James Boswell

Gosfield Street Murder


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
James Boswell 1906–1971
Lithograph on paper
Image: 220 × 162 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


This horrific, if conventional, image portrays a murder in a bedroom in Gosfield Street, a road near Oxford Street in the centre of London. The victim is dramatically splayed out in the foreground, her legs apart and her dress above her knees to reveal her stockings and suspenders. Blood spills out from her cut throat on to the floor, while a mans sits on a chair beside the dead body, his eyes wide open and his hands and clothes bloodied from the attack. The upturned chair perhaps suggests a struggle between the couple before the event took place. Boswell heightens the tension of the scene by presenting only the stark details of the crime, the rest of the narrative being left to the viewer’s imagination. The combination of sexuality and violence, executed in a brutally realistic style, recalls the work of the German illustrator, George Grosz (1893-1959), who produced illustrations of modern assassinations, executions and murders to reveal his contempt for German society during the reign of William II, who was Emperor between 1888 and 1918.

Boswell was illustrating the murder on 11 February 1942 of a sex worker called Mrs Margaret Florence Lowe, who was killed in her flat on Gosfield Street (information supplied by Ruth Boswell, the artist’s widow, August 2003). She had apparently been strangled with a silk stocking and her body then mutilated with a razor-blade and knife. The murderer, George Frederick Cummins, was responsible for a spate of murders at this time, all of which occurred over six days in February 1942. Gosfield Street Murder relates to two other prints Boswell made a few years before titled The Means Test (Tate P01820-1). These equally shocking images portray a suicide which, as the title implies, was caused by the introduction of the Means Test in 1931. The Means Test affected thousands of people who were out of work by taking away their unemployment benefit.

Boswell’s political affiliations are reflected in his numerous illustrations of a mendacious society. In 1933 he co-founded the Artists International Association. 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. The objective of the group was 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). Boswell’s preference for the mass production of print media allowed his work to reach a wide audience, and this print may have been reproduced in the left-wing periodical Left Review, of which Boswell was art editor between 1934 and 1938.

Further reading:
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999, reproduced

Heather Birchall
March 2005

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