One morning in 1934, Eric Ravilious set off with a sketch pad from his home in Brick House, Great Bardfield, Essex. He didn’t go far – just around the corner, in fact, to where a repair yard for steam engines was filled with derelict farm machinery and abandoned vehicles of all kinds. In one corner an old Talbot-Daracq motor car stood rusting, its engine and tyres cannibalised and the fine upholstery of the seats in stark contrast to the jumble of metal objects scattered around.
Two watercolours painted by Ravilious in that scrapyard are among the first images seen in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s probably definitive exhibition of Ravilious watercolours. There is a tendency to identify Ravilious with a cosy, parochial vision of nostalgic Englishness.
But there is nothing conventionally picturesque about the way in which Ravilious frames a rural scene, invariably focussing on the intriguing shapes and forms of some old, abandoned piece of machinery. His radical approach to framing a scene reflect influences from ‘romantic modernist’ friends like John Nash, John Piper and Edward Bawden. ‘I like definite shapes,’ he once wrote, and sometimes his landscapes can appear almost abstract in their focus on flat planes, hard lines and patterns, and almost surreal with their foregrounded objects and machinery.
What this excellent exhibition makes clear is that the watercolours that Ravilious painted are never cosy or merely pretty, but are the work of a major British artist of the twentieth century. It’s also one of those exhibitions which emphasises the inadequacy of reproduction. Up close you can see how meticulous Ravilious was in his attention to detail in these watercolours with their patterns and textures, intricate cross-hatching, stippling and shading techniques carried over from his earlier wood engravings – what James Russell, in the exhibition catalogue, calls ‘dot and speck and dash and dab’.
Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne in the first two decades of the 20th century. He is probably best known for his watercolours of the South Downs, a landscape which he came to know intimately as a child, and then returned to in the 1930s when he was invited by his friend Peggy Angus to stay at Furlongs, her isolated cottage at the foot of the Downs some 13 miles out of Eastbourne.
After winning a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art he went on to study design at the Royal College of Art where he was taught by Paul Nash, and his contemporaries included Edward Bawden, Edward Burra and Henry Moore. It was Nash who encouraged Ravilious to take up wood engraving, the medium in which he first showed great talent. He was soon in great demand among publishers and commercial clients, with most of his woodcuts being commissioned for book illustrations or by organisations such as London Transport and Green Line Coaches. Possibly his most widely-disseminated woodcut is of two Victorian gentlemen playing cricket: it’s appeared on the cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack each year since 1938.
Until the mid-1930s Ravilious was known primarily for his wood engravings, but by then he had already abandoned woodcuts as his primary medium, shifting almost entirely to the watercolours upon which the Dulwich exhibition focusses exclusively. The 1920s had seen a major revival of interest in watercolour, with London exhibitions of watercolours by JMW Turner, John Cotman and Samuel Palmer – all of whom were major influences – and a dazzling exhibition by Paul Nash that had offered ‘a new vision of modernity’ (James Russell) rendered in watercolour.
By this time Ravilious had been teaching teaching part-time at Eastbourne School of Art where one of his students was Helen Binyon who recalled him saying that ‘his greatest ambition was to revive the English tradition of watercolour painting’. In 1930, with fellow-artist Edward Bawden, Ravilious began exploring the Essex countryside in search of rural subjects to paint. On one of these forays, Bawden found and began to rent Brick House in Great Bardfield, and for two years Ravilious lived there with his wife, the artist and engraver Tirzah Garwood. Great Bardfield – along with Furlongs, the cottage on the South Downs – provided much of the inspiration for Ravilious’s defining work in the 1930s.
In 1939, Ravilious was accepted as a full-time salaried artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, and the exhibition features many of the distinctive scenes he painted between 1940 and 1942 in this capacity – naval ships in dock, barrage balloons and coastal defences, bomb disposal work, and aboard a convoy sailing to Norway. In August 1942 Ravilious was offered a posting to an RAF station in Iceland. On 2 September, he joined an air-sea rescue mission. The plane he was on failed to return after disappearing off the coast of Iceland. His body has never been recovered.
