James Boswell
The Street 1939

Artwork details

James Boswell 1906–1971
The Street
Date 1939
Medium Lithograph on paper
Dimensions Image: 210 x 193 mm
Acquisition Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms


In this small illustration Boswell portrays a London street lined with shops. In the foreground a corpulent gentleman, dressed in a suit, is shown exchanging news with another man smoking a cigarette. Both men hold newspapers under their arms which, taking in to account the notice for the Left Book Club behind them, may be the Club’s radical paper, Left News. In the background some people walk up the street past the shop windows hurriedly, while others stand and gossip. The only visible sign is the advertisement for ‘The Left Book Club’. Founded in 1936, the Club was primarily set up to oppose Fascism and is described by Egbert: ‘The Club became the most active and largest organized body in Britain working for a Popular Front and the greatest single force for the dissemination of left-wing thought there’ (Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts, London 1970, p.517). In the year this print was made Boswell could be included amongst 60,000 other Club members drawn from many professional groups including lawyers, busmen, poets and actors.

Born in New Zealand, Boswell moved to London in 1925 where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1932 he joined the Communist Party and gave up painting for politically motivated graphic work. He learned the art of lithography by attending evening classes taught by the artist James Fitton (1899-1982) at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Southampton Row. In 1933 Boswell became co-founder of the Artists International Association, along with Paul Hogarth (1917-2001) 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). The Street reveals Boswell’s fascination with the life of ordinary people in London, and his ability to create original images of his daily surroundings. Clear comparisons can be made with the graphic work of George Cruickshank (1792-1878) and the French illustrator, Gustave Doré (1832-1883) who, although working a century earlier, equally exploited the effects produced by print-making to capture contemporary London life.

It is not known where this print was published. However it is one of a series of prints depicting places in London, including a cinema (Tate P11669), a railway station (Tate P11667) and the oratory in Hyde Park. Feaver describes the series: ‘This is the London of Graham Greene’s seedy, conscience-stricken agents, of Patrick Hamilton’s hungover failures in life, of Orwell’s down and out literary agents’ (Feaver, p.6).

Further reading:
William Feaver, Boswell’s London: Drawings by James Boswell Showing Changing London from the Thirties to the Fifties, London 1978
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999

Heather Birchall
January 2004

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