The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons

‘If men and women abrogate or lose the power to think you may have material welfare but you have no life, no civilisation, no soul, nothing’

A woodblock illustration from The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons, by Eric Ravilious, c.1935

The artist Eric Ravilious worked between the wars, becoming a war artist in 1939. He grew up in Sussex and returned here in the 1930s. He was part of a generation of artists taught at the Royal College of Art in London by Paul Nash. Nash would describe this group of artists as ‘an outbreak of talent’.
Edward Bawden spoke of his life-long friend, Ravilious, as being ‘humorous, easy-going…cheerful, good-natured and intelligent’, qualities which were reflected in his work.

Ravilious’ skill in carving his woodblocks was exceptional. He would first draw the image onto the block lending the images spontaneity, light and life.
The use of punches created rich textures through scratches, flecks and dots. Even in black and white their tonal variation suggests colour. The effect is to give an impression of the artist’s sheer delight in the cutting of the woodblock to create these images.

The Silver Jubilee of George V in 1935 was the first national celebration of its kind since Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It was seen as a period of stability and change which included the emancipation of women and, despite the shadow of the First World War and Great Depression, a time of continuity and hope.

The new owners of the Golden Cockerel Press, Christopher Sandford and Owen Rutter, marked the Jubilee by publishing a brief text by LAG Strong titled ‘The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons’. Strong was a popular writer of thrillers but here the author reflects on the passing of time and the threat posed by the rise of the Nazis: ‘If men and women abrogate or lose the power to think you may have material welfare but you have no life, no civilisation, no soul, nothing…’.
The book was illustrated by the artist Eric Ravilious. At first glance Ravilious’ watercolours and woodblock illustrations seem to depict an unchanging rural England.

Frontispiece from The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons, woodblock by Eric Ravilious, c.1935

His frontispiece for the book at first appears to give a literal expression to the books title. Pigeons roost without a care under the hood of a Hansom Cab abandoned in the gardens of a Devon tea room, but as the sun rises they are unheeding of the new dawn which will propel the world to war once again. The image is demanding, questioning.
The image that marks the start of the book is amongst my favourites in Ravilious’ oeuvre. Here the past meets the future. Against the backdrop of an unchanging English landscape a train speeds towards us at full-steam, the undulations in the landscape and bridge lend it speed, mirrored by the mono-plane as it soars skywards.

The Golden Cockerel Press was part of the Private Press movement which gave a freedom of expression to authors and artists.

It seems to me that to remain questioning, open hearted and open minded about all things is essential to a good human life as it prevents us from becoming fundamental about anything. Collectors know this intuitively. They often begin collecting in the pursuit of knowledge and of course once we have learnt something our instinct is to share what we have learnt with others. It is my experience that lively minds make open and generous hearts.

Demand from collectors remains strong as the Covid-19 lockdown eases and with book and print sales scheduled as part of Toovey’s Summer of Sales there is much to look forward to. Do phone for a pre-sale valuation or check out the online catalogues at tooveys.com.

“This was their finest hour”

Eric Ravilious, ‘Runway Perspective’, watercolour © IWM 2020.

This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain.
There are moments in our long island history which have the stuff of legends about them. These points in our history speak of the resilience, selflessness, inventiveness and fortitude in our national character, an ability to triumph in the face of disaster. The Battle of Britain is amongst them.

In the House of Commons shortly after France had surrendered Winston Churchill set out what was at stake “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

As the fields were tilled by horse and plough and the harvest brought in a battle for the very survival of the British nation and way of life was fought in the skies over Sussex and southern England. Endless sorties were flown from airfields like Tangmere, Westhampnett on the Goodwood Estate, West Witterings, and Coolham near Horsham.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of Britain’s most important custodians of our nation’s story. Amongst their collections is an evocative watercolour by Eric Ravilious titled ‘Runway Perspective’. The composition has an explosive geometry. The lines on the runway centre on a distant church on the slightly tilted horizon, and seem to rush towards us lending speed and energy to the two banking Spitfires, emphasized by the sweeping cumulonimbus clouds. As the nearest aircraft climbs overhead it is as though we can hear the evocative Rolls Royce Merlin engine roaring in our ears.

Eric Ravilious’ childhood was spent in Eastbourne and he returned to Sussex in 1934 staying at Furlongs with Peggy Angus who had rented a shepherd’s cottage in sight of Firle. Here he painted landscapes and local scenes. His work is rooted in the landscape and life of pre-war and wartime England. Sussex and the South Downs are strong influences.

