James Edward Buchanan Boswell was born on June 9th 1906 in Hokitika (Westport), on New Zealand‘s South Island. His father was a Scottish-born schoolmaster, Edward Boswell; his New Zealander mother was Ida Fair.
Jim Boswell was educated at Auckland Grammar School and the Elam School of Art. He moved to London in 1925 to study at the Royal College of Art, where he stayed until 1929. Dismissed twice from the college over conflicts on modernism, he exhibited oil paintings from 1927 to 1932.
In 1932, he joined the Communist Party and established himself as an illustrator. Shortly after he married the artist Betty Soars (they separated in 1966) and, shortly after that, found work in the publicity department of a major oil company. This is not as much of a sell-out to the system as my seem to modern eyes. Most of the advertising studios were then hosts to those of the political left, with much of work done in them not being what was actually expected of the artists by employers!
James Friell, for a long time the Daily Worker’s cartoonist (see separate entry), has related a story about Boswell. After showing off advertising work to a customer, an executive “proudly announced, ‘And the pay-off line is…’ to be confronted by a poster claiming in bold type:
Boswell was many left-wing artists, including Clifford Rowe (see separate entry), who joined in 1933 to form what would become the Artists’ International Association (
He was also art editor of Left Review, where Boswell’s collaboration with fellow cartoonists James Fitton and James Holland led to them being widely known as `The Three James’s’. An example of their work was a book, published by Martin Lawrence (later Lawrence & Wishart), in the form of a 1936 diary, which contained 26 cartoons by the Jameses, deep with deceptively simply ironic comment.
Friell recalls that “Party headquarters at King Streetand London District headquarters were constantly calling in Boswell and a few selected experts to work out the pictorial side of a campaign, arrange exhibitions, decorate meeting halls or participate in demonstrations.” Boswell became noted as a seriously talented organiser and this aspect of Party work was to occupy him until the start of World War Two. Realising the time he was devoting to organising, as against the production of art, may also have contributed to Boswell beginning to doubt the level of his commitment.
But such considerations faded from significance when he was called up to serve on the Royal Army Medical Corps in the early stages of the war, training in Peebles, Scotland as a radiographer. The War Artists’ Advisory Committee did buy some of his work in this period but it was not exhibited until the British Museum showed a wider exhibition of war drawings in 2006. Boswell was not officially commissioned at all as a war artist during the Second World War II, a decision that entirely arose from his Communist Party membership.
Boswell’s scenes of life in the armed services are now in the Tate, the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum. They evoke the atmosphere of inactivity of military life away from the front: “His sketches – ink, pencil, watercolour, charcoal – of soldiers going about every-day life (laundry, fag breaks, playing accordion), of Iraq’s barren deserts, its ruins and blazing sun, of doctors at work, of Arabs squatting, walking and working, marching donkeys, a stray dog beneath a purple sky, combine to convey a brilliant narrative of strangers in a strange land. He drew squaddies outside the leading River Street brothel, the Babylon Hotel. He also drew the squaddies back at camp being treated for VD.” [New Zealand Listener: http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3515/artsbooks/9646/james_the_obscure.html There are also surreal sketches symbolically illustrating his deprecating view of war more symbolically.
During 1942-1943 he served in Iraq but was transferred to army education, where he rose to the rank of major. After the war, he was art editor of the humorous pocket magazine, Lilliput, from 1947-1950, by which time he seems to have been increasingly, as Friell puts it, “on the turn from politics”. Yet this might have been a slow process.
Although some have claimed he left the Communist Party at some point during the late stages of the war, being disillusioned by the whole idea of military action, or even after returning from the war – in negative reaction to all politics, the matter may be more complex. Whilst it is widely claimed that he let his Communist Party membership lapse in 1946, he was clearly much associated with open Marxist activity in the art field until around the beginning of the anti-communist tirades associated with the start of the Cold War. His severing of ties with Marxism may even have taken over a decade or so before he had finally retreated from the scene.
There was definitely no public breach with the Party. Indeed, he resigned from Shell in 1947, now more clearly than ever a powerful buttress for state monopoly capitalism, for which he had been publicity director in the first two years after the war. Then he visited Australia, where Boswell wrote for the Communist, Jack Lindsey (see separate entry), for his series of cultural studies books entitled `New Developments’. Out of this came Boswell’s only published book, `The Artist’s Dilemma’, which mused on art and society, a title that may have summed up Boswell’s own private thoughts about the tension between being politically active at the same time as trying to produce artistic work of quality. He also even served on the Editorial Board of New Developments.
Certainly, the strongest evidence of Boswell’s political shift lies in his career. This now increasingly became a tempting acceptance by the mainstream of his artistic output, with little doubt, a process eased by his earlier lapsing from the Communist Party. A mural painter for the 1951 Festival of Britain, he also designed film posters for Ealing Studios.
Even so, he was still one of the judges for the Artists’ International Association Open Air Art Exhibition in the Festival Pleasure Gardens, London, on 5th August 1952 and therefore still openly linked to the Communist Party’s cultural work. Boswell also participated in the 1958 New Left Review exhibition of 1930s Left Review drawings at the Partisan Coffee House, Soho, hardly a total renunciation of his past politics, albeit more consistent with the post-Hungary phenomenon of long-time Communists adopting critical positions on Soviet-related policies.
He was editor of the house journal of J Sainsbury Ltd from hereon. By 1964, he was also the main art designer for the Labour Party campaign in that year’s general election, designing the `Let’s go with Labour’ poster. This is the last clear identification of left politics with Boswell. After his 1966 separation from Betty, he lived with Ruth Abel, who changed her name to Boswell by deed poll.
Boswell’s work in the last decade of his life was entirely in the field of abstract oils and landscapes and he died on April 15th 1971. The only discernible book about him is a retrospective of his work, which contains a written appraisal of his life and work: `James Boswell: Unofficial War Artist’ [Muswell Press, 2006].
Main source: http://www.jboswell.info/index.html
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