Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ravilious & Co. 

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:
A tea-table stands in the corner of the garden.  The milk-jug and plate of butter are shaded by a battered umbrella.  The warm air smells of fresh bread and new hay.  Peggy Angus is expecting visitors.  She leans on the wall, her cotton dress flapping against her bare brown legs, humming snatches of old tunes.  At the end of the track she sees them, dark figures against a chalk-white ground, a man and a woman carrying knapsacks and painting gear.  Eric Ravilious and his love Helen Binyon walk up the long lane from Glynde Station.  Refugees from the clatter of London, for a few days they can shelter beneath the open skies and lark-song.

Peggy’s cottage, Furlongs, sits beneath the swelling Sussex Downs.  It is a place of retreat for her artist-friends, a survivor from quieter times.  While Britain prepares for war, a procession of shire-horses and wagons pass her gate, and her front door stands open to the breeze and sunshine.  Her fellow-students from the old days at the Royal College of Art make their pilgrimages here.  In her small sitting room, beneath a ruby-glass oil lamp, the artists gather: Eric and Helen, Edward and Charlotte Bawden, John and Myfanwy Piper.  They share a desire to catalogue the small wonders of the English landscape.  Knowing that their world is under threat, the need to paint becomes more urgent.  They are the inheritors of the visionary Romantic tradition, heirs to Samuel Palmer.  Yet their art is sharp and never sentimental.  It is underpinned by a radicalism drawn from the utopias of William Morris.
Ravilious makes it his mission to document the ebb and flow of the Downland and its mysterious carved figures, white horses and giants.  His incisive eye, his delight in domesticity, his nostalgia and quirkiness suggest parallels with John Betjeman.  The lyricism of his watercolours reminds us of Vaughan Williams. Throughout the 1930s Ravilious fashions calm memorials to Englishness: images of white cliffs, greenhouses hung with ripening tomatoes, and ancient paths climbing to the sunlit uplands.

And then the war breaks in.  Ravilious, Piper and Bawden join Kenneth Clark’s band of official war artists.  Bawden is posted to North Africa and turns his hand to painting the vast theatres of war in Libya, Iraq and Ethiopia.  Piper sits with his sketchbook in the smouldering relics of Coventry Cathedral.  And Ravilious is offered a commission in the Admiralty.  He records coastal defences, submarines and docks around the South Coast and in Norway. Then in the summer of 1942 he is sent to Iceland.  On 2nd September his plane disappears over the sea, and he is lost. 


By tracing the patterns of friendship between Ravilious, Bawden and their circle, the exhibition offers an alternative history of English art.  Furlongs was barely five miles from Charleston, Virginia Woolf’s Sussex home.  Like Charleston, Furlongs provided the backdrop to love-affairs and intrigues.  But the artistic atmosphere of the two meeting-places could hardly have been more different.  The Bloomsbury group were self-consciously modernist.  The folk at Furlongs, on the other hand, embraced the traditions of English watercolour painting and wood-engraving.   Their work was intimate and evocative.

Ravilious traced the curl of a Swiss-roll with as much care as he mapped the course of a river.  He and his friends loved trips to the seaside, DIY and bunting, Bonfire Night and evenings in the pub.  Benjamin Britten and Henry Moore crossed their path, but this group of artists chose not to follow their lead.  Instead they painted ordinary beauty, glimpsed from a train window.  Their visions of Englishness have become more poignant as the years have passed.   We now celebrate their legacy in exhibitions, calendars, notecards and fridge magnets.    

Our first sight of Eric Ravilious is likely to be low key and domestic. He slips quietly into our lives, with his black-and-white designs for the breakfast table. We follow the undulating dot-and-dash around the rim of a bowl.  Then we start to feel our way into one of his landscapes, pushing through a wire fence, up a path, over the Downs.  Next, we become entangled in a coil of rope washed up in a watercolour.  Before we have quite realised what is happening, we are smitten.  Ravilious has cast his spell. 

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.

With a ruler and a pencil he draws a web of lines. They might become ceiling joists or floorboards, a quayside, a runway or young crops in a field. But they are never exactly aligned with our idea of perspective.  His rooms are slightly aslant, his table-tops are tilted. He keeps us on our toes, a little anxious that the image could slide away from us or trip us up.

