Tag Archives: White Horse of Uffington

The Pattern of Friendship



Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1933


Eric Ravilious was a multi-talented English painter, designer, illustrator, muralist and wood engraver whose tragically brief parenthetical dates (1903-1942) contain an extraordinary career and life that touched many lives, in particular the remarkable nebula of talent that coalesced around the Royal College of Art classes of the early Twenties: Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, and John and Paul Nash. The women were equally talented – Helen Binyon, Peggy Angus, Edna Marx and Diana Low. Elaine ‘Tirza’ Garwood, who went on to marry Ravilious, excelled at depictions of everyday lives: well-observed vignettes of social history that were witty, and ironically aware of the fault-lines of society.

Inspired by William Rothenstein – a ‘father’ figure to this unofficial movement, who encouraged his pupils to explore different forms, to be catholic in their approach; and the presence of Paul Nash – one of most important artists of the 20th Century, who, though he only taught two terms at the RCA, had a huge influence on his cohort. Nash, like Rothenstein, practiced not a ‘top down’ kind of teaching, but one that flattened the usual hierarchies, with teacher and students getting stuck in together and learning as they went, through practice. Nash greatly encouraged his protégés, and was instrumental in setting up opportunities for them, artistic commissions and contracts in the real world (Ministry of Transport; the BBC; book publishers; Wedgwood; Ministry of War), deconstructing the elitism of a Fine Art disengaged from society. Book design and illustration, fabrics, wallpaper, public notices, murals, pottery, posters and prints – nothing was beyond their remit or abilities.



The Long Man of Wilmington, Eric Ravilious, 1939


Through the painstaking research of Andy Friend, curator of the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne and author of Ravilious & Co.: The Pattern of Friendship (Thames and Hudson, 2017), we now know how this loosely affiliated band of artists and designers inspired and supported one another. Friend was instrumental in creating this major exhibition, which opened at his gallery last year, and has toured Sheffield and now Compton Verney.


White Horse of Uffington, Eric Ravilious, 1939


Ravilious, whose art, after long decades of (relative) obscurity, has experienced a huge surge of appreciation, is rightly the star of the show. His work, appearing with increasing frequency in magazines, newspapers, websites, postcards and prints, is rapidly becoming iconic. His apparently ‘austere’ or understated style chimes with the zeitgeist (one that is finding a consoling fiction in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ vintage aesthetic of WW2). It could be accused of the same (strangely) cosy nostalgia, and of being all surface and no substance – but there is something more going on in his work, which makes its effect linger. The South Downs, which Ravilious made his own (after a productive year at a much-loved ‘Furlongs’), are depicted in soothingly muted tones and a series of pulsing lines, suggesting movement, a frozen wave, electrifying the ostensibly still, empty scene with a charge of nascent energy – as though the slumbering giant of Albion was about to awaken. The foreground is often focalised by a piece of machinery – a watermill creaks in the wind, a steam train passes a white horse chalk figure, a plough breaks the undulating downland with its perpendicularity, a gypsy caravan contrasts the stark silhouette of winter trees. There is a tinge of melancholy, perhaps, in the often muted light, but there is also something infinitely soothing in the quietude they depict. And the light is always there, in the breaks in the line and thinning washes of colour – as though just below the surface, about to irupt through at any moment. Immanence and evanescence are intrinsic qualities in the work of Ravilious – no surprise then his favourite times to paint were sunrise and twilight. He spent his life trying to capture this fleeting light, a moth to the flame.


Tiger Moth, Eric Ravilious, 1942

Seeing the artists and designers side-by-side makes for some interesting comparisons. Paul Nash is the major figure, whose ‘daemonic urge’ outshines his brother’s, John, but in one painting (the interior of a wood) John outdoes his brother; Ravilious’ luminous works punctuate the show like a starry firmament, but occasionally even his work is outshone by his peers: Bawden (in the night scene of dock-sides), Freedman (in his submarine lithographs), Tirza (in her exquisitely observed and rendered engraving), but none of it is competitive. There is just a healthy cross-fertilisation. The lesser occasionally outshines the greater, and collectively they created an extra-ordinary outpouring of work, as Enid Marx reflected in 1989: ‘I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so … the lesser pebbles become sand.’

