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Eric Ravilious

Artist & Designer


Alan Powers


Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2013

Hardback. 216 p. 222 colour illustrations. ISBN 978-1848221116. £35


Reviewed by Sam Smiles

University of Exeter


Alan Powers has built up a considerable reputation for his research on aspects of English modernism and especially for his explorations of those painters, architects and designers whose practice has a slightly oblique relationship to the work produced by canonical modern artists. This exploration of the thick historical texture of the development of modern art in England is arguably his most important contribution to our understanding of the period, for it questions those overly reductive approaches to modernism that define artistic significance by virtue of its closeness to or departure from a set of values associated with the art movements of continental Europe. By that European standard, the work of a British artist is interesting the more it assimilates the formal and imaginative developments made abroad, but this is an assessment that runs the risk of constructing the whole course of British art as responsive rather than innovative, parasitic rather than organic. In numerous publications Powers has argued consistently that the development of modernism in England was idiosyncratic, some artists participating in the discourse of the modern movement wholeheartedly, some doing so more hesitantly and others offering nuanced deployments of modernism that suited the particularities of English culture. His new book on Eric Ravilious is a good demonstration of what this means in practice, for the artist combined many of the virtues of the English tradition of landscape painting in watercolour with a sensibility that patrolled the boundary between the unusual and the surreal.

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Eric Ravilious : Imagined Realities, Alan Powers’ major exhibition of Ravilious’ paintings at the Imperial War Museum, London, in 2003, constituted a turning point in the artist’s appreciation.(1) This is not to say that Ravilious had gone completely out of fashion, for aspects of his career had been the subject of ten much smaller exhibitions in the previous thirty years, but the 2003 exhibition was the most ambitious and the most impressive retrospective of his work. It marked the centenary of Ravilious’ birth and it reviewed his achievement as a whole, with a special emphasis on his war work before his untimely death in September 1942 when, based in Iceland, he joined an air-sea rescue mission that failed to return to base. The catalogue for that exhibition was not extensive and this present book has given Professor Powers the opportunity to write at much greater length. In the decade between the exhibition and this publication Ravilious has been the subject of six smaller surveys by James Russell and a scattering of other books (all of which are listed in the bibliography). Russell’s books are loosely comparable in format to this volume, offering high-quality reproductions with an informative text.(2) However, their division of Ravilious’ output into separate categories necessarily restricts the discussion, whereas in the publication under review Powers can integrate his material more widely and more effectively. This book is therefore likely to remain the authoritative account of Eric Ravilious for many years to come.

Powers organises his material within a chronological framework but also thematically. A first chapter on Ravilious’ education and formative influences and his early mural painting is followed by a chapter on his book designs and prints, a chapter on his paintings in watercolour, a chapter on design work, then a chapter on his activities as a war artist and finally a concluding assessment of the qualities of Ravilious’ art. Powers pays particular attention to Ravilious’ technique in the different media in which he worked: murals, watercolour, engraving, graphic design, textiles and ceramics. This close attention enables him to offer a convincing account of what it is that makes Ravilious’ aesthetic so highly recognisable. It also allows the reader to gain a focused appreciation of the qualities of Ravilious’ art and the rigorous discipline of his working practice. Simultaneously Powers situates these images within a rich context of artistic and broader cultural movements that help explain their affinities and the peculiar resonance of Ravilious’ singular vision.

Alan Powers’ knowledge of Ravilious is unrivalled and his scholarship of this period in English visual culture is profound, but the work is written in a highly engaging style that should prove attractive to the general reader as well as those professionally involved with this area of study. The publishers, Lund Humphries, are to be congratulated on producing a publication of such a superb standard. It has been beautifully designed by Nigel Soper and the quality of its colour reproductions, all of which are given generous amounts of space on the page, is uniformly high.



(1) Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities, 2003; reprinted 2012 (London: Philip Wilson).


(2) Russell, James. Ravilious in Pictures : Sussex and the Downs, 2009; Ravilious in Pictures : War Paintings, 2010; Ravilious in Pictures : Country Life, 2011; Ravilious in Pictures : A Travelling Artist, 2012; Ravilious : Submarine, 2013; Ravilious : Wood Engravings, 2013.


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