This is one of his magic tricks.  Ravilious offers us pictures that at first sight seem straightforward; as he said when he drew the folds of the Sussex Downs, ‘the design was so beautifully obvious’.[ii]  He holds our attention by making the familiar look fresh.  He watches from new vantage points. He makes us question the choreography of his compositions. How could he paint that bedroom, unless he was standing on a chair in one corner?  Why did he outline those scissors and spoons on a tray, laid out like a game of Pelmanism?   
This tendency becomes more marked from 1940 when he begins his War work.  Ravilious’s paintings and lithographs lead us into empty huts, then down into tunnels hung with maps and out onto icy seas.  His eye dwells on the uneasy interludes that punctuate conflict.  He shows the steady administrative tasks – telephone calls, filing cabinets, test flights – underpinning the drama of war.  Occasionally he treats us to a burst of artillery, blazing from a 9.2 gun positioned high above the coast.[iii]  But even here he suggests that the soldiers are simply getting on with their job.  There is no hurry.  We do not know what they are firing at, or whether they hit it.  The yellow flash from the gun’s mouth is hardly a sign of modern warfare.  Instead it seems like a nod to an earlier tradition of fireworks (which Ravilious loved) or William Blake’s flaming flowers in Songs of Innocence and Experience.


In 1941, the same year that Ravilious painted his bright gun, an appreciation of Blake was published by David Cecil in The English Poets.  According to Cecil, Blake’s poems were like ‘a rush of the wind in the tree-tops’ or ‘a fresh gale, racy with the smell of earth’.[iv] Ravilious responded in kind.  His gun-emplacement is set on a breezy upland. Wind-tossed flowers draw our eye away from the figures, and across waving grasses towards the sea.  What are the artillery-men defending?  This was the central question for the artists gathered by Kenneth Clark late in 1939 to document the war. It was not simply the ‘green and pleasant land’ that produced Blake. It was the right for a man to sit in a field with his sketchbook, despite the gunfire, in the ‘rush of the wind’.  England now meant both Blake and gun-batteries. They co-existed in Ravilious’s watercolour, the pastoral interrupted by a blast.   

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.

Ravilious delighted in rippling borderlines.  We find them at the scalloped edges of sandbanks as they dip beneath the waters of Rye Harbour (1938). 

They mark the gap between grass and tarmac in Runway Perspective (1942). 
And most spectacularly, Ravilious created a sparkling thread of water flowing through marshland in Cuckmere Haven (1939).  Here the meander of the river is echoed in the ribbon of a chalk path through the grass, and even in the cloud formations. Earth, water, sky are linked and defined by the looping lines of Ravilious’s pencil.

However, he is careful not to let us become lost in a watery maze.  A stone wall and a field in the foreground create a gently sloping springboard. From here the acrobatic elements in the composition can rise, soar, twist and come to rest again.  In every watercolour there is an underpinning, an architecture which is laid down first.  It is rarely quite on the square, and this contributes to the tension between solid and line.  But nevertheless, Ravilious mapped the geology of his landscapes and the girders of his underground corridors in pencil, before he explored their more delicate edges and crossing points.

This exhibition allows us to follow the threads back to his early years as an art student, and forward towards his work in Norway and Iceland. It reveals the strands that link him to the avant-garde of the 1920s and his place in a wider circle of artists who wrote and thought and travelled in interwar Britain.  It also asks us to consider how the loss of his aircraft in 1942, missing (presumed dead) before his 40th birthday, altered the reception of his art.  Above all, these displays allow us to linger, to delight in the complex surfaces of the watercolours, and the enjoy the intricacies of his black and white designs.   

[i] Jan Gordon, ‘Influences and Fusion’, The Observer, 14 May 1939, p.14

[ii] Eric Ravilious, letter to Peggy Angus, 15 May 1939, in James Russell, Ravilious, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015, p.10

[iii] Eric Ravilious, Firing a 9.2 Gun, 1941, watercolour on paper, Imperial War Museum

[iv] David Cecil, English Poets, from Britain in Pictures series, London, 1941, pp. 9 & 20

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on suzannefagencecooper@yahoo.com for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.