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31 August 2022

Eric Ravilious’s visions of war and peace in England

The artist, who died 80 years ago, aged 39, found a bucolic beauty even in military action.

By Michael Prodger

In late August 1942 Eric Ravilious – watercolourist, wood engraver, designer – had dinner in London with his friend and collaborator JM Richards. The evening was memorable because within days, Ravilious was dead. “I thought I discerned, behind his talk that night, a sense within him that he had come to the end of what he had to do,” Richards recalled, possibly with a memory informed by what was to happen. “It may have been no more than a sense of resignation: that he was now content to let events determine the next phase of his life.”

Events determined that Ravilious, in his capacity as an official war artist during the Second World War, fly to Iceland to document the efforts of the Norwegian Squadron in protecting shipping convoys in the north Atlantic. He was excited by the prospect of painting Iceland’s snow and rocks in homage to one of his favourite artists, the Georgian watercolourist Francis Towne. The journey from Reykjavik to the RAF base at Kaldadarnes had given him a taste of its possibilities: “We flew over the mountain country that looks like craters on the moon,” he wrote. And he was by then both an aficionado of landscape and an established painter of the materiel of war – its airplanes, ships, heavy guns and barbed wire. In 1941 he had felt “a stir in me that it is possible really to like drawing war activities” and had responded.

On 2 September, three days after his arrival at Kaldadarnes, he was asked if he wanted to join a search mission to look for an airplane that had not come back. He and the four other crew members of the Hudson air-sea rescue plane took off to scour the sea for survivors. At some point they hit bad weather and lost radio contact; they never returned. Ravilious, at 39, was the first war artist (of only three) to die while pursuing his duties.

[See also: Carl Blechen’s barren expanses let nature speak for itself]

Ravilious had loved to paint planes and he loved flying, “Just floating on great curly clouds and perfectly still and cool,” as he had described it to his wife Tirzah. But earlier in the year he’d had a sort of presentiment too: on a picnic with his lover and fellow artist Helen Binyon, who would become his first biographer, he told her of watching a training session for seaplane pilots. The aircraft were flying in a line when one lost control and hurtled into the sea: “But the others were not allowed to stop,” Binyon recalled. “The exercise had to go on. Eric had talked to and liked the young man so suddenly drowned before his eyes. He couldn’t forget the shock of it. I remember him almost shouting, ‘I hate the idea’ – of death he must have meant: his own?”

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HMS Glorious in the Arctic. Wikimedia Commons

In a letter of commiseration to Tirzah, Kenneth Clark – the director of the National Gallery and the man who had resuscitated the war artists scheme in part to “prevent [his friends] from being killed” – lamented “a terrible tragedy for English art: your husband had a unique place as an artist and designer”. Ravilious’s death cost Britain one of its most distinctive talents, a man who had revivified the traditional genres of landscape painting in watercolours and woodblock printing and who had given modern design a personal twist with his work for Wedgwood ceramics, his furniture designs and his illustrations for publishers from high-end niche presses to Country Life and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. But, as JM Richards had perceived, perhaps Ravilious had indeed “come to the end of what he had to do”.

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It is hard to imagine the direction his art would have taken had he survived the war and found himself at work in the age of abstract expressionism or pop art. Although he was a fecund and brilliant inventor of patterns, he had shown no interest in the extremities of European modernism when it was gripping many of his peers, and none in abstraction either. He was nevertheless a modern painter, adopting for his pastorals a pared-back style, a strong sense of structure, and devising what Binyon called a “starved brush”, calligraphic technique of applying watercolour that had more in common with the Chinese tradition than the British.

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He occupied a place that lay somewhere between Thomas Bewick and Samuel Palmer, the arts and crafts movement, and the contemporary age. Unlike the Bloomsbury group at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, a few miles from Ravilious’s home town of Eastbourne, he was not interested in artistic theory, avant-garde or otherwise, nor was he afflicted with painter’s angst. As his friend Douglas Percy Bliss put it: “The woodenly serious was not his province.”

That insouciance extended to his private life too. In 1930 he married Tirzah Garwood, a talented woodblock artist who was a cut above him socially, but there were various infidelities. Ravilious’s character was marked by charm, gregariousness and a propensity for falling in love, and he could behave, said Tirzah, like a “cad and butterfly”. Nevertheless, for all the pain he caused, she was both understanding and forgiving: she even once wrote “a calming letter” to the husband of one of Ravilious’s lovers, after which, she said, the upset spouse “became more reasonable about the matter”.

