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Why you should know about Barnett Freedman
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Barnett Freedman was one of Britain’s most sought-after commercial designers in the mid-20th century.
Almost every person living in mid-century Britain would have come across his designs, yet he remains much less well-known than his peers Eric Ravilious and Edward Burra.
Here are five reasons why you should get to know Barnett Freedman.
1. He was part of the ‘outbreak of talent’
It took Barnett Freedman three attempts to win a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, eventually attaining one when the principal, William Rothenstein intervened on his behalf. He painted a portrait of Freedman (below) in 1925, in Freedman’s final year at the college.
Freedman was part of a generation of artists who forever altered the face of design in modern Britain. His fellow students included Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Enid Marx, Norah Bradon, Edward Burra, William Chappell and Barbara Ker-Seymour. Their tutor between 1922 and 1925 was the painter Paul Nash, who later referred to them as “an outbreak of talent”.
I was fortunate in being [at the Royal College of Art] during an outbreak of talent, and can remember at least eight men and women who have made names for themselves since then in a variety of different directions.
Paul Nash, Signature Magazine
2. He was a printing pioneer
Freedman was a highly regarded printmaker and a master of lithography – a method of printing where the image is drawn on a flat stone in a greasy substance (such as a wax crayon) which repelled ink, allowing it to then be absorbed into the untreated surface.
It was invented in 1796 in Germany and by the early 20th century it had been embraced by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. Although a complex process, lithography allows artists direct control over the mark-making process, making it an attractive, if challenging, medium to work in.
Freedman was introduced to lithography when he was commissioned by Faber & Faber to illustrate Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ (1931). His mentor, Thomas Griffits of Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (later the Baynard Press) observed that Freedman was the best pupil he ever had; he later claimed that Freedman was the first British commercial artist-lithographer to work in seven or eight colours.
Auto-Lithography … enables an Artist to draw directly on to stones or plates which are then used without any sort of photographic interference as the printing surfaces. Thus the book purchaser receives not a reproduction but an original print conceived in terms of the actual medium.
Lithographic drawing, especially with a crayon, became Freedman’s speciality. He was able to use it to further develop his skill as a draughtsman and his expressive use of colour.
His dedication to this medium can be seen in what was probably his most prestigious commission…
3. He designed the King’s Stamp, one of the most used everyday designs in the country.
In 1935, Freedman was commissioned to design a special issue of stamps to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. He produced the final artwork on stone, even though he knew that the end product was to be printed by a completely different process: photogravure (an image produced from a photographic negative transferred to a metal plate and etched in).
The artwork had to be supplied six times the size of the final stamp for the printers, Harrison & Son Ltd, to reduce photographically so they could mass-produce the stamps themselves.
During its run, over one million of ‘The King’s Stamp’ were sold across the world, meaning that whether they knew it or not, millions of people saw and used his designs. The press even proclaimed that he was ‘the world’s best-selling artist’!
4. He brought a human face to war art.
Barnett Freedman was an official war artist, alongside the likes of Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Evelyn Dunbar. He was particularly fascinated by the relationship between man and machine.
The image below, 15-Inch Gun Turret, HMS Repulse, August 1941, was painted following Freedman’s time spent on board the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. It effectively captures the claustrophobic environment and the intricate relationship between the officer, crew and the gun itself. Freedman later made this image into a lithograph for the Ministry of Information. It was displayed in service and factory canteens, earning Freedman widespread acclaim.
I wanted to paint men guiding and controlling machines. The relation of men to machines is so important in the modern world that I wanted to try to express it in paint.
Freedman was said to have “got on famously” with everyone on board Repulse, with the crew giving him various nicknames, including ‘Mike’, short for Michelangelo. He was deeply shocked by its destruction on 10 December 1941, just a few days after Pearl Harbour was attacked.
Soon after he received a letter from Janet Newbury, widow of Douglas Newbery, Surgeon Commander, who had died when the Repulse went down, requesting a copy of the portrait Freedman had painted of her husband. She told him that Douglas, “spoke of you in several of his letters and obviously enjoyed your company so much and the opportunity it gave him to talk of other things besides naval ‘shop'”.
The portraits Freedman painted of men like Douglas Newbery were warm and intimate, showing the individuality of each member of the crew. They form a moving tribute to the men who served – and gave their lives – during the Second World War.
5. He brought art out of galleries and into everyday life.
In post-war Britain, art was embraced as a way of reflecting the optimism of the time. Print-making and in particular Freedman’s preferred medium of lithography became an important tool in bringing art to the people. Prints could be made relatively affordable and available to a wider audience.
Freedman was greatly involved with a number of projects that sought to promote the ethos ‘Art for All’. These include the much-loved Lyons Lithograph and Guinness Lithograph projects, two of a string of popular print schemes produced in mid-century Britain.
The Lyons Lithographs came about as a creative way of brightening the tired interiors of the popular Lyons tea rooms. Freedman was made the project’s technical director and he drew up an extensive list of artists, including several of his fellow official war artists. The list included L. S. Lowry, Edward Bawden, Edwin La Dell, Edward Ardizzone, John Piper, John Minton and David Gentleman. Freedman himself contributed three auto-lithographs, including People (pictured below).
The prints celebrated the best of Britain, tapping into the public’s interest in scenes showing everyday life.
Freedman also worked for Guinness as their “man of art and letters”, a kind of public relations advisor, a role he was well-suited for. He was described by his friends as generous, wise and witty, unafraid to share his opinion and skilled at bringing people together. He was able to relate as easily to workers on the shop floor as the director of a company.
The managing director of Guinness at the time was Sir Hugh Beaver. He realised that in pubs across the country, people were debating questions and facts that could not be settled by standard reference books. A book that could supply those answers might prove to be popular, and so The Guinness Book of Records was born.
To promote the book Guinness decided to publicise it with original prints to be displayed in the pubs and canteens where the book was also available. Freedman oversaw the campaign, commissioning artists such as Edward Ardizzone, Edwin La Dell and Brian Robb to depict the records featured in the book. Freedman also created a lithograph for the project himself, choosing ‘The Dart’s Champion’, Jim Pike, who held the records for fastest round the board and fastest match.
The series was so successful that a second run was planned for 1962. Sadly, Freedman died of a heart attack in January 1958 at the age of just fifty-six while working in his studio.
Despite his premature death, Freedman made a huge contribution to the medium of lithography and the popular print in Modern British art. His work reflected the spirit of optimism of mid-century Britain and blurred the line between art and design.