James Boswell The Fall of London: Corner House 1933

Artwork details

Artist
James Boswell 1906–1971
Title
The Fall of London: Corner House
Date 1933
Medium Lithograph on paper
Dimensions Image: 133 x 95 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000
Reference
P11654
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Summary

Corner House is one of a series of eight small lithographs describing The Fall of London. Ron Heisler believes that they were originally conceived for a book by Frank McIlraith and Roy Connolly called Invasion From The Air which describes a Fascist invasion of England (information from Ron Heisler, August 2003). The theme of the book, which was published in 1934, is reminiscent of Boswell’s prints, which illustrate both popular uprisings in the City of London and horrific scenes of the city in ruins. In this unnerving image Boswell captures the city by night when the streets are empty. The only signs of life come from the tall smoking chimney in the background and the sinister looking figure with a knapsack on his back walking past the crooked streetlamp and crumbling buildings. He carries a large gun which may have been used on the victim whose legs hang awkwardly from the rubbish tip in the foreground. The title refers to the building on the right which has been destroyed.

Boswell learned the art of lithography by attending evening classes taught by the artist James Fitton (1899-1982) at London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in Southampton Row. His mastery of the technique is evident from this powerful and dense image which, despite its small size, illustrates both a sense of the desolation and fear on the streets of London. He was undoubtedly influenced by the French artists Gustave Doré (1832-1883), and Honoré Daumier (1808-79). Like these artists Boswell received his inspiration by walking in the city at evenings and at the weekends, when the narrow and winding streets of London were deserted. The richness of detail and shocking nature of some of the scenes also recalls the series by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Disasters of War. These graphic images portray the death and destruction which the artist himself witnessed during the Peninsular War (1807-14).

Boswell made these lithographs in the same year that he became a member of the Artists International Association. Founded in 1933 this group was composed of politically engaged artists and designers, including James Fitton and Clifford Rowe (1904-89). The movement was founded as a reaction to the Great Depression of 1929 to 1936 which led to mass unemployment amongst the working classes. This period also witnessed Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and, as a direct consequence of this, the foundation of the Joint Committee for Anti-Fascist Action in Britain. Many of the artists, including Boswell, became members of the Communist Party and had as their objective, to use art as a ‘weapon of the proletariat in the economic and political struggle against the bourgeoisie’ (Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts, London 1970, p.497). Although Boswell’s series was not published, the lithographs powerfully express his reaction to the political climate of the time and the consequences of the rise of Fascism. William Feaver described the prints of The Fall of London: ‘Here was the long-awaited apocalypse: looting and mass panic, as familiar landmarks – Waterloo, the British Museum, a Lyons Corner House and London Bridge – toppled’ (Feaver, p.5).

Further reading:
William Feaver, Boswell’s London: Drawings by James Boswell Showing Changing London from the Thirties to the Fifties’, London 1978
Barry Curtis, ‘James Boswell’, Block no.1, 1979, pp.53-6
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999

Heather Birchall
September 2003

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