For all his personal amiability and professional accomplishment, Ravilious was quickly forgotten after his death. He was, after all, a man who had declared himself “inordinately fond of tea”, whose favourite author was PG Wodehouse, and who painted Downland chalk figures, Essex villages, and landscapes littered with agricultural machinery. The particular intensity of his vision was overlooked, and both he and his art seemed staid and nostalgic, even whimsical, to most postwar artists.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, when his descendants found a suitcase of his pictures under a bed, that interest stirred again. Since then his paintings have come to been seen as emblems of a prelapsarian England and he has assumed the status of one of the best-loved painters of the 20th century – among both the public and merchandisers. He has been the subject of innumerable exhibitions, books, and this year a thoughtful and poignant documentary film too, Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War.

Ravilious was born the son of a bankrupted antiques salesman and entered the Royal College of Art in 1922 on a £60 scholarship. He initially joined the design school, where the principal, William Rothenstein, was committed both to the idea of allying art and design, and a determination to steer the students away from producing “dreary imitations of Morris designs” and towards work that had a “more alert spirit”. On his first day at the RCA, Ravilious met Edward Bawden and the pair became lifelong friends. Fellow students who would go on to play an important role in British mid-century design included Barnett Freedman and Enid Marx. Paul Nash, who was a part-time tutor at the college, described the cohort as “an outbreak of talent”.

Ravilious’s two major early commissions, murals for Morley College in London, painted with Bawden, and another mural, for the Midland Hotel at Morecambe, painted with his wife-to-be Tirzah, are both now lost. He found that he didn’t like oil paint – “like using toothpaste” – but preferred watercolour and wood engraving, despite the attentions of his pet canary, who would sit “on my left hand when I am working and watches the chips fly – I have to shoo him off the block sometimes”.

[See also: How Patrick Nasmyth brought Dutch mastery to Scottish art]

He quickly established a manner that was to remain unvarying. At the centre of his art are the landscapes of Sussex and Essex: in the early 1930s he and Tirzah shared a house with Bawden and his wife in Great Bardfield, where they would skinny dip in the River Pant, before the Raviliouses moved to a place of their own in nearby Castle Hedingham. Treating his surroundings as simultaneously ancient and modern, he would mix the man-made with the natural – a rolling view seen through a train window, a wire fence on a grassy slope, a lump of farm machinery in a field. People are almost always offstage – and if they do appear their faces are left blank – as if they have just walked away. So quotidian scenes of an outdoor table set for tea or a bedroom with patterned wallpaper are a form of accidental surrealism, gently and possibly unconsciously playing with the evocativeness of the found object.

Ravilious disliked bright sunlight and was “worried by the excess of green in the average English landscape” so painted cloudy and patterned skies and adopted a subtle palette of heritage colours – muted shades of brown, ochre, blue and grey. He applied them in hatchings and flicks, much as he carved his woodblocks, rather than in wet washes of colour. He had, however, no eye for the picturesque. As Bliss noted, Ravilious “never sits down to draw the view that 99 out of a hundred watercolourists cannot resist”. The result was a series of images – of the White Horse of Uffington, say, or the lighthouse stabbing its rays into the darkness at Beachy Head – that are both familiar and a little odd, almost dreamlike.

When the war came Ravilious simply swapped elements. Before the war, Ravilious painted merchant ships at Newhaven or the lifeboat at Aldeburgh, and when hostilities commenced he turned to destroyers and aircraft carriers instead. An ack-ack dugout and a mine-clearing party were substituted for an abandoned bus at the edge of a farm or a waterwheel on the Sussex Downs; the sickbay of an RAF base took the place of a greenhouse filled with geraniums. It was still bucolic, but military bucolic this time.

His war was unmartial, there is no death or destruction in his images. Binyon described Ravilious as “gay and easy and ready for anything” and his old RCA mentor Rothenstein had spotted that “there was a quality of perfection in everything he did, a reflection of his own delightful nature”: war in no way tempered these traits.

In 1940, when he was posted to HMS Highlander when it sailed for Norway, he wrote delightedly to Tirzah that in the ship “there are even flowers on the table and chintz curtains. It made me laugh to see a fine cottage chintz in the Wardroom of a destroyer.” He enjoyed the action too – “a lot, even the bombing which is wonderful fireworks”. And his pictures of HMS Ark Royal firing its huge guns show just this; they are an exercise in pattern-making where the spurting flames illuminating the Arctic dark are to him an extension of the bonfire-night celebrations he had painted in 1933.

If Ravilious’s solution to the enormity of war was to see it as a series of decorative motifs in motion, he had to solve the problems set by domestic landscape too. Back in 1935 he had written to Binyon about the difficulty of making art that was his alone. “It is hard to find country that doesn’t remind one of other people’s paintings,” he lamented, perhaps with William Nicholson’s many earlier paintings of the Sussex Downs in his mind. By the time he fell to his death it was a problem he had long overcome. He was blessed, said Bawden, with “almost flawless taste”, and his great achievement was to use it to make paintings – and in them a version of England – that remind the viewer of no one but Ravilious himself.

For screenings of “Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War” visit https://www.foxtrotfilms.com/films/eric-ravilious-drawn-to-war/

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine