London: Dulwich Picture Gallery/Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015
Paperback. 168 pp.; 22 figs; 110 colour illustrations. ISBN 978-1781300329. £25.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gould
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3
Art historian James Russell’s aim in devising the “Ravilious” exhibition for the Dulwich Gallery, and its accompanying catalogue, is to make the case for Eric Ravilious’ inclusion in “the first rank of twentieth-century British artists” [xi]. Indeed, for a while his name had been forgotten, and he had usually failed to get a mention in surveys of 20th-century British art, until his reputation started growing again in 2003 after the Imperial War Museum set up an exhibition dedicated to the man who, along with the Nash brothers, Barnett Freedman and Edward Bawden, was one of the first people to be offered a war artist contract by Kenneth Clark’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee. By focusing on Ravilious’ watercolours, Russell is also keen on being respectful of the artist’s wish to be considered first and foremost as a painter, despite having made a name for himself as an illustrator, engraver and designer earlier in his career. Though a versatile artist whose designs for Wedgwood have become iconic, Ravilious (born 1903 in London but raised in Sussex, died 1942) considered painting to be his true vocation. Featuring over eighty watercolours, this catalogue, derived from the eponymous exhibition, focuses on this aspect of his career and on the very personal way in which he helped revive British watercolour painting for the modern era.
After studying under Paul Nash at the Royal College of Art, Ravilious established himself as a highly original illustrator using wood-engraving. Then, in the early 1920s, often working alongside his friend Eric Bawden, he started experimenting with watercolour. This was not as eccentric or anachronistic a move as it might seem, since Russell points out that 1920s London was in fact in thrall to the medium: “Since the end of the war, art lovers had flocked to exhibitions of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner, John Robert Cozens and John Sell Cotman, whose first major retrospective was held at the Tate in 1922. ‘There is no English landscape painter,’ announced The Times, ‘so interesting to the modern artist’” . His former teacher Paul Nash, now his friend, had also become the painter du jour by combining modern compositions with the lightness of touch of watercolours. 1926 then saw the rediscovery of pastoral artist Samuel Palmer, who had been completely neglected since his death in 1881, and whose original use of watercolour painting was to have a huge impact on the younger generation. The fact that originality could also be found in a previously obscure English artist, and not solely in the works of European painters who for years had held the monopoly over innovation and inventiveness, was a source of great reassurance for Ravilious and his friends. Indeed, their delight in representing the rolling hills of the South of England did not necessarily have to be synonymous with a parochial approach to art.
The revival of the English tradition of watercolour painting was therefore actually already well under way when Ravilious turned to the technique, but he wholeheartedly joined the movement, and his mastery of a difficult medium eventually contributed to a national ambition. None of the watercolours reproduced here are sketches merely adumbrating oil paintings to come, they are all fully-fledged large-scale works ready for exhibition. The medium, so closely tied to the British landscape tradition – both because it is so appropriate to the capturing of fleeting atmospheres and light and because it is so easily portable in light paintboxes – allowed him to express his fondness for Sussex and the Downs with both simplicity and sophistication.
Still, Ravilious’ early training as an engraver resurfaces in his watercolours where he creates texture sometimes similar to the grain of wood using dry brushes to score the surface with cross-hatched lines. This is especially visible in the patterns he invented to paint the skies, or in his depictions of night-time. In Paddle Steamers at Night (1938), for example, the moored steamers under electric light are almost monochrome, and both sea and sky have the same striated aspect where the artist uses the white of the paper to lighten his touch.
The defender of a quintessentially English tradition, Ravilious was also quintessentially English in his subject-matter, the South English landscape and its timeless features: the horse and giants carved into the chalk of the Wiltshire hills and the South Downs provide subjects for his most famous paintings: Train Landscape (1940), and The Westbury Horse (1939), two points of view on the same subject, one from the train, the other one from the hill. Although deemed timeless, these figures were turfed over in 1940 in order to prevent enemy pilots from using them as landmarks for directions. The national celebration of Bonfire Night in a particularly vibrant November 5th (1933) also makes for a very English scene which, quite untypically, takes place in an urban setting. But an English character is also to be found in the representation of light. Ravilious’ subdued colours (which might derive from the fact that he had long worked in black and white as an engraver) convey a specifically English atmosphere. He also liked to paint while facing the sun, thus creating a uniform tone. The light of the seaside is particularly striking, reinforced by the depiction of numerous lighthouses. In HMS Glorious in the Artic (1940), a never-setting Northern sun bathes the sea and sky dotted with war ships and aircraft in its luminous aura, and the author of the catalogue sees in this composition a solar symbolism similar to that of Paul Nash.
