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.
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.
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.
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.
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: