worked with many cultural partners to deliver an exciting year of exhibitions, displays and events including The Journey from Bunyan to the Brickworks, Round and Round the Garden, Music Matters: African and Caribbean Heritage Day, Fun Palaces, Refugee Week, Wellbeing Saturdays, family activites and much more. We've welcomed many new fantastic volunteers, resulting in a team of over 150 volunteers that have contributed almost 9,000 hours of their time this year. 

We have lots to look forward to in 2020 with more exciting exhibitions, displaystalks, tours and events coming soon to The Higgins Bedford.

In the meantime, if you're looking for something to do around the festive period, The Higgins Bedford is a great place to visit with friends and family, with FREE admission! The museum will be closed on Mondays, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day. Normal opening hours from Thursday 2nd January. 

See you all in 2020!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Dreams and Nightmares Exhibition Review

The Dreams and Nightmares exhibition has launched and will be showcased up until 22nd March 2020 at The Higgins Bedford. Working in partnership; Victoria Partridge - Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art at The Higgins and Christiana Payne – Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes University – has organised this event.

Co-curators; Victoria Partridge and Professor Christiana Payne

In this exhibition chosen from the highlights of the Cecil Higgins Collection the dreams and nightmares ranged from happy dreams to troubling nightmares where fears and desires were a key part in telling the story of the paintings. The paintings had different themes which included dreamscapes; sublime and spiritual visions; sleepers; spectral images; romantic dreams and daydreams; fairies and witches; manifestations of the unconscious; and nightmares becoming realities.

Max Klinger (1857 - 1920) - On Death Part Two, Dead Mother, 1898

I had the opportunity to view this exhibition on 10th October 2019 and as a young person attending, I found it fascinating. The creation of the different interpretations constructed a vivid image and brought the paintings to life, particularly the nightmare On Death Part Two, Dead Mother, 1898 by artist Max Klinger (from the nightmares become realities section). In the painting, a baby is sitting on top of the mother, who is dead. The baby doesn’t think this is a nightmare because in front of them is their mother laying asleep. It’s deeply saddening as they just want their mother to wake up. It really makes you connect with the picture and the story being told and really touched my heart. The black and white painting really hones in on the loneliness of the baby child who has no one to turn to. The blackness of the woods in the background traps the baby from the outside world, where one lone tree is used to signify that they are all alone.

This exhibition is well worth the visit and in addition there will be gallery tours, lunchtime lectures and a study day with Christiana Payne and Victoria Partridge. For further details visit the website:

Written by a member of Higgins Young People's Panel (HYPP): Isma, aged 14

Monday, November 25, 2019

Museum Shop Sunday

Get into the festive spirit at The Higgins Bedford with a cultural shopping experience offering unique, creative and special gifts in the run up to Christmas, made by independent suppliers, artisans and charities.

The Higgins Bedford shop has a range of products inspired by the museum’s collections and exhibitions, including cards, postcards and books. The ever-popular advent calendars by Angela Harding and Emily Sutton are stocked alongside Christmas cards and wrapping paper designed by Eric Ravilious. Shoppers can also expect to find a tempting range of chocolate, festive felt decorations, printed tea towels, handmade soaps by New Ewe and more.

Christmas shop stock at The Higgins Bedford; felt ornaments, Emily Sutton advent calendars,
Angela Harding teal towels and Eric Ravilious wrapping paper.
There will also be a variety of stalls offering an opportunity to discover more about Bedford’s creative community as well as a bespoke range of locally crafted items including knitwear made by The Higgins Knitting Group.

At The Higgins BedfordMuseum Shop Sunday will run from 2-5pm and offers the perfect opportunity to purchase a unique Christmas gift for that special someone.