I've been thinking about Eric Ravilious for a long time now - ever since we lived in Lewes, and could see the chalk paths across the Downs that he loved to draw. The exceptional exhibition, 'Ravilious & Co', which has just left Sheffield and will be reassembled at Compton Verney on March 17th 2018, is a reminder of the beauty and seriousness of his paintings. It is a testament to the research and persistence of Andy Friend and James Russell. And it demonstrates the astonishing vitality of Ravilious's artistic circle - the women and men who trained and worked alongside him. It seems a good time to try to pin down the reasons why I find his pictures so engrossing and a continual source of visual pleasure.
Sussex, Summer 1939:
Ravilious’s ability to enchant was recognised by his early friends and critics. Fellow-students at the Royal College of Art called him ‘the Boy’. In 1939, his pictures were described as ‘something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary’.[i] The taut geometry of his paintings lifts mundane objects, insisting that we take them seriously. A battered bicycle, a loaf of bread, a pot of geraniums, each thing becomes delightful under his touch. And then disconcerting as we acknowledge its peculiarities. He makes us see the curves and edges, the relationship to other things placed beside it. As we look more closely, we notice that Ravilious’s watercolours never try to conceal the skeleton of his drawing beneath the bright washes of blue and yellow and orangey-red.
Clark oversaw a thoughtful and energetic project, encouraging modern painters to respond to the new face of combat. This was no exercise in nostalgia. And Clark did not keep his artists out of harm’s way. In Ravilious’s case, with his work for the Admiralty, his subject was the fragile edges of Britain. He painted a coastline defined by new concrete defences and curls of barbed wire, with the pleasure boats drawn up high onto the beach to sit out the war. There is the recurring motif of the lighthouse marking the intersections between land, sea and sky. Ravilious was particularly fond of the stumpy towers at Newhaven, as well as the elegant tension between curved and flat in the lighthouse at Rye. Sometimes in his paintings they shine into the darkness. More often, though, they are unlit, upright and waiting. Very occasionally, as in Belle Tout interior (1939), Ravilious shows us the view from inside the lantern, the sunlight streaming in through the window panes, almost too bright to look at. A calligraphic line dancing across the paper marks the boundary between land and sea.