Ravilious @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a truly wonderful, inspiring and joyous exhibition, with a smile in every image. It brings together over 80 of Ravilious’s watercolours into six rooms packed with warmth, gentleness, love of the visible world and the English landscape.

Potted biography

‘Eric William Ravilious (22 July 1903 – 2 September 1942) was an English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver. He grew up in Sussex, and is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs. He served as a war artist, and died when the aircraft he was on was lost off Iceland, aged 39.’ (Wikipedia)

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Room 1 Relics and Curiosities

His father ran an antique shop in Eastbourne. He grew up among curiosities and quirks. He was intrigued from boyhood by broken teapots, bicycle wheels, derelict machinery, abandoned vehicles, very 1930s, very WH Auden:

The shafts are filled with water; the mosses grope over the washing-floor.
I look through the broken arms of waterwheels: I see lambs feeding.
Trucks lie overturned; an old rail patches a gap in the wall
Rain falls through the gaping roof of sheds; it falls on the obsolete inventions and structures…

But whereas Auden and his crew described the wrecks of industry laid waste by the great Depression, with the political implication of the need to overthrow the existing order (the world which produced Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies), Ravilious’s images are always eccentric, domesticated, charming, but hinting at strange coincidences and meanings.

Well-suited to the illustrations he made for a number of books, the famous High Street (1938) with architectural writer James Richards, and the characteristically quirky The Hansom and The Pigeons: Being Random Reflections Upon the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

After experimenting with different media in his early 20s, with a sustained interest in mural designing, Ravilious finally settled on watercolour and pencil as his tools. The images in this first room are selected to show his interest in things: ships, biplanes, an abandoned caravan, a bus in a field, a propellor on a truck, funnels on a ship, ropes and lines of all descriptions: stays and hawsers and painters and cables and wires.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Diffusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Defusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

The images are strong clear compositions, conveyed in firm outlines, with lots of cross-hatching and shading to create the sense of space and light and volume and perspective.

The comedy of objects and the pathos of objects, without their human owners somehow bereft, and yet also absurd. A tea set abandoned on a table.

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

2 Figures and Forms

Ravilious is famous for his landscapes, not for his people. He generally avoided the human figure and did hardly any portraits. The show does include a handful of sketches of faces and friends but by and large confirms this impression. The famous railway carriage is empty; the tea table is abandoned.

With the startling exception of a series of 10 lithographs he made of life on board a submarine (HMS Dolphin from Gosport, Hampshire), part of his war artist work. He went out on it for three weeks and the lithographs could not help but feature the sailors and officers who worked in this constrained, hot, stifling space. The vivid palette and the subject matter of these works reminded me of the over-colouring of the Technicolour movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Precise and detailed as children’s book illustrations, they give the same warm memories as Edward Ardizzone’s images, the ones which illuminated the big hardback books my mother borrowed from the library. There are all kinds of nostalgias going on in Ravilious’s pictures.

3 Interiors

Bedrooms, sick bay, operations rooms, map rooms, corridors, train compartments – generally with windows opening out onto views.

Once the war started he did a series about operations rooms for the Battle of Britain and then of the new Control Room opened under London.

By far the most striking, and possibly Ravilous’s most famous image, is the Train Landscape (1939), which manages to be an interior and a landscape, at the same time.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Apparently, he planned to visit and paint every chalk figure in Britain and had made a good start when the project was curtailed by war. The image is powerful for all sorts of reasons, nostalgia being a big one: I remember the heaviness of the old wooden doors and the strength needed to pull down the windows. Along with that goes nostalgia for a clean landscape unruined by cars, traffic and industrial farming. And then the childlike simplicity, the book illustration clarity of the image. But there is also that element of mystery: where are the people? Why is the number 3 written so large, as if it’s an illustration in a counting book? Unlike Paul Nash’s overt surrealism, in Ravilious there is almost no sign of a strangeness which is only hinted at, which you could blink and miss.

4 Place and Season

He had a strong feel for landscape: this involved the colour of the soil, the types of trees and agricultural useage, the English seasons (mostly cloudy or raining). The commentary says he and his close friend, fellow illustrator and designer Edward Bawden, really did discuss the colour of the soil, the shape of the hills, all the geographic factors which give a landscape its specificity.

