Eric Ravilious, Ironbridge Interior, 1941. Image Towner Eastbourne

Eric Ravilious: a talent too long ignored

Ravilious’s ethereal, understated paintings are quietly dazzling

Artillery Row On Art

At dawn on 2nd September 1942, a Lockheed Hudson light bomber took off from an RAF base in Iceland. This plane was never seen again — its disappearance remains a mystery. Bad weather? Engine failure? Enemy action? No-one knows.

Among the five-man crew was the war artist Eric Ravilious, one of the finest artists of his generation. Eighty years on, this compact exhibition, Extraordinary Everyday: The Art & Design of Eric Ravilious, is a timely reminder of how much he left behind.

Ravilious was 39 when he vanished in the skies above the Arctic — quite old for a combatant, but an age when a lot of artists are only just beginning to hit their stride. Yet he produced more first-rate work in his twenties and thirties than most artists manage in a lifetime. Extraordinary Everyday, at The Arc in Winchester, is confined to a single room, but each picture is a thing of beauty, so intimate and personal, so calm and simple yet full of detail. After the press view was over, I crept back in to take another look at them. There’s something about them which makes you want to stand in front of them alone.

Eric Ravilious, The Carnation House, Kew, 1938. Courtesy of the British Council Collection. Photo © The British Council

Eric Ravilious was born in 1903 in Acton, West London. His father was an antique dealer, a devout and fervent Methodist, who subsequently went bankrupt. In 1908 the family moved to Eastbourne, where Eric went to school. Eric showed an early flair for drawing, winning a place at Eastbourne School of Art, from whence he advanced to the Royal College of Art.

Before the First World War, the Royal College had been the poor relation of London art schools, despite its regal title, but in the Twenties things began to change. Talented students like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth enhanced its reputation, and eminent teachers like Paul Nash inspired a new generation of artists. Nash (whose dreamlike landscapes inhabit similar territory as Ravilious) provided him with contacts, as well as inspiration. Throughout his truncated career, he was never short of work.

Yet the overall effect isn’t intense or busy — it’s ethereal, almost surreal

One reason why Ravilious remained gainfully employed was because he was admirably pragmatic. Having studied design rather than fine art (his humble background meant he had to earn a living, rather than painting impenetrable daubs in a Bloomsbury or Soho garret), he made woodcut illustrations for a wide range of publications. He designed crockery for Wedgwood (including a coronation mug for Edward VIII, hastily amended for George VI after Edward abdicated).

At the time, this seemed like bread-and-butter work, but a century later these workaday designs have aged very well indeed. They were modern for their time (Ravilious was no nostalgic) but he didn’t set out to shock or startle. Like all the best objets d’art, they’re things you’d like to have around you.

Ravilious tried painting in oils, but it didn’t suit his delicate, intricate style (he said that working with tubes of oil paint was like painting with toothpaste). Watercolour was his natural métier, and he did things with this medium which no artist had achieved before (the curator of this show, James Russell, calls it ‘A new kind of visual language’). His watercolours weren’t wishy-washy, but acute and penetrating.

Yet the overall effect isn’t intense or busy — it’s ethereal, almost surreal. He delights in the humdrum accessories of daily life — a kettle, a bicycle, a wheelbarrow — finding the extraordinary amid the everyday, hence the title of this show. A perfectionist, he produced each painstaking artwork on a single sheet of paper. If it went wrong he’d rip it up. As Russell says, “Tirzah, his wife, was constantly trying to stop him destroying things.”

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939. © Aberdeen City Council (Archives, Gallery & Museums Collection)

As well as the unassuming details of provincial England, Ravilious enjoyed a great affinity with the subtle splendour of the English landscape. He wrote to his wife Tirzah about his love of the “bleached greens and browns” of the South Downs in winter. “I long to walk the chalk paths,” he told her. “Those long white roads are a temptation. What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.”

Yet despite the poetic quality of his prose, his landscapes are supremely understated. In his most famous painting, “Train Landscape”, the magnificent white horse at Westbury, carved into the chalk hillside, is merely a background detail, seen fleetingly through the window of a third-class train compartment.

Even in his lifetime, critics stressed the “Englishness” of his work. “In feeling and temperament the work of Ravilious is very English,” wrote Richard Seddon in The Artist magazine. “Ravilious, unlike so many Englishmen, does not try to paint as though he were a Frenchman. His work has its roots deeply sunk into the life and the countryside and the culture of England.” Well, up to a point. There’s clearly something quintessentially English about Ravilious — his modesty, his self-effacement — but it’d be terribly un-English to overstate it. One of his favourite artists was the “Frenchman” Georges Seurat. “He was mostly an artist who painted in England because that’s where he lived and there was no money or opportunity to go anywhere else,” says Russell.

Consequently, Ravilious welcomed the opportunity to travel and paint abroad which his appointment as an official war artist afforded him. “The seas in the Arctic Circle are the finest blue you can imagine,” he wrote to Tirzah. “It was so nice walking on deck long past midnight in bright sunshine. I enjoyed it a lot, even the bombing, which is wonderful fireworks.” And yet, as in his English pastorals, the more dramatic elements are discreetly confined to the background. Rather like Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” death and disaster are less important than the essential business of normal life.

Audiences are rediscovering realism, and his quiet, discreet art is now back in vogue

“He was an interesting kind of war artist because he wasn’t at all interested in war,” says Russell. “His parents were Methodists, he was raised a Methodist — he refused to draw or paint bombers, because they inflicted so much pain.” And yet it seems he relished the experience, nonetheless. “I expect they’ll be issuing me with my own brigade of paint brushes,” he wrote to Tirzah, upon being commissioned as an honorary captain in the Royal Marines.

Ravilious called Iceland “the promised land.” He’d only been there a few days when he vanished. His name is recorded on the Chatham Naval Memorial, where he began his active service, one of three British war artists who lost their lives in the Second World War. “Goodbye my love,” reflected his beloved wife Tirzah, the mother of his three children. “The world will never know what great future works of art your departure has deprived it of.”

His death shocked the art world, but it wasn’t front-page news. His Wedgwood crockery was produced throughout the 1940s and 1950s, so as a designer he remained well-known — but as abstraction became all the rage, and figurative art fell out of fashion, as a painter he disappeared.

However, during the last 40 years there’s been a slow but steady revival in his reputation as an artist. Audiences are rediscovering realism, and his quiet, discreet art is now back in vogue. Throughout his life, and for half a century thereafter, watercolours were regarded as second best beside oil painting, and illustrators and designers were regarded as not quite proper artists. Thankfully, finally, that prejudice is abating. “His reputation is now way, way higher than it ever was during his life,” says Russell. And hurrah for that.

Extraordinary Everyday: The Art & Design of Eric Ravilious is at The Arc until 15 May 2022. A film about Ravilious, Drawn to Waris released later this year. 

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