James Boswell

The Family


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
James Boswell 1906–1971
Lithograph on paper
Image: 187 × 191 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


In this ordinary living room a man is shown adjusting a wireless and looking towards his wife who sits beside him knitting. A younger woman, presumably their daughter, looks up from doing her homework on the table. The pictures on the wall, plant on the mantelpiece and cat on the hearth rug indicate the cosiness of their surroundings and their status as middle class. However the date of the print is portentous, and the family may be tuning in to reports about the political situation in Europe which would shortly escalate in to world war. The Family is one of a series of lithographs Boswell made in 1939. Other scenes include 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).

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. The following year he 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 and are an attempt to expose class injustices, for example Empire Builders (Tate P01823). By contrast, The Family, reveals Boswell’s fascination with the life of ordinary people in London, and his ability to create original images of his 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, exploited the effects of print-making to capture contemporary London life.

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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