Rather than presenting Ravilious’s paintings chronologically, the exhibition groups them in six sections corresponding to significant themes or aspects of technique in the artist’s work. Looking closely at these paintings opened my eyes to the details of textures and surfaces in his dry brush work with its stippling and cross-hatching.
With so many examples brought together under one roof it was possible to see how stylized, strikingly composed and strange his landscapes are. As James Russell writes in the catalogue, ‘They are not landscape paintings but paintings which put landscape to dramatic use’. As curator of the show, Russell has broken down what he describes as ‘the artificial division between the pre-war and the wartime artist’. The result left me feeling, as I emerged into the brilliant sunlight of London’s hottest day this year, as if I’d woken from a dream. Indeed, as Russell writes in the excellent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition:
This is a world to dream in, a world unlike that of any other artist. I can tell you where a watercolour like Tea at Furlongs was painted, and when, and I can suggest ways of looking at the painting – but there is no right way to do so. There are no correct interpretations with Ravilious; nobody has yet defined what it is about his work that is ‘untranslatable’, ‘mystic’ or ‘magic’, which is one reason why looking at it closely is always so exciting. More than seventy years after the artist’s death, the empty chairs and barbed-wire fences, abandoned buses and geraniums still quiver with mysterious life.
Relics and Curiosities
The opening section of the exhibition encourages us to see that ‘there is no world of hierarchy in Ravilious’s world of objects’: whether he is recording an abandoned car or the skeleton of a bus standing not on wheels but on four barrels; an anchor and assorted junk strewn on a shingle beach, or the concrete blocks and tangled barbed wire of wartime coastal defences, there is always the same meticulous care which brings the subject to life.
It’s here that we meet the studies he made in the repair yard at Great Bardfield of the old Talbot-Daracq and the No. 29 Bus propped up on barrels. Eric’s wife, Tirzah recalled that ‘Eric was very excited with the yard, and set to work drawing the engines and the car, afterwards tinting in watercolour his very careful drawings.’
The Water Wheel, was painted in 1938 during a visit to the remote Welsh hamlet of Capel-y ffin, on the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons. It’s a landscape, clearly, with distant blue mountains that slope down towards a river that sweeps from right to left across the frame. But it’s just as much a study of the waterwheel, built by the family of farmers with whom he stayed as a turbine to power a grindstone for knife-sharpening. The knives were used on an unfortunate pig which provided breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout his stay.
Displayed side by side are two ‘seaside’ pictures which couldn’t be less like the expectations aroused by the phrase. In Anchor and Boats, painted in Rye harbour in the summer of 1938, a dark boat looms out of the centre of the frame surrounded by an amazing assortment of junk – a broken bicycle, a wheel, cables, bits of machinery, and an anchor. These items are observed with precision, and – just as strikingly – the textures of the boat’s timbers and the beach shingle recorded in meticulous detail in pen and brush.
The uniqueness of ravilious’s vision is revealed in South Coast Beach, worked on between 1939 and 1942. There are a couple of brightly-painted boats here, but the sea is barely visible. Instead the composition is dominated by the concrete blocks and barbed-wire of Britain’s coastal defences. Everything feels enclosed by vicious coils of barbed wire, metal barriers and and steel fence poles. The contrasting textures of wood and concrete are again defined by Ravilious’s watercolour technique.
Another war artist work, A Warship in Dock (1940) features a human figure – rare in Ravilious’s paintings, while Ship’s Screw and Railway Truck (1940) is not only a marvellous study of the newly-forged propeller waiting to be fitted – its curves defined in pencil cross-hatching and glowing with the gold watercolour tint that Ravilious has applied – but also of the winter landscape, with snowflakes falling in a steel-grey sky and tracks winding through the icy snow.
In March 1938, Ravilious visited Le Havre where he painted Yellow Funnel. behind the eponymous funnel is an elegant white yacht that belonged to the Rothschild family. Ravilious described it as ‘a beauty, most elegant I ever saw’, but characteristically he gives pride of place in the composition to the yellow funnel which is, as James Russell observes, ‘little more than a cylinder striped with black at each end’.
Gallery: Relics and Curiosities
Figures and Forms
People appear only rarely in his watercolours, but as this section of the exhibition sets out to demonstrate, Ravilious did explore the figure and natural forms in various media. One painting here approaches the form of a conventional portrait: Edward Bawden Working in his Studio (1932). Unusually, it’s not a watercolour, but was painted in tempera, a medium he quickly abandoned. Unusually, too, it’s a highly-finished painting – of his close friend Edward Bawden. But it’s not just a portrait: it also depicts Bawden’s aesthetic world, with the artist surrounded by Victoriana. Characteristically, Ravilious is absorbed by the textures of the curtains, rolls of paper, carpet and the Guardsman’s jacket dropped on the floor.
Another rare example of work which focusses on the human figure is the ‘Submarine Series’, a set of lithographs made in July 1940 when Ravilious spent several weeks travelling aboard a naval submarine. It’s a a remarkable set of prints whose highlights are The Diver, Diving Controls (2) and The Ward Room, in which a figure lies asleep, slumped across a table strewn with paper calculations.
But if this section proves anything, it is that Ravilious was most at ease depicting plants and flowers. There is a beautifully-detailed Drawing of a Sunflower made some time in the 1930s, and another plant study, Still Life with Acanthus Leaves. Done in pencil and watercolour, it depicts a plain white milk jug in which a few sprigs of the spiny-leaved Acanthus have been placed. It stands on a table covered in brown fabric upon which a book lies open. Beyond, Ravilious pays attention to the shaped wood of the top of chair, and the simple pattern of a country cottage wallpaper.
Finally, there are two paintings which presage the theme of the next section. Both are studies of cottage interiors painted at Iron Bridge Farm, near Shalford in Essex where Ravilious spent the last few months of his life. The property was rented from the Labour MP, John Strachey who suggested that the annual rent should be paid half in cash and half in paintings. Both Ironbridge Interior (1941) – a study of cow parsley in a vase – and Flowers on a Cottage Table (1942) – which features an arrangement of lupins, buttercups and asters in a vase and colour swatches on the table – were among the paintings that helped pay the rent.
Gallery: Figures and Forms
There is something uncanny about The Bedstead, painted in his lodging in Le Havre in 1938. At first it appears straightforward, even banal, but the carefully composed lines and angles are subtly distorted, and there’s something unsettling about that open doorway and the empty room beyond. A Farmhouse Bedroom has a similar atmosphere, with its strange perspective looking down a corridor that seems blocked off at the end
Certain motifs recur in Ravilious’s interiors – neatly-made beds, empty chairs, patterned wallpaper and patterned carpets, maps. Often the composition leads the eye across the interior towards the outside world, viewed through an open doorway or window. Both the interior and the exterior view are delicately balanced. Examples here include RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee (1941) with its bed and chair in the foreground and the seaplanes moored outside the window, and the series he painted in 1941 of the newly-opened Home Security Control Room, deep beneath Whitehall. The Operations Room shows a hut with nothing in it but a chair and a large map of Britain, while Room 29, Home Security Room features the ghostly image of a woman – a typist, telegrapher or code-breaker – working at a desk in a room flooded with light from an overhead lamp. Ravilious has devoted a great deal of attention to the texture of the wall surfaces and the pattern on the carpet.
The two best-known paintings in this section are Interior at Furlongs (1939) and Train Landscape (1940). The former is another room, empty but for a single chair with views out to the landscape beyond through a window and an open door. Primarily, it is another intricate study of textures – floor tiles, wooden chair, rough wooden door, plaster walls, and the drystone wall outside. As James Russell points out in his commentary, the more you look at this painting the stranger it looks. Everything is distorted: the shadow of the chair is falling in the wrong place, the door does not fit the frame, the chair is oddly-shaped.
As with a poem, we can appreciate how Interior at Furlongs was made, but something at the heart of it eludes us.
Perhaps more than any other painting in this exhibition, Train Landscape bears out the point I made earlier about how seeing Ravilious’s work in the flesh rather than in reproduction draws attention to his meticulous study of detail. Here it’s as if the pattern of the upholstery – ‘so carefully and sensitively realised’ – has become the painting’s primary focus. The entire interior of the carriage – the upholstery on the seats, the woodwork of the door and window surrounds, the striped draught strips, and the leather window strap – is beautifully drawn.
But James Russell directs our attention to something else – the crookedness of the picture:
It’s as if someone noticed the chalk figure, grabbed their camera and – as the landmark slid by to anguished cries of ‘Hurry Up! You’ll miss it!’ – focussed briefly and pressed the shutter. The effect is spontaneous; the moment lives.
Two further paintings complete this section – The Greenhouse, Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1935) and Geraniums and Carnations (1938). In both cases we are inside a greenhouse, and in the former especially it is the geometric structure of the greenhouse which absorbs the artist’s attention. It’s a progression of rectangles and triangles that diminish almost to a vanishing point (not quite – there’s a door in the way). Geraniums and Carnations is another composition offering a subtle play of shapes and angles, but also containing typical Ravilious motifs in the sack and coil of wire left untidily on the floor.
Place and Season
Ravilious’s paintings always develop a very particular sense of place, even if his treatment of that place results in something a little bit off-kilter or mysterious. He would sometimes speak of ‘a good place’ – an indefinable combination of topography, atmospheric conditions, light, and the underlying soil; he preferred the pale chalk downland of East Sussex, rediscovered when he stayed with his friend Peggy Angus at Furlongs, the shepherd’s cottage she found in 1933 at the foot of the South Downs.
Angus drew to Furlongs a circle of artists friends, including Ravilious and John Piper. Ravilious considered his time at Furlongs to be crucial:
It altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious … that I simply had to abandon my tinted drawings.
There are several Furlongs paintings here. Mount Caburn and Furlongs both seem from another time with their horse-drawn implements and wagons laden with hay and traditional haystacks. While Furlongs portrays a long-disappeared world of farming activity going on around the cottage, Tea at Furlongs at first sight appears to contain the essence of the British cottage holiday – the table set for afternoon tea outside in the sunshine, the tranquil fields of late-summer corn stretching to the horizon.
But Ravilious began the painting whilst staying with Peggy at Furlongs in late August 1939. James Russell speculates:
Did he finish it then or was he working on it in November, when he was so charged with the memory of peace? […] The more you look, the more you might think that this scene is designed to be remembered – not any old tea at Furlongs but the last, the tea that must be preserved against all eventualities.
Near to Furlongs there were two cement works; other people regarded them as eyesores, but they delighted Ravilious who made a series of cement works pictures, including The Cement Pit (1934) with its dinky little train and the railway tracks and telegraph poles winding into the scar quarried into the chalk.
As much as place mattered to Ravilious, so did time and season, and he was particularly inspired by cold skies and winter snow. Downs in Winter (1934) is classic Ravilious with its careful observation of the pattern of folds in the slopes of the downland and the ridges of the ploughed furrows seen beneath a grey winter sky. But what makes it quintessential Ravilious – and strikingly modern in sensibility – is the harrow in foreground.
Vicarage in Winter (1935) shows Ravilious wrestling with the problem of how to represent the radiance of a winter sky when snow lies on the ground. He has achieved success by inventing a pattern of blue and pale pink cross-hatching in his application of watercolour that is a loose and airy version of the hatching he used to create texture in his wood engravings.
Two paintings here – Wet Afternoon and Duke of Hereford’s Knob (both 1938) – share a connection with David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh artist and poet, perhaps best known for In Parenthesis, his prose-poem of his experiences of the First World War. Both paintings depict locations near Capel-y-ffin where Jones lived in the 1920s. Wet Afternoon portrays a man in a deep lane filled with muddy cart tracks, the rain lashing down. Interestingly, Russell notes that Ravilious had read the walking books of Edward Thomas and WH Hudson and had illustrated Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne with woodcuts. So ‘perhaps we should think of this rambler as a curious explorer of the byways, in search of everyday wonders’.
