London: Dulwich Picture Gallery/Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015
Paperback. 168 pp.; 22 figs; 110 colour illustrations. ISBN 978-1781300329. £25.00
Reviewed by Sam Smiles
University of Plymouth
This catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, south London, held between 1 April and 31 August, 2015. The exhibition was billed as the first major opportunity for the public to view an extensive survey of Eric Ravilious’ watercolours from across his career, offering a timely retrospective of an artist whose star is manifestly on the rise again. It was well received by the critics and proved to be a very popular attraction for visitors to Dulwich. Its success was due not merely to a growing interest in British modernism between the wars, with the gallery-going public increasingly encouraged to look beyond the established and rather over-restricted pantheon of Nash, Hepworth and Moore, but also to an informed appreciation of the sheer quality of Ravilious’ work and the individuality of his approach.
Born in 1903 and lost at sea aged 39, while serving as a war artist, Ravilious’ artistic career was relatively short, confined to a little over sixteen years, c.1926-42, but in that time he proved himself to be an accomplished printmaker, designer and especially a painter in watercolours, sustaining into the modern era a medium with a long tradition in British painting. James Russell, the exhibition’s curator and author of the catalogue, is a Ravilious specialist and has already made a major contribution in helping to rehabilitate his reputation, publishing six attractively produced and informative surveys of his work since 2009.(1) Russell’s scholarship in this field has been complemented by the work of Alan Powers, whose important exhibition of Ravilious’ paintings at the Imperial War Museum, London, in 2003, Eric Ravilious : Imagined Realities, may be said to have re-ignited interest in the artist. Powers followed this with a major study, Eric Ravilious : Artist & Designer, published by Lund Humphries in 2013. That book ranged over Ravilious’ entire career, examining all aspects of his creative life. It was organised chronologically and thematically over seven chapters, with only two of them exploring Ravilious as a watercolour artist in peace-time and at war. The Dulwich exhibition, in contrast, was principally concerned with Ravilious’ work in watercolours, with over 80 on display. This allows Russell to spend more time in the catalogue to bring out the particular qualities of Ravilious’ work in that medium, and to talk about each exhibit in useful and illuminating ways. Many works are accompanied by details, some of them full-page, which help to bring out the qualities of Ravilious’ mastery of technique, his creative decision making and the idiosyncrasies of his vision.
Russell provides a brisk and very effective 19-page ‘Portrait’ of Ravilious’ life and times – which is supplemented with a Timeline at the end of the catalogue – before examining his watercolour oeuvre under the following headings: Relics & Curiosities, Figures & Forms, Interiors, Place & Season, Changing Perspectives and Darkness & Light. Necessarily, these are somewhat arbitrary categories and their thematic focus blurs any sense of an overall chronology in Ravilious’ evolution as an artist. That said, the works within each category are arranged in chronological sequence which allows one to consider Ravilious’ evolution of each theme Russell has identified. Moreover, it is arguable that once Ravilious’ signature style as a watercolour artist had emerged in the mid-1930s, his work did not undergo an especially marked transformation in the eight years or so he had left to live. He extended his repertoire of forms, naturally, as his war work brought him into contact with men, machines, situations and events that he had not encountered in peacetime, but his visual intelligence was, in large part, already formed.
Notes, index and a useful bibliography are supplied and Russell makes a valuable contribution to knowledge by listing the exhibits in Ravilious’ three exhibitions of the 1930s. The illustrations are full, sharp and true and the book is very handsomely designed. For newcomers to Ravilious’ work this catalogue provides a succinct and highly attractive introduction to the best of him; for enthusiasts it is a recommended partner to Powers’ 2013 publication.
(1) 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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