Ravilious is most associated with the chalk downland of the the Sussex Downs, epitomised, maybe, by this watercolour, The Downs in Winter (1934). Initially not the most striking of his images, the commentary spent a while explaining aspects of it, and I also benefited from overhearing two ladies discussing it, until I began to see deeper into it and depths opened like a door.

  • First, it’s winter. No glamour, no nostalgia for endless summers. It is cold and rainy, as England mostly is.
  • Apparently there as an Iron Age fort on top of the nearby hills, as there so often is in England, and that lends new meaning to the two prongs of the farm equipment, which go from light at the bottom to dark at the top until they seem like the horns of a bull, maybe of an Iron Age aurochs, a pagan image.
  • It is dark in the foreground and the hills are dark but the middle space of the field is light, like ploughed chalk fields often are, but also as English landscape is when the sun comes out from behind clouds.
  • For the first time I realised the importance in his technique of lines: of rows (here justified by the ploughing), of cross-hatching (in the sky to indicate rain), of the patchwork of fields created by a grid design. They aren’t the merciless lines of Modernism, they are curved and mellowed like the landscape, like the human body, but nonetheless lines are used all over his pictures to convey space and distance and perspective.

5 Changing Perspectives

Ravilious was very conscious of his predecessors in the attempt to paint the English landscape (in watercolour, of course, not oil) and therefore he and his circle were drawn not to the obvious oil painters Gainsborough or Constable, but to the more mystical landscapes of the watercolourist Samuel Palmer; and of course he had been taught by the great Paul Nash at the Royal College of Art.

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

Of course I started out looking at the giant carved into the chalk downland, but the audio-commentary drew my attention to the wire fencing, reminding me of the perennial appeal to Ravilious of man-made objects, human artefacts. And the wire obviously bespeaks 20th century realism – on any country walk you can’t help seeing lots of fences, wire, barbed wire and locks and meshes and grilles. But it went on to highlight the artful composition of the piece, the way the elements of reality are deployed: the lines of wire frame but don’t obscure the chalk man. And then the fence post leaning in from the right of the frame – actually the largest element in the composition – gives a subtle balance to the white and green on the left. The more you look at it the more dramatic it becomes.

The commentary quoted a contemporary reviewer who said the image makes you feel ‘the wiriness of the wire’ and that immediately became a catchphrase with which to explain much of the rest of the show. Where the wire joins the fence post it it is doubled back and retied round itself, something I’ve seen hundreds of times in real life, but never before captured in art or prose.

  • Cuckmere Haven (1939) Now I’d noticed the cross-hatching affect (in The Downs In Winter), I saw it everywhere: in the meadow in the foreground which looks like snakeskin; in the regular patterning of the flint stone wall running along the top of it, and in the mesh affect of the sky. Now I understand better why the central image of the serpentine river appears so clean and clear – because it is set against the dense cross-hatching of the top third and bottom third of the painting.
  • The Causeway, Wiltshire (1937) I feel I’ve walked there a hundred times, along a track carved into a gentle hillside which opens up a view down a valley.
  • The Westbury Horse (1939) Obviously the framing of the composition is vital, but now I notice the horizontal lines giving depth and perspective to the hillside the horse is carved out of, the different type of finer, vertical hatching used to imply grass in the foreground, the grid affect of the grey fields of the plain stretching out, and the long loose dark lines used to create the louring clouds in the sky. Now I’ve noticed it, I’m seeing the numerous different way he uses lines, shading, cross-hatching, mesh and grid patterns to create his affects.
Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Techniques he then took with him into his war work from 1939 till his tragically premature death in 1942.

  • Storm 1941 The cross-hatching conveying rain across sunlight.
  • Convoy Passing An Island The cross-hatching of the barrels, the metal struts of the wire fencing.
  • In a lot of these later works the composition is strongly based around straight lines leading into the distance, such as Rye Harbour – the line of telegraph wires, echoed by the differently-angled line of beacons on the right, in fact a large number of different lines going straight back to the vanishing point.
  • Hurricanes in Flight England as the familiar patchwork quilt below, but the interest isn’t in the smoothