James Boswell

His Majesty’s Servants


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
James Boswell 1906–1971
Lithograph on paper
Image: 195 × 175 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


In this stark black and white print Boswell portrays three government officials. Official letters of the time came in envelopes marked HMSO standing for His Majesty’s Stationary Office, and the phrase ‘His Majesty’s’ was in common use. The most corpulent and oldest of the three is shown wearing a bowler hat and smoking a cigarette. He catches the viewer out of the corner of his eye, while the man in the foreground turns towards the spectator accusingly, his face unshaven. Boswell is suggesting that the Government is using criminal methods. The grotesque physiognomies of each of the men relate it directly to Empire Builders (Tate P01823), made one year later. In both prints Boswell reduces the amount of shadow and uses clear outlines to intensify the power of the image. Rattenbury describes his technique ‘Human eyes are reduced to pinpoint, mouths are invariably clamped, bodies are bloated, corseted or in final collapse’ (Rattenbury, p.2). Roger Blackley suggested that this print was made in response to the 1934 Incitement to Disaffection Act which made it an offence to seduce a servicemen from his "duty or his allegiance" (Blackley, p.2). The Act, widely criticised at the time as an unnecessary restriction of freedom of speech, eventually led to the foundation of the National Council for Civil Liberties.

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. This group, composed of politically engaged artists and designers, including James Fitton (1899-1982) and Clifford Rowe (1904-89), 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). His Majesty’s Servants may have been made for Left Review of which Boswell was art editor. In many of his satirical images for this left-wing periodical Boswell exposes a society that is founded on greed and has a callous disregard for the plight of the working classes. Boswell makes the reader himself feel under scrutiny in this image from the man in the foreground who gazes outwards as if to intimidate the viewer. The style and subject matter of this print is indebted to the work of the German artists, George Grosz (1893-1959) and Otto Dix (1891-1969) who employed similar graphic conventions to reveal the injustices in the society that surrounded them.

Further reading:
Roger Blackley, James Boswell, 1906-1971: Graphic Works of the 1930s from the Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1985
Arnold Rattenbury, James Boswell: Artist Against Fascism, exhibition catalogue, Manchester City Art Gallery 1986, p.4 (reproduced p.4)
James Boswell: Extracting the Dream Reality, exhibition catalogue, Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London 1999

Heather Birchall
January 2004

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Display caption

This satirical lithograph portrays three government officers as both corpulent and untrustworthy. It was made in the year of the Sedition Bill which aimed to restrict freedom of speech. Boswell's sympathies lay with the working class who he believed were being oppressed by the ruling class.

The stark linearity of this lithograph recalls the earlier work of the German realist artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, who had employed a new objectivity to criticise contemporary society in the 1920s.

Gallery label, August 2004

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