At the outbreak of war Ravilious joined the Observer Corps, becoming a war artist in 1940. He often flew with the RAF and died with the airmen he so admired on an air sea reconnaissance mission which failed to return.
Against extraordinary odds the courage and bravery of our young fighter pilots in their Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes combined with the defence system developed by Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding to halt the Nazi advance.

The IWM in London, Duxford and across the country is one of Britain’s most important custodians of our nation’s story. Throughout the summer they are holding a series of events at Duxford to commemorate the Battle of Britain. To find out more about these events and how you can support the IWM’s work in these challenging times visit www.iwm.org.uk.

Eric Ravilious Exhibition unites Sussex with Dulwich

Eric Ravilious, Hurricane in Flight, c.1942, watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection
Eric Ravilious, Hurricane in Flight, c.1942, watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

An exhibition titled ‘Ravilious’ has just opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It focuses on the watercolours of the celebrated artist and designer, Eric Ravilious. Ravilious has been described as one of the finest watercolourists of the 20th Century and his life and work has strong connections to Sussex.

During Eric Ravilious’ lifetime watercolour painting underwent a revival. This most English of mediums and traditions was fused with modern ways of seeing and painting. The graphic, linear approach to the medium resulted in a very English Modernism.

Born in 1903, Eric Ravilious’ childhood was spent in Eastbourne where his father ran an antiques shop. In 1934 Eric Ravilious, once again, returned to Sussex staying at Furlongs with Peggy Angus who had rented a shepherd’s cottage in sight of Firle. Here he painted landscapes and local scenes. The exhibition highlights that his work is rooted in the landscape and life of pre-war and wartime England. Sussex and the South Downs are strong influences.

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery
Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery

Interior and domestic scenes are a recurring theme in his watercolours. Take for example ‘Tea at Furlongs’ painted in 1939. This domestic scene captures a moment in time at odds with the war which would imminently engulf our nation. The table is laid with an appealing English afternoon tea, placed in a natural landscape. The garden at Furlongs is truthfully depicted by the artist. Light and movement appear to dance across the surface of the paper. The gentle distortion of perspective heightens the viewer’s connection with the scene, its composition drawing us in. Ravilious’ ability to be economical in choosing detail and his use of shapes and distorted perspective is always informed by the needs of the compositions in his watercolours.

Eric Ravilious, Greenhouse, Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935, watercolour and graphite on paper, ©Tate, London 2015
Eric Ravilious, Greenhouse, Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935, watercolour and graphite on paper, ©Tate, London 2015

The discovery of a greenhouse at nearby Firle Place in 1935 was the inspiration for ‘Cyclamen and Tomatoes’. The exemplary composition beguiles the viewer. Orderly rows of terracotta flowerpots are framed by the arched canopy of tomato vines. A series of similar watercolours followed. There is a stillness which is out of time, a quality often found in his paintings.

Edward Bawden, his lifelong friend and fellow artist, would recall how Ravilious worked straight onto the final piece without preparatory sketches. He would lightly sketch in the main forms in pencil and then areas of paint in turn rather than working across the entire sheet of paper. A white resist was used to preserve white throughout the whole process. This practice gifts his work with an immediacy and liveliness of invention.

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum
Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum

In 1944 the poet and dramatist Lawrence Binyon wrote describing how Ravilious employed under-painting, elaborate superimposed washes and stipples resulting in great delicacy and definition. His style built on the tradition of late 18th and early 19th century English watercolour painting. As he re-examined work by artists like John Sell Cotman he found a very English corrective to modernism resulting in his emotionally cool and intensely structural paintings.

In December, shortly after the outbreak of war on the 3rd September 1939 Ravilious toured and recorded England’s chalk figure sites. The Long Man of Wilmington was familiar to Ravilious from his childhood. Ravilious likened the ‘Wilmington Giant’, near Eastbourne, with a figure of Virgo holding staves in the frescoes of San Gimignano by Bartolo di Fredi of ‘Scenes from Creation’. The lines of the barbed wire and distorted mesh fence draws the eye to the tilted figure. The patch of corn answers the flash of blue in the sky, the hatching in the fields and hill echoed in the scudding clouds. This is a landscape which speaks of the English and the ancient.

At the outbreak of war Ravilious had joined the Observer Corps at Castle Hedingham, becoming a war artist in 1940.

