The Boy who never grew old

Eric Ravilious’s ethereal watercolours chime with today’s sensibilities

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the instructive tale of Eric Ravilious’s posthumous reputation, three events stand out.

The first occurred in September 1942, when an RAF Lockheed Hudson took off from its base in Iceland across the sparkling waters of the North Atlantic, and never returned. On board were the pilot, three airmen and an observer — war artist Eric Ravilious. Aged 39, Ravilious was having the time of his life. His friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden called Ravilious “The Boy”, a nickname reflecting his Peter Pan-like character. At worst this could play out as désinvolture — at best, a gift for finding wonder in the most unpromising situations.

Winter Snow

His work as an official war artist sent him off on adventures, exposing him to different ways of working, new qualities of light. Best of all, at least for his art, war gave him access to all the shiny boys’ toys of conflict: ships, submarines, aircraft. His death was tragic, not only for personal reasons — he left behind a terminally ill wife, his own 85-year-old father and three young children — but for its brutal termination of a career so full of promise.

Lost at the height of his powers, “The Boy” never grew old. Unlike his contemporaries, he never had to negotiate a market dominated by abstract expressionism or pop art, nor indeed confront the marginal nature of Britain’s post-war art scene more generally. It was as if his sudden, enigmatic exit — not even a crash site, not even a grave — brought down a shutter. By the time the war ended, those who had managed to survive it were, in general, ready to move on. In the decades that followed who, apart from a few specialists, wanted to think about Ravilious?

The second event took place in 1972. Ravilious’s children — John, James and Anne — became orphans in 1951, when their mother, Tirzah Ravilious (neé Garwood), a talented artist in her own right, died of cancer, aged 42. As adults, wishing to know more about their father, they wrote to Edward Bawden, who still lived in the house he once shared with Eric and Tirzah. Under his bed, half forgotten, was a cache of Ravilious’s work.

We shouldn’t exaggerate Ravilious’s post-war obscurity. True, his murals had largely been destroyed, his neo-Regency furniture designs fell out of fashion, some of his war pictures were either lost at sea or suppressed by the censors.

Yet Ravilious’s design for a coronation mug, created for Edward VIII then rapidly reconfigured to suit George VI, was wheeled out again by Wedgwood in 1953. A few of his wood engravings — stock blocks for Everyman’s Library, his playful woodcut for Wisden — received the ultimate accolade, becoming such familiar fixtures of British culture as to have apparently existed forever. Many of Ravilious’s watercolours survived in public collections, notably the Imperial War Museum in London.

Self-critical, he destroyed perhaps as many as four paintings in five

Still, Bawden’s unearthing of this “new” work marked a sea-change. In 1982, the Ravilious descendants made a long-term loan of the artist’s work to the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex. In 1986, the Towner staged an exhibition reassessing Ravilious’s legacy. And this, in turn, had the effect of flushing out yet more pictures that had existed, neglected or misunderstood, in private collections.

The 1980s brought the triumph of postmodernism. Super-markets were crowned with gables and clock towers, Brideshead Revisited was on television, and the public flotation of Laura Ashley Holdings was oversubscribed by something like 34 per cent. Forty years after his death, Ravilious had found a way back.

The third relevant event took place in October 2003 when a major exhibition, Imagined Realities, opened at the Imperial War Museum. The context underscored Ravilious’s place as a war artist — not surprisingly, as the bulk of his accessible work was in the IWM collection.

The show, however, presented a vastly expanded vision. Here, Ravilious was lucky. The guest curator, Alan Powers, was equipped not only with deep knowledge of twentieth-century British fine art, but also a crucial sympathy for the architecture and design of the inter-war period. Powers understood how the tension between modernism and tradition informed Ravilious’s design commissions, and carried this over into a sensitive reading of his work.

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The decades that followed saw an ever-accelerating Ravilious renaissance, at least in Britain. Milestone exhibitions included James Russell’s Ravilious in 2015, and Andy Friend’s Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship in 2017. A minor publishing industry has developed around him. It ranges from delectable private press offerings to beautifully produced Mainstone Press publications, budget-friendly “gift books”, exhibition catalogues and scholarly work galore. In 2022 these were joined by Drawn to War, a feature-length documentary film.

An engraving of a Chanticleer (London, 1903 – 1942)

More difficult to convey is the extent to which, 80 years after his death, Ravilious now serves as a point of reference for writers, artists, graphic designers, musicians, even commercial brands. Like any “vibe”, it’s hard to define, yet once appreciated, unmissable. Robert Macfarlane, Angie Lewin, Simon Palmer, Angela Harding, St Jude’s, Sea Power — the list goes on. Disparate in themselves, they have all found something in Ravilious worth making their own.