Eric Ravilious became a war artist – and his palette darkened (as can be seen in a quartet of dramatic paintings executed for the Admiralty). He was in familiar territory depicting the industrial and mechanised in the landscape for the Army, but he had a yearning to experience flight, and this new element left him exhilarated, but floundering for a new vocabulary. Gone were the certainties of the distinct sky-line, the contours of the downs and undulations of the fields. In a final, calamitous posting, he was sent to Iceland and joined observational flights above the epic glacial landscape. It was on one of these, in 1942, he went missing, leaving behind his widow, Tirza, who struggled to receive a war pension due to her husband’s ‘disappearance’ rather than death (no body was ever found). Yet deceased he undeniably was, slipping from this world with the same deceptive lightness of his work. He flew into the light and did not return.  Upon his death, one of his closest friends, Edward Bawden, said of Eric, that ‘his life was like his art, graceful and long-lasting in its effects.’

Ravilious and his contemporaries ennobled the everyday in their art and design, capturing a sublime expression of conscious and sensibility from the twenties to forties – one that had a texture of realism but with a graceful lightness that danced free of its matrix.

Visiting it with talented friends felt resonant – for in our own pattern of friendship (stretched between Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, and Gloucestershire and further afield, but converging in the quirky, creative crucible of Stroud) we have a modern microcosm of a similar creative cross-hatch: artists, novelists, poets, musicians, singers, crafters, print-makers, storytellers… In our own little way we are carrying the flame.


Beachy Heady, Eric Ravilious, 1939


With thanks to Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith.

Ravilious & Co: the pattern of friendship, by Andy Friend, is published by Thames and Hudson, 2017

The Pattern of Friendship exhibition is at Compton Verney Art Gallery until 10 June 2018:






Oxford Folk Weekend

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child - drawing by Merlin Porter

Kevan, Wayland and Dave perform at the Eagle and Child – drawing by Merlin Porter

This weekend I rode across the Cotswolds to Oxford to perform some of my Oxfordshire Folk Tales with my old bardic buddy, Wayland. We teamed up with a talented young harpist and singer called Dave Tomlison on Friday night for a very special evening in the Snug Bar of the Eagle and Child – the Rabbit Room where the Inklings used to meet for 23 years, on a Tuesday lunchtime, to share the words of wonder. To perform in the very same room as those legends of literature, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others, was a lifetime’s dream come true. Kerry the landlady was most obliging – making us feel welcome and plying us with pints. Dave wove his magic with his harp, which helped to win over the noisy Friday night clientele. He did a couple of lovely ballads – and then I introduced the evening. We started our set with a shared version of the Rollright Stones – then alternated material. By the beginning of the second half we had a good sized audience who listened in enthralled. The awen truly flowed and it felt like we conjured up something special with tales of doomed love, white horses, vengeful smiths and rabbit holes. We left on a high, talking about possibly setting up a regular night there. The chemistry worked between our three voices and styles – a good mix. Afterwards, we had a well-earned pint in the Fir Tree on Iffley Road. We clinked glasses to a successful night!

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

Wayland and Dave in the Rabbit Room

The next day, a little bit groggy, we ventured into town – making the most of the glorious sun – along Iffley Road, passing scores of runners, following in the footsteps of Roger Bannister, who broke the four minute barrier there. It took us slightly longer to wend our way to the centre, we came upon Border Morris clacking sticks on Broad Street by a craft market. The Oxford Folk Weekend had begun and the colourful Morris sides were out. We made our way to the Old Fire Station – the centre of the folk fest, where we performed later that day. It felt great to be part of such a lively weekend of bardic excellence. With our artist’s wristbands we enjoyed some great music – including Jackie Oates’ fabulous  concert that evening. By then I was ready to nod off – it had been a full weekend, and a worthwhile one. Here’s to next year!

A Bard Day's Night at the Rabbit Room

A Bard Day’s Night at the Rabbit Room

Reaching Ithaka

All you need... Sunrise Celebration with friends

1-9 June

And if you find her poor,
Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
So wise as you will have become,
so full of experience,
you would have understood by then
what these Ithakas mean.

CP Cavafy

With relief I boarded the plane at Hurghada that would take me home – after a lovely send off by my new friends the night before (a soiree at Angelica and Daniel’s place, then one (or two or…) for the road in the Smugglers Inn with the Tropical Gangsters – of which I was made an honorary member) I was leaving Egypt with some good memories, my second draft, and a batch of new poems. It had felt like a long month and I was looking forward to: a long soak and my own bed; British woodland; decent beer, music and books; Marmite; and my friends!

The flight was unexceptional – the usual being-sucked-through-a-tube, crammed-in-like-sardines experience courtesy of your average Queasyjet budget airline. They obviously base the ergonomics of the seating on Oompa Loompas – not longshanks like me. Typical of the British transport system that it took longer to get from Gatwick to Bath than Hurghada to London. My flight arrived in around midnight and I had to hang around in a chilly Paddington until 5.30am to get the first train back. When the coffee shop opened up at 5 I was there first customer – needing a hot drink to thaw out. Yet on the train home I loved seeing the landscape of England unfold in the grey dawn light – verdant, damp and ancient. When I caught sight of the White Horse of Uffington (I always notice it when I’m on the London train) I knew I was finally home, in a landscape whose language I could read.

