Eric Ravilious Exhibition Unites Sussex and Wiltshire

Eric Ravilious – The Wilmington Giant, watercolour © V&A

The artist Eric Ravilious found inspiration in the Downland landscapes of Sussex and Wiltshire This inspiration is central to the exhibition Eric Ravilious Downland Man at the Wiltshire Museum Devizes.

The exhibition highlights how Ravilious’ work was rooted in the landscape and life of England.

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. He found a very English corrective to modernism resulting in his emotionally cool and intensely structural paintings.

These Downland watercolours are all the more extraordinary when considered against the backdrop of the outbreak of war and highlight Ravilious’ fascination with the importance of place and moments in time.

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’.

Ravilious painted The Wilmington Giant in watercolour. He employed a dry brush leaving plenty of the white paper showing through. You can see the influence of the artist’s printmaking. The textures are reminiscent of hatching adding to the suggestion of distant hills, the corn moving in the breeze and the scudding light over the surface of the landscape. The taut, purposeful barbed wire fence draws our eye through the composition to the giant’s feet. The irregular square mesh of the fence adds to the sense of movement. Wire from a leaning post frames the giant. This is a landscape which speaks of the English and the ancient.

Eric Ravilious – The Westbury Horse, watercolour © Towner Gallery

Like the Long Man at Wilmington the Westbury Horse in Wiltshire would have been visible from the train. The white horse is carved into the uneven contours of the hillside which are accentuated once again in the hatched brush strokes. I love the train crossing the grey plain beyond the ridge set beneath the shimmering sky.

The exhibition highlights that 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. This superb exhibition allows us to re-examine Ravilious’ fascination with the importance of place capturing particular moments in time.

Eric Ravilious Downland Man runs at the Wiltshire Museum Devizes until 30th January 2022, for more information visit www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk.

Eric Ravilious – Sussex Artist and Designer

A Wedgwood Elizabeth II coronation cup, circa 1953, designed by Eric Ravilious

The artist Eric Ravilious lived and worked in Sussex. Known primarily for his watercolour landscapes and wartime studies, Ravilious was also a talented illustrator and designer.

Eric Ravilious was born in 1927. As a very young boy he moved with his parents from Acton to Eastbourne in Sussex. There his father ran an antique shop. Ravilious was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School. In 1919 he won a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art and in 1922 to the Royal College of Art in London, where he met his lifelong friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden. Both men studied under the artist Paul Nash, who was generous in encouraging and promoting their work. Ravilious subsequently taught part-time at both art schools.

In the early part of the 20th century there were attempts to address the separation between craftsmen and artists. Among the leading voices in this movement were William Rothenstein, principal of The Royal College of Art, and a number of artists, who lived and worked in Sussex. They included Paul Nash, Eric Gill, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious, and the Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

In 1935 Eric Ravilious was invited by the Wedgwood factory to design a commemorative mug for the coronation of Edward VIII. After the King’s abdication in 1936, the design was reworked for the coronation of his brother, George VI, and subsequently for that of our own Queen Elizabeth II. The designs give a reserved English voice to the joy and excitement that these coronations brought to our nation. Each monarch’s royal cipher and coronation date are set in bands of blue or pink, beneath cascading fireworks against a clouded night sky. Ravilious’ work offers a very English corrective to modernism’s extremes, expressed in his emotionally cool, structural paintings and designs.

A Wedgwood Alphabet mug, circa 1937, designed by Eric Ravilious

The delightful alphabet mug illustrated was commissioned by Wedgwood in 1937. Banded in apple green, each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a printed vignette; ‘A’ is for aeroplane, ‘E’ is for eggs, ‘O’ is for Octopus and so on.

A Wedgwood Garden lemonade jug, circa 1939, designed by Eric Ravilious

I love the poetic gardening lemonade jug dating from 1939. The pink lustre is reminiscent of lustre ware from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The delightful vignettes display Ravilious’ remarkable skill: a cat sleeps on a garden wall above depictions of garden beds, a cloche, a green house, a wheelbarrow and a beehive with honey bees.

Eric Ravilious and his fellow modern British artists enriched our lives in the interwar years of the 20th century as they allowed their artistic voices to inform the manufacturing and design of beautiful objects for our homes.

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.