Born in 1903, Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne. His father was, variously, a coachman, furniture dealer, discharged bankrupt and Methodist lay preacher. This mattered, because when young Eric studied at the Royal College of Arts in London, he did so as a design student on a series of scholarships. The course grounded him in architecture, graphic design and printmaking. There was little emphasis on painting in oils.

The course pushed him in the direction of creating work that was accessible, pleasing, capable of finding a market. It’s no discredit to Ravilious — or at least, it shouldn’t be — that there was always an artisan, skill-centred edge to his practice.

Ravilious’s reputation has skyrocketed in recent years which owes much to our increasingly online way of living

His politics, where discernible, were blandly conventional. A member of the left-wing Artists’ International Association, even his friends recognised this allegiance as more social than ideological. His father’s nonconformist Christianity inoculated him against overt religious faith. He fell in and out of love frequently. Peter Pan-like, he soared blithely above everyday attachments — something that comes across in his work.

Ravilious got his start painting murals, making prints and book illustrations, designing furniture and ceramics. Only later did he make money from painting. His watercolours, mostly landscapes, sold almost exclusively to private buyers in a handful of commercial shows.

Ravilious with Sir Kenneth Clark (Photo by Tunbridge/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In late 1939 he was accepted onto Sir Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee scheme. This was no soft option. Commissioned as a captain, Ravilious took part in the Norway campaign in the spring of 1940. He was lucky to have survived, yet delighted in his war work. Of Norway, he wrote, “I enjoyed it a lot, even the bombing which is wonderful fireworks.” Having often depicted fireworks before the war, he proceeded to depict shell-bursts in similar ways.

If there had always been a degree of detachment in his work — delight in finding a good design and making the most of it, irrespective of subject matter — this was never more remarkable than in his war art. At its best, strong design is ageless — much more so than the special pleading of propaganda, patriotism, even personal anguish. Yet at the same time, the implied sang-froid in the face of death signalled something to his wartime audiences. His war art was no less powerful for being reticent and non-declamatory.

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Ravilious wasn’t a prolific artist. Self-critical, he destroyed perhaps as many as four paintings in five. Watercolours, meanwhile, are difficult to display. Small, particularly when compared with twentieth-century oil paintings, one must stand close to see them — a nightmare for exhibition planners. Watercolours present challenges with lighting and conservation. They reproduce badly in monochrome which, until the 1980s, was the only economical means of art illustration.

Many regard Ravilious as a “traditional” artist, rooted in a pleasingly pre-digital world. There are ironies, then, in the fact that his present-day popularity hinges on the suitability of his images for mechanical or indeed digital reproduction.

His paintings thrive on screen. Already small, they don’t lose the impact of scale in the same way, say, a big work by Ivon Hitchens might. Their tactile quality is expressed through the nature of the brushwork — often executed with a “starved”, dry brush, using the sort of hatching strokes more familiar from wood engraving. This works well in reproduction. Thickly impastoed oils by Freud or Auerbach, in contrast, require three dimensions in order to function.

Chemist Shop at Night, 1938, (1946). (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

There’s one further characteristic that makes Ravilious’s work ideal for our online age. Ravilious employed hatched, linear brushwork. He also used various resists, sometimes scratching away at his paint to reveal the paper beneath. In other words, he achieved his effects by leaving much of the paper bare. Whiteness — snow, chalk, clouds, the blindness of looking straight into the sun — is his hallmark. The consequence, even when viewed on a tiny iPhone screen, is to let a great deal of light radiate out from “behind” the image. Compare an online glimpse of a Ravilious watercolour with the most playful Rex Whistler painting, the most luminous Paul Nash oil, and you’ll see the difference. One looks flat on the screen — the other literally shines.

If ever there were a moment when British audiences might seek out an alternative to internationalism this was it

Ravilious’s autograph work is expensive — and be-coming more so all the time. In June 2003, a Ravilious watercolour titled New Year Snow sold at auction for £35,850. This wasn’t a bad price — several times what a comparable watercolour by Paul Nash was fetching at the time, if rather less than a good Nash oil. In October 2023, however, the same work sold for £280,000. Nor was this the highest price achieved by a Ravilious picture — that honour goes to Pilot Boat, sold for £378,000 in November 2022.

Two Wedgwood Mugs Designed by Eric Ravilious

Don’t want to splash out £200,000 on a Ravilious watercolour? A mere £6,000 buys an original lithograph from the Submarine series; £3,000, a Boat Race bowl; £1,000, one of those compulsively collectable coronation mugs. If, however, that’s beyond your budget, there are alternatives: reproductions galore, of varying expense and quality, of the ceramics and also the pictures. There are postcards, Christmas cards, advent calendars, tea towels, lens cloths, tote bags, fridge magnets. The now sadly debased Wedgwood even greeted the coronation of King Charles III with a new “Ravilious” mug.

What’s more, most of these things actually look quite good, for the simple reason that Ravilious’s commercial work was always meant to excel in reproduction, unlike museum shop stalwarts like the Van Gogh tea cosy or the Leonardo da Vinci umbrella.

The way in which Ravilious’s reputation has skyrocketed in recent years owes much to our increasingly online way of living. On Instagram, there’s a Ravilious account with 12,500 members. On Facebook, Ravilious is celebrated on at least three different groups, the largest with over 11,000 members. They admire reproductions of his images, congratulate each other on acquiring Ravilious-related items, seek out scenes he depicted, trade views about artists associated with him.

On Twitter, various accounts — one with 42,500 followers — reproduce his work daily. While much of the enthusiasm reflects the austere, luminous beauty of the images, sometimes the appeal is more complicated. Not least, there’s an overlap with those accounts, ostensibly non-political, sharing film of London streets from the 1950s, with the unspoken suggestion that the past — specifically, our English past — was in all sorts of ways a happier, safer, better sort of place.

One can over-interpret anything. Still, it’s striking that the IWM exhibition — the show that relaunched Ravilious’s reputation — opened in October 2003, just a few months after the US-led invasion of Iraq. If ever there were a moment when British audiences might conceivably seek out an alternative to internationalism, 24-hour rolling news and the anxieties of an increasingly fragile-looking world order, this was it.

HMS Ark Royal In Action, a night scene by Ravilious Painted on board HMS Highlander, near Norway, 1940. (Photo by Eric Ravilious/Imperial War Museums via Getty)

There’s no denying that Ravilious’s art is inextricable from inter-related issues of nostalgia and Englishness now as it was in his own unstable times. Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931) features a character — young, worldly — who is hilariously obsessed with the unfashionable kitsch of the Victorian era. The joke is that a semi-ironic appreciation of tradition is a much more sophisticated preference than an unironic preference for modernism. Others, for instance John Betjeman, would later take this and run with it, up to the point where the Young Fogeys of the 1980s were ready to grasp the pleasingly worn-out baton.

All this, surely, is present in Ravilious’s art — those slightly forlorn bathing machines, unpeopled interiors with their unselfconscious multiplicity of pattern, the shop fronts of High Street, even the hand-painted numbering of the railway carriage in Train Landscape (1940). These things don’t appear because Ravilious was recording his unmediated, everyday experience. Like so much else in his art, nostalgia is a conscious choice.

Train Landscape, Eric Ravilious (London, England, 1903 – 1942) 1940

Occasionally he pushes his nostalgic discoveries right up to the boundaries of surrealism. At other times, he cheerfully distorts perspective — his treatment of space is often non-literal — in a playful appropriation of continental modernism. Alan Powers has called this “Cubism for the masses”. Sometimes, indeed, as in Beachy Head, where line and pattern are almost everything, Ravilious flirts with outright abstraction.

Ravilious had a modernist’s allergy to the picturesque or sentimental. He rejected the clichés of English landscape painting: church spires, ramshackle Tudor cottages, mossy romantic ruins. His was, manifestly, an edited England — generally rural, often heartbreakingly beautiful, more than a little numinous — but never an innocent, uncontested one. His idylls were often scattered with disused machinery, laced with barbed wire, observed in the shadow of war. Even his most innocuous scenes have something slightly unnerving about them.

Chalk paths, 1935 (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

For all his lightheartedness, Ravilious was no naive painter. In 1932 the teacher who meant the most to him, Paul Nash, drafted an article titled “Going Modern and Being British”. Nash was clear that it was possible to use modernist means, as it were, to achieve local and particular ends. While others might mock this very English accommodation — notably Nikolaus Pevsner, amusing on the subject of how the English habitually compromise on everything — Ravilious seems to have worked along similar lines.

When, today, we instinctively prefer Ravilious to his heroes Cotman, Towne and Palmer, it is because he’s closer to our own postmodern sensibilities than they were. But there’s also something in the contested nature of his England that we recognise.

The Boy who will never grow old: his is a compromised paradise always on the brink of loss, yet simultaneously one in which it’s still possible to spot the rhythms that convey to us pleasure, beauty, joy. If there is a cool yet somehow blithe detachment in his work — and there is — then perhaps there is also a strategy for transcending the habitual, ugly indignations of our present.

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