James Boswell

The Theatre


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
James Boswell 1906–1971
Lithograph on paper
Image: 210 × 200 mm
Presented by Ruth Boswell, the artist's widow 2000


In this image a man is shown acting in a theatre, wearing Elizabethan costume. His presence alone on the stage suggests he may be playing Hamlet delivering a soliloquy to the audience. The ornate interior, boxes and coat of arms suggest a Victorian or Edwardian theatre. The Theatre is part of a series of lithographs Boswell made in 1939 of London. 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, and his mastery of the technique is evident from this small yet detailed image. Other scenes in the series 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). The Theatre, 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 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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