He would often fly with the RAF. The remarkable study ‘Hurricane in Flight’ depicts two Hurricanes banking. The artist’s technique is once again illustrated. The bi-plane wing concentrates our eye on the fighter planes in an extraordinary composition. The scene is framed against the patchwork quilt of fields in the timeless English countryside. Here the common threads which unite Ravilious’ paintings in peace and wartime are displayed. Threads which are central to the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition.

Ravilious was lost when the air sea reconnaissance mission he had joined in a Hudson aircraft failed to return from its search. He died with the airmen he so admired.

Ravilious’ sensibility was modern but his techniques were not. Texture, light and movement connect the artist’s work to the English Romantic tradition but with a particular and fresh voice. It is at once figurative and yet highly stylized. Watercolour, a most English of mediums, is fused with modern ways of seeing and painting. His graphic, linear approach to the medium resulted in a very English Modernism in peace and wartime. This superb chronological exhibition allows us to see Eric Ravilious’ development as an artist and the techniques, themes and subjects which unite his peace and wartime work.

‘Ravilious’ runs at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 31st August 2015 and is one of this year’s must see exhibitions. For more information go to www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 22nd April 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race Comes to Sussex

Late 19th century oil on canvas by J.B. Allen depicting The Boat Race, London
Late 19th century oil on canvas by J.B. Allen depicting The Boat Race, London

This coming Sunday, 6th April 2014, the 160th annual Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race will be held. The Boat Race was first held in 1829, making this one of the oldest surviving sporting events in the world. The second Boat Race took place in 1836 in London, where it has been held ever since.

The competition began as a challenge between two old school friends, Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth, the nephew of the famous poet William Wordsworth. Today it has become an important fixture in the English sporting calendar and one which underlines the international and outward-looking qualities of the English at their best. The crews fielded by Oxford and Cambridge often reflect the global standing of these universities, whose students and oarsmen come from across the world.

Over the years I have increasingly found myself in London, invited to value and sell important collections by their owners. It was during a recent day spent in Sheen, near Richmond, that I discovered this marvellous 19th century oil painting of the Boat Race by J.B. Allen. It struck me as rather wonderful that it was residing near the very shores of the Thames where Allen depicted the view, between Putney and Mortlake.

In this Victorian scene the crowds are so numerous that they have taken to boats in order to get a better view of the crews as they row by. Arms and hats are raised as the excited spectators cheer their chosen team onwards. There is a cold wind blowing, causing flags to flutter. The greys and blues in the artist’s palette remind us that Easter is approaching and spring is only just arriving. Though less finely painted, the panorama of the crowds is reminiscent of that great Victorian painter William Powell Frith, who painted ‘The Derby Day’ between 1856 and 1858. In a similar way to Powell, J.B. Allen depicts a series of very personal vignettes within the grand sweep of his Boat Race scene: boatmen steady ladies in their boats; gentlemen point towards the action and cheers go up amongst different parties of people. It is a painting which is alive and still creates excitement in us today. I am pleased to say that this oil on canvas subsequently came to Sussex to Toovey’s and was auctioned in our fine art sale on 26th March 2014 for £10,500.

Wedgwood earthenware bowl, designed by Eric Ravilious, circa 1938, the interior decorated with a scene of Piccadilly Circus at night
Wedgwood earthenware bowl, designed by Eric Ravilious, circa 1938, the exterior decorated with the Boat Race Day pattern

Around 1938 the Sussex artist Eric Ravilious provided an alternative view of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in his designs for Wedgwood. Known as the Boat Race Day pattern, the exterior of this bowl depicts three successive scenes from the race and a mermaid device. Again, the numerous crowds are depicted cheering in the foreground, their arms raised in excitement, but the stylized scene appears as a moment captured outside of time, as is often the case with Ravilious’ work. The interior of the bowl shows Piccadilly Circus at night. Today at auction, a Boat Race Day pattern bowl would realise between £800 and £1200.

This Sunday at 12.00 noon, between church and lunch, millions of us will be cheering on our team. We will be held in the moment as the drama unfolds on our televisions or before us from the banks of the Thames. We will be caught up in the atmosphere and mood of celebration of this most English of sporting events, celebrating the highest standards of amateur sportsmanship, captured with such life by J.B. Allen more than an hundred years ago.

Advice on your paintings is freely available from Toovey’s; contact us to make an appointment with our fine art specialists.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 2nd April 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.