Obituary: Edmund Caswell
Monday 23 December 1996
He was born in 1938 in Bangalore to a military civil service family, "returning" to England when he was seven. He eventually gained a scholarship to study at the Coventry School of Art. However his focus shifted and he took a degree in husbandry and manure. He earned a living in a variety of ways; farming, shoemaking, a six-year period in the Royal Artillery near horses which he loved, scene-painting, building, decorating and as an illustrator. He studied part time at the Heatherly and Sir John Cass schools of art and eventually, in 1978, gained a place in the fine art department of Hornsey School of Art, at the then Middlesex Polytechnic.
It was abundantly apparent that Caswell did not fit into any category that such a department might expect. He used the place as his own - as indeed all people studying should, it was just that his manner was particularly vigorous. He came to learn to draw and paint in order to fulfil his driving ambition to meet adequately the poetic imagery teeming in his mind. He paid no attention whatsoever to the fashions of the art world that are reflected in art schools. He had his vision; he let others search around for theirs. He was a weaver of legends and tales and he set about doing this in drawing, painting, print- making and even film.
This was a time when the course had first become involved with work in the community - in schools and hospitals - and when students of fine art could step out of their academic isolation and into the world of people, hoping to share experience through art. In his first year at Hornsey, Caswell took up an opportunity in a local hospital, in the geriatric ward of Colindale Hospital, Middlesex. The result was sensational, both in human and artistic terms. Through the carnival mural that he created Caswell discovered his metier: to give pictorial articulation to poetry and story.
It was therefore not difficult to realise that Caswell was the person to take up the challenge of a mural for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children when the hospital contacted Hornsey. Caswell knew Great Ormond Street's connection with J.M. Barrie's book Peter Pan, and this became the theme for the mural.
He commandeered studio screens to set up paper for a full-size cartoon of the 72ft by 8ft project. His manner of proceeding was not entirely popular but the drawing showed a spectacular command of theme, idea and draughtsmanship. He gained the commission and set to work on site.
It took eight years to complete, plus a further six weeks seven years later. He worked on it largely from 8pm to 8am to keep out of the way of hospital "traffic". His sheer talent, energy and determination produced a stupendous work. It was unveiled by Lady Callaghan of Cardiff in December 1988 to celebrate the passing of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Bill that gave the royalties from Peter Pan to the hospital for ever.
In 1992 he created a series of paintings depicting the scenes that inspired the music of "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Mussorsgsky. The pianist Norman Beedie had invited him to produce these paintings originally with the aim of using them in an animation video, but the whole scheme was eventually performed in 1993 in a multimedia environment at the Bonar Hall at Dundee University with images projected from Caswell's work on to screens while Professor Beedie played the piano, alongside a specially choreographed dance performance.
Recently Caswell was commissioned to paint an interpretation of Robert Burns's "Tam O' Shanter", and in January this year Phil Gallie, the MP for Ayr, hosted an exhibition of images of Tam O' Shanter at the Houses of Parliament, which included Caswell's work. The painting he was working on at the time of his death was of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane, commissioned for the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Dundee.
Caswell was not a comfortable person. He held views emphatically, even dogmatically. He was more than a little self-willed. However his immense heart and loving nature made him an adorable person. He was what is known as "a character" but with real depth of character. He needed the great support of his wife Henny King to help him sail through the stormy oceans of his moods.
Edmund Caswell, artist: born Bangalore 12 August 1938; married 1986 Henny King; died 1 December 1996.
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