Shop fronts and signage were a recurrent theme in Boswell’s prints. This large image depicts the exterior of J. Parr’s Stores which is crowded with household items for sale including foodstuffs such as Oxo, Sylvan Flakes, Tate and Lyle sugar, Lux soap, and cocoa, clothing and other miscellaneous goods from pots and pans to dyes and cleaning products. The shop keeper stands at the entrance addressing a middle-aged woman who holds an empty canister which she presumably wants re-filling with one of the many types of oil for sale. In the foreground a school boy, wearing shorts and cap, gazes at a dog which looks curiously at the bill-boards outside the store. This print may have been published in the popular periodical Lilliput, of which Boswell was art editor until it ceased publication in 1952. He produced a series of pictures of Camden Town, where he was then living, for this magazine. Eric Hobsbawn remarked that Camden ‘isn’t as flamboyant as Stepney or Shoreditch, or as grim as Canning Town; it is just ordinary. That is why Boswell’s pictures show its people doing nothing specially Camden Townish, but simply the sort of things that are being done in scores of neighbourhoods in Inner London’ (quoted in James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality).
Boswell was born in New Zealand but moved to London in 1925 where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1932 he joined the Communist Party and abandoned painting for politically motivated graphic work. The following year he co-founded the Artists International Association along with Paul Hogarth (1817-2001) and James Fitton (1899-1982), and began to contribute sketches to left-wing periodicals, The Left Review and the Daily Worker. Many of these prints are political satires, for example Empire Builders (Tate P01823). Parr’s Stores, however, reveals Boswell’s fascination with street culture and the ordinary lives of the working classes. He was directly influenced by the eighteenth century caricaturists George Cruickshank (1792-1878), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and James Gillray (1756-1815). Like their satirical illustrations of British society, Boswell’s small plates contain a profusion of details revealing both his ingenuity as a printmaker and his remarkable ability to observe his daily surroundings.
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art London 1999