Another wild and wet day is depicted in Barrage Balloons Over a British Port, painted in 1940 during war artist duties. The unnamed port is Sheerness. The familiar Wiltshire Landscape, although produced during a trip to Wiltshire in the spring of 1937, has a bleak and wintry feel. It’s classic Ravilious, with its distinctive patterning and simple washes of colour, and is beautifully composed with the road and the telegraph wires stretching to the horizon.
Gallery: Place and Season
This section brings together landscape paintings which show how Ravilious learnt to handle watercolour and compose pictures in new and imaginative ways. By the 1930s, with the rise of motor travel and the proliferation of guide books, landscape painting was suddenly as popular as it had been a century earlier. At first glance, Ravilious’s landscapes can appear delicate and a bit safe. But keep looking and we see that he has cast the land almost in abstract or geometrical forms – and there is always, in the foreground, something odd or abandoned: jags of wire, bits of machinery, junk.
Both The Cerne Abbas Giant and The Wilmington Giant (1939) are as much studies of a barbed wire fence as they are of these well-known landmarks. The Wilmington Giant had been an easy cycle ride from his boyhood home and is painted by Ravilious with a dry brush, leaving plenty of white paper showing through and using a range of textures to suggest the turf on the distant hillside and the grass underfoot. A single fence post dominates the picture, leaning in towards the chalk figure. Three strands of barbed wire extend across the painting, while another barbed-wire fence recedes into the middle distance. There is a vivid contrast between the green of the downland grass and the brilliant yellow of the cornfield edging in at the left of the frame.
Two very fine paintings made in 1941 during a stay on May Island in the Firth of Forth reveal Ravilious at his quirky best. In Storm a boat – its flowing curves lovingly detailed – has been hauled in and made fast in the foreground while in the distance waves pound on rocks, rain lashes a camouflaged hut and tiny figures manhandle barrels. Across the Firth a seemingly endless convoy passes. Convoy Passing an Island has the same convoy proceeding on the distant horizon, but its the barrels in the foreground, the fish-drying racks and sheepfold which are the real subject of the picture.
Runway Perspective (1942) is an exercise in both perspective and geometry that lend the scene of planes taking off from a wartime aerodrome a feeling of speed and energy, emphasised by the scored lines of the runway that radiate out from a distant church spire, and the clouds that tower above them.
Newhaven Harbour (1937) is a superb lithograph, very Hockney-like in tone, in which stylized forms and lines are emphasised in blocks of colour. Coastal Defences (1940) is all blues and greens with single beam of light reaching into the night sky, mirroring the warships sailing out of harbour in convoy along the shaft of light cast by a lighthouse.
It is difficult to pick out a single highlight from the pictures grouped in this section, but if pushed I might choose Cuckmere Haven (1939), a landscape that approaches abstraction due to the way in which Ravilious has modelled the features within it and employed his characteristic technique of drybrush paint over patterns of striations and scored lines to suggest textures in land and sky. It is a painting in which everything is sinuous – the meandering waterway, and the road and fence twisting away over the Downs.
Gallery: Changing Perspectives
Darkness and Light
In his youth, Ravilious had seen the first major exhibition dedicated to Samuel Palmer, an artist who had been almost entirely neglected since his death in 1881. He was overwhelmed by Palmer’s rural scenes which were invariably filled with the mysterious light of sunset or full moon. In the exhibition’s final section are grouped works which illustrate how Ravilious responded to light and shade. Some demonstrate how Ravilious would often paint at dawn when sky has a cool radiance, while others reveal how he would often use artificial light to illuminate nocturnal subjects.