White Horse of Uffington - the heart of England

from notebook, 1 June: glimpsing the white horse in the damp light of an english dawn…blessed rain – after a month in the desert i feel it on my face, smiling as i walk home

Arriving back home was a blessed relief. After a 16 hour trip I crashed, only emerging later for a lovely homecoming meal with a friend who had been flat-sitting while I was away. Seeing how aching and weary I was from my long journey home, she tried to give me a massage, but it’s somewhat painful when you have sunburn on your back (the result of spending my last day in El Gouna snorkelling in the Red Sea)!

I spent the next few days catching up and de-pressurising (it felt like coming up from a deep sea dive and I had to avoid the ‘bends’). I had a stack of exam marking to do, but my brain was still somewhere over the Med.

Thursday evening went for my first rideout to the Weston Bike Night – a lovely run along Chew Valley in the westering sun. There were hundreds of big shiny bikes there. Even the sands of Weston-Super-Mud looked agreeable in the sunset. I mingled with the crowd. Drank a coffee. Had a Mars bar. Took pics. It was nice to do something normal for a change!

Friday met up with some friends at Green Park Brasserie, watching an Arabic troupe, of all things – more belly dancing! Seeing it back home in Bath, after a month in the desert, made me feel strangely at home. The rock legend happened to be in the audience and I plucked up courage to speak to him – and we chatted for about five minutes about his latest album. He was pleasant – as long as you didn’t act like a complete tit (a friend sidled over as we were chatting and said ‘Can I talk with you?’, and Robert turned around and said, ‘No.’) After, we went to the mirrored splendor of the Speigeltent on the Rec to see another legend – Martin Carthy, the granddaddy of the British folk scene. It was nice to sample some of the delights of the Bath Fringe – eccentric creativity at its best.

Saturday evening I caught up with my friends Marko and Jay. I enjoyed having my first pint of Guiness for some time – and having a heart-to-heart with kindred spirits.

Sunday went to the Sunrise Celebration down near Bruton with Jay and Sally. I’ve been going to festivals since 1989 but haven’t made it to this relatively new festy until this year – it seems to have taken the place of the sadly demised Big Green Gathering, and felt like an early version of it – indeed alot of the stalls, bands, cafes and crew were the same so it’s not surprising. It looked beautiful, had a nice vibe, was easy to walk around and had a positive ethos. For once, it was nice just being a punter and enjoying the whole thing without having to worry about performing somewhere or giving a talk. I saw Tim Hall and friends perform their enchanting harmonies, jigged to Seize the Day, listened to some wacky New Age talk and had the usual random festival experiences, eg dancing with a tree…

Dancing with Treebeard at Sunrise Celebration

Monday I had to get up at ‘stupid o’clock’ to go to Milton Keynes for an OU exam marking meeting – if anything was going to bring me down to earth with a bang, this promised to. But it was a chance to visit Northampton nearby and see my family – which made the whole thing worthwhile. Being back in the ‘dirty old town’ (the Pogues song always rings through my head as I walk by the gas works and Carlsberg back to my folks place) certainly made me feel I had finally ‘landed’. You can’t get more prosaic – but it was nice to catch up with my kin. My nephew was now a strapping young man – he’ll be twenty this month – a veritable Telemachus (I still remember him climbing over my head when he was a terrible toddler). We went to flicks as a pre-birthday treat and I bought him a beer – it felt like I had left when he was a boy and returned when he was a man. Where does all the time go…? To continue the Odyssian conceit – ‘Argus’ was a lively little Scotty called Daisy. And my Mum continues knitting – not quite Penelope with her tapestry, but it’ll do! My sister made it down – it was great to see her as always. My young niece was bemused by my gift of a soft toy camel at first – when squeezed it sang some Arabic ditty – but eventually warmed to it, clinging to it possessively. I showed my holiday snaps – and amazingly no one nodded off.

Tuesday caught the train back home and got stuck back into things – have a mountain of stuff to sort out (marking; book launch; gig on Friday; house; publishing projects…). At least in the desert life is less cluttered! Here, there’s a thousand things clamouring for our attention, a thousand distractions. It’s been great catching up with friends, but I hope I do not lose the clarity and focus of the desert.  Yet … it lingers. As Jay and I agree (we have both spent time writing in Egypt recently) once you have been to the desert, you carry it within you always.

the peace of the desert - you carry it with you always