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Fishink in London Part 4. Eric Ravilious

May 6, 2015

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Ok it’s confession time readers… my sole reason for going to London last week was … to get the rare opportunity to see the work of one of my ‘personal gods’, Mr Eric Ravilious. The amazing exhibition was brought about by a fellow Ravilious fan James Russell, who was asked by the Dulwich Picture Gallery to put this whole show together and thankfully he not only did that, but he did it spectacularly well.

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Eric Ravilious was born on 22 July 1903 in Churchfield Road, Acton, London, the son of Frank Ravilious and his wife Emma (née Ford). While he was still a small child the family moved to Eastbourne in Sussex, where his parents ran an antique shop. He was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School. In 1919 he won a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art and in 1922 another to study at the Design School at the Royal College of Art. There he became close friends with Edward Bawden (his 1930 painting of Bawden at work is in the collection of the College) and, from 1924, studied under Paul Nash.

Nash, an enthusiast for wood engraving, encouraged him in the technique, and was impressed enough by his work to propose him for membership of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1925, and helped him to get commissions. In 1925 he received a travelling scholarship to Italy and visited Florence, Siena, and the hill towns of Tuscany. Following this he began teaching part-time at the Eastbourne School of Art, and from 1930 taught (also part-time) at the Royal College of Art.

In the same year he married Eileen Lucy “Tirzah” Garwood, also an artist and engraver. They would have three children together: John Ravilious; the photographer James Ravilious; and Anne Ullmann, editor of books on her parents and their work. In 1928 Ravilious and Bawden painted a mural at Morley College in South London on which they worked for a whole year. Their work was described by J. M. Richards as “sharp in detail, clean in colour, with an odd humour in their marionette-like figures” and “a striking departure from the conventions of mural painting at that time”. It was destroyed by bombing in 1941.

Between 1930 and 1932 Ravilious and Garwood lived in Hammersmith, London, where there is a blue plaque on the wall of their house at the corner of Upper Mall and Weltje Road. When Ravilious and Bawden graduated from the RCA they began exploring the Essex countryside in search of rural subjects to paint. Bawden rented Brick House in Great Bardfield as a base and when he married Charlotte Epton, his father bought it for him as a wedding present. Ravilious and Garwood lodged in Brick House with the Bawdens until 1934 when they purchased Bank House at Castle Hedingham, which is now also marked by a blue plaque. In 1933 Ravilious and his wife painted murals at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. In November 1933, Ravilious held his first solo exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in London and 20 of the 37 works displayed were sold.

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Ravilious was accepted as a full-time salaried artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in December 1939. He was given the rank of Honorary Captain in the Royal Marines and assigned to the Admiralty. In February 1940, he reported to the Royal Naval barracks at Chatham Dockyard. While based there he painted ships at the dockside, barrage balloons at Sheerness and other coastal defences. Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940 depicts bomb disposal experts approaching a German magnetic mine on Whitstable Sands.Two members of the team Ravilious painted were later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

On 24 May 1940 Ravilious sailed to Norway aboard HMS Highlander which was escorting HMS Glorious and the force being sent to recapture Narvik. Highlander returned to Scapa Flow before departing for Norway a second time on 31 May, 1940. From the deck of Highlander, Ravilious painted scenes of both HMS Ark Royal and HMS Glorious in action. HMS Glorious in the Arctic depicts Hawker Hurricanes and Gloster Gladiators landing on the deck of Glorious as part of the evacuation of forces from Norway on the night of 7/8 June. The following night Glorious was sunk, with great loss of life.

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On returning from Norway, Ravilious was posted to Portsmouth from where he painted submarine interiors at Gosport and coastal defences at Newhaven. He remarked on how hot and difficult it was painting in these confined spaces underwater.

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After Ravilious’s third child was born in April 1941, the family moved out of Bank House to Ironbridge Farm near Shalford, Essex. The rent on this property was paid partly in cash and partly in paintings, which are among the few private works Ravilious completed during the war. In October 1941 Ravilious transferred to Scotland, having spent six months based at Dover. In Scotland, Ravilious first stayed with John Nash and his wife at their cottage on the Firth of Forth and painted convoy subjects from the signal station on the Isle of May.

At the Royal Naval Air Station in Dundee, Ravilious drew, and sometimes flew in, the Supermarine Walrus seaplanes based there. In early 1942, Ravilious was posted to York but shortly afterwards was allowed to return home to Shalford when his wife was taken ill. There he worked on his York paintings and requested a posting to a nearby RAF base while Garwood recovered. He spent a short time at RAF Debden before moving to RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. At Sawbridgeworth he began flying regularly in the de Havilland Tiger Moths based at the flying school there and would sketch other planes in flight from the rear cockpit of the plane.

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On 28 August 1942 Ravilious flew to Reykjavík and then travelled on to RAF Kaldadarnes. The day he arrived there, 1 September, a Lockheed Hudson aircraft had failed to return from a patrol. The next morning three planes were despatched at dawn to search for the missing plane and Ravilious opted to join one of the crews. The plane he was on also failed to return and after four days of further searching, the RAF declared Ravilious and the four-man crew lost in action. His body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial. What a great loss.

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For me some of my favourite illustrations, are those of the interiors of greenhouses and of the countryside. According to information provided by John Nash (letter of 24 February 1959), this watercolour (below top right) and another of a vine covered with grapes were painted in the nursery garden of an old man at Firle. At that time Ravilious and his wife were staying with Peggy Angus at The Furlongs, Beddingham, the next village under the Downs to Firle. In a letter (8 March 1959) Peggy Angus states: ‘We used to get fresh vegetables from the Market Garden at Firle. It was part of Firle Place, Lord Gage’s country Seat and in the garden the first greengage was grown.’

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Apart from a brief experimentation with oils in 1930 – inspired by the works of Johan Zoffany – Ravilious painted almost entirely in watercolour. He was especially inspired by the landscape of the South Downs around Beddingham. He frequently returned to Furlongs, the cottage of Peggy Angus. He considered that his time at Furlongs “…altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious … that I simply had to abandon my tinted drawings”. Some of his works, such as Tea at Furlongs, (the watercolour below with the parasol) were painted there.

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These beautiful works of the rolling, chalky hills and footpaths are for me amongst his best work. I can relax into them and be visually led to walk those hills and feel the sun on my back as I do so.

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My absolute favourite two watercolours are The Westbury Horse and Train Landscape (below). The Westbury Horse features in both watercolours. One is of the horse with a train in the background and Train Landscape where the chalk figure is glimpsed thought the carriage window. Interestingly this piece had originally featured the Wilmington Giant, but Ravilious was unhappy with the composition and added the new image over the top. I didn’t realise until I saw  Train Landscape close up, that the carriage seating has actually been carefully cut out and collaged into the watercolour. Also that some of the lines in the sky (as with many of his other works) aren’t watercolour paint as I’d previously thought when looking in books, but instead are actually deep scores, made to mark the watercolour paper and add depth, direction and movement to the piece. It is amazing how much more you can reveal by seeing the actual watercolours, just a few centimetres from your eyes.

(Update) I now have it on good authority (from a Ravilious family member, no less !) that it was Tirzah who saved cut pieces from Train Landscape as Eric was initially unhappy with it. I’m so pleased she helped him see a way of making it work.

I do recall those individual train carriages from days as a child, which would sit about 6 people and the texture of the seating (that fuzzy velour fabric) and the smell of the wood as the sun heated the compartment. It was always fun to push the window half way down, stick your head out ( a little way for fear of it being knocked off lol) and enjoy the exhilaration of the journey.

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In February 1936, Ravilious held his second exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery and again it was a success with twenty-eight out of thirty-six paintings being purchased. This exhibition also led to a commission from Wedgwood to for ceramic designs. His work for them included a commemorative mug to mark the coronation of Edward VIII, which was revised for the coronation of George VI. Other popular Ravilious designs included the Alphabet mug of 1937, and the china sets, Afternoon Tea (1938), Travel (1938), and Garden Implements (1939) plus the Boat Race Day cup in 1938. Production of Ravilious’ designs continued into the 1950s, with the coronation mug design being posthumously reworked for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.

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Modern day illustrator Angie Lewin isn’t the only artist to reference and pay homage to Eric’s ceramics constantly in her own. This is Eric, mine and Angie’s work in a line, all together they make for a refreshing break lol !

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The Eric Ravilious exhibition is on until the 31st August, and for just £12.50 a ticket … I’d say miss it at your own peril ! Many thanks to Wikipedia for some of the factual information in this post.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2015 8:48 am

    Thank you so much for posting this,I agree with you about your favorites, wonderful!
    I am really hoping I can get down to London to see it too x

    • May 6, 2015 9:24 am

      It’s well worth it Jane, pity it’s not nearer I’d want to pitch my bed in there : )

  2. May 6, 2015 9:13 am

    What a wonderful post. It’s almost overwhelming. I didn’t know that Ravilious died in the war – how unutterably sad.

    • May 6, 2015 9:25 am

      Very sad Rachel. Glad you liked the post and thanks for your comments

  3. kiran permalink
    May 6, 2015 9:30 am

    According to Anne, it was Tirzah who cut up the train landscape and saved it as Eric thought it was rubbish and was going to bin it!

    • May 6, 2015 10:09 am

      Wow that’s great to hear Kiran. Thanks for the ‘stop press’ news, I’ll update the post : ) Hope this finds you well too, I’m so delighted Eric’s work is starting to get the visitors it deserves.

  4. Bridget permalink
    May 6, 2015 9:51 am

    I’m finally getting to see the exhibition this weekend- so pleased. Thank you so much for your very timely post. Collaged train seats will now be observed and savoured.

  5. May 6, 2015 10:17 am

    I saw it a couple of weeks ago, and was completely bowled over by the paintings. Seeing them reproduced in books, lovely though they are, doesn’t do them justice. When you see them for real they are absolutely stunning. The textural technique he used is wonderful, describes volume and form brilliantly. As for the train seats in the image above, I could feel the scratchy fabric as if I was sitting on them. What a HUGE loss it was for British painting when he was taken by the war.

    • May 6, 2015 10:19 am

      Thanks Michele, funnily I’ve just updated my post to say exactly that about the train seating lol I see you were as excited as I was to finally see the paintings for yourself. A great experience

  6. boabee1 permalink
    May 7, 2015 4:01 pm

    It’s always good to see an artist or / and their work close up and even more so when there is real love for it. I am not sure I’ve met anyone who doesn’t like Ravilious.

  7. May 7, 2015 4:28 pm

    You’re right Bella, I’m still surprised how many people haven’t discovered his work yet. I sure hope there are other artist’s out there, I’ve yet to uncover and still get that buzz when I see their work, it’s such a great feeling. : )

  8. hoorayhenrietta permalink
    May 18, 2015 2:42 pm

    What a wonderful feast! I just borrowed his book of his work from the library, and am still swooning…..

    • May 19, 2015 12:26 pm

      Very true Caroline. Something to nourish the soul as well as the eyes : )

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