We begin in bright sunshine: in The Lifeboat (1938) the subject is the sinuous curve of boat, emphasised by sweeps of blue, red and yellow paint. But it’s Ravilious’s almost pointillist technique applied to the sky and the shingle piled on the beach that draws attention, too. Belle Tout Interior (1939) was painted inside the lantern of the old, disused Belle Tout lighthouse at Beachy Head. It was spring and bitterly cold, but bright. And it’s the quality of the bright sunlight, reflected off the surface of the sea and captured in bold striations that permeates the picture. Towards the lower right of the frame, where the sunlight is brightest, details are left unfinished – as in an over-exposed photograph. The composition of the picture is remarkable – the whole scene once again subordinated to the foreground detail of the lantern’s rectilinear metal-framed panels.
Rye Harbour (1938) is suffused with a misty early morning light. In Russell’s words, it is an exquisite ‘representation of light on water and the sense of distance melting into nothingness’. Dangerous Work at Low Tide (1940) is another painting made in dawn light. It shows a group of men watching three others walking towards the distant deadly mine which it is their job to clear. But what really draws you in and holds your attention is the way in which Ravilious has captured the haze of early morning light, the sky scored with rays of light emanating from the sun – a ball of pale fire to the right of the composition. To enhance the effect, Ravilious has scratched across the sky with pencil.
HMS Glorious in the Arctic was produced during the time which Ravilious spent attached to a naval convoy travelling to Norway in the early summer of 1940. Ravilious was perhaps more interested in capturing the Arctic light than in documenting ships and aircraft: though the warship occupies centre stage and the sky is populated with aircraft, its the pointillist aura of light in the sky and the way the sunlight ‘jags across the dappled surface of the water’ that holds our attention. Midnight Sun was painted on the same trip and utilizes the same effects for the light that thrilled Ravilious – ‘It was so nice working on deck long past midnight in bright sunshine’ – but this time it’s the composition, with its quirky assemblage of depth charge launcher, mooring rollers and lifebelt, that electrifies the work.
A third painting from the Norwegian expedition is Norway, a beautiful study of light on cold, dark water and snow-clad mountains. Ravilious called it ‘gloomy’, and there is a brooding quality to the landscape, reinforced by the blackness of the boat and the half-sunken wreck. Finally, HMS Ark Royal in Action, from the same journey, documents the retreat of Allied forces from Narvik on 9 June 1940, during which HMS Glorious had been sunk by enemy fire. As Russell observes, it is the spectacle of light and dark to which Ravilious is drawn, rather than the military significance of the moment: ‘which is why he was less a war artist than an artist who happened to find himself caught up in a war’.
Train Going Over Bridge at Night (c.1935) is an example of Ravilious’s bold use of yellow to illuminate a night scene: the electric lights inside the carriages and the glow from the engine firebox lend energy and motion to the scene, emphasised by the illuminated plume of smoke from the locomotive chimney.
During his career, Ravilious painted several murals – for example, at Morley College (with Edward Bawden), for the the brand new Midland Hotel in Morecambe (with his wife Tirzah), and for the Pavilion on the Victoria Pier at Colwyn Bay. November 5th, a watercolour painted in 1933 looks like a study for a similar mural. It is a strange and wonderful painting that transforms Bonfire Night into ‘an anarchic urban spectacle’.
My personal favourite from this section is the stunning Beachy Head (1939) in which beams of light from the lighthouse beneath the cliffs illuminate the night sky. Curiously, though, the textures and details of the land above the cliffs are revealed as clearly as if it were day.
Gallery: Darkness and Light
Eric Ravilious by Alan Powerswrote this in the Telegraph in 2014:
the tradition of the pastoral, he holds up for our consideration pictures of a more harmonious condition, a fleeting glimpse of the soul’s satisfaction with simple things in an imperfect world. Artists such as Ravilious and John Piper helped create a climate of opinion in which the stillness and layered time of English villages and landscapes were given unprecedented protection from the onslaught of modernity in post-war planning legislation.
- Eric Ravilious: ups and Downs (Guardian)
- Robert Macfarlane walks the South Downs
- British Masters: In search of England