Russell notices Ravilious’ taste for “quirky subjects and unusual perspectives” . The Waterwheel (1938), one among many examples of a man-made object in a landscape, is a strange contraption surrounded by geese. In the 1930s, he was particularly fond of derelict cars and buses, one of which, in Number 29 Bus (1934), turns into something of a boat or of a plane about to float away into the distance. Human presence is always very subtle, usually alluded to metonymically through inanimate objects. It is therefore not a comfy or heritage notion of Englishness that he favours, because there is always an element of abandoned machinery or a strikingly straight fence looming like a surreal apparition in his nostalgic landscapes. 1935 was the year Ben Nicholson and John Piper changed the name of the Seven and Five Group to the Seven and Five Abstract Group, excluding figurative painters from their exhibitions. Ravilious had a taste for geometrical shapes which might be deemed to verge on the abstract, yet he never fully experimented with abstraction. This explains why he has been called a Romantic Modernist, his figurative scenes often full of unexpected angles and juxtapositions.
Unlike artists who had depicted World War One, and unlike many of his contemporaries whose work and lives were completely transformed by the experience and the witnessing of conflict, when Ravilious became an Official War Artist in 1939, he held on to his style. As the war progressed, it seemed that his paintings were only marginally affected, with only the manmade elements of his compositions changing: fishing boats and tea trays were replaced by other objects, war vessels and aircraft, propellers and bomb-diffusing equipment. But they remained mere foils for the English – and then Scandinavian – countryside. Evidence of a war going on is always referred to very subtly, with a few barrage balloons floating in the distance, or with military figures or convoys dwarfed by the landscape. Battle action is also quite unrealistic, as in HMS Ark Royal in Action (1940), for example, whose muzzle flashes are more fireworks than deadly cannon. Firing a 9.2 Gun (1941) is just as fanciful. The absence of a break in his painterly style, even when faced with the drastic changes imposed by war, probably explains why the catalogue – like the exhibition – does not adopt a chronological approach, but uses instead seven thematic headings: “Relics & Curiosities,” “Figures and Forms,” “Interiors,” “Place & Season,” “Changing Perspectives,” and “Darkness and Light”.
Admiring these beautiful later paintings of planes and military action is terribly poignant when one is aware that Ravilious’ life was tragically cut short when, aged 39, the air-sea rescue plane he was travelling on disappeared off the coast of Iceland and he was reported missing, presumed dead, on September 2nd 1942. One cannot but take into consideration this biographical aspect and the events that preceded it. The first chapter of the catalogue charts his life with his wife, the painter Tirzah Garwood, a life complicated by affairs with mistresses who were all fellow artists, and later on blighted by Tirzah’s ill-health (she succumbed to breast cancer in 1951 at the age of 42, leaving behind the couple’s two children James and Anne, aged only 12 and 10 when they were orphaned). But Tirzah is nevertheless depicted as an encouraging life-long companion whose journals gave Russell a useful chronicle of Ravilious’ life. But the stories of this artistic couple and of their artist friends are not dwelled upon and actually leave us wanting to learn more about their adventures. This is probably due to the fact that we can only imagine the wonderful art they might have created had their lives been longer.
In spite of his career tragically lasting only twenty years, Eric Ravilious managed to leave behind a huge but consistent body of work, all the while both holding the torch to a British tradition which had emerged in the 18th century and navigating in a very personal way through the artistic changes of the time. In this first critical study to focus on Ravilious’ watercolours, James Russell’s descriptions of a very comprehensive selection of works are always insightful and allow us to appreciate the prolificness behind the couple of well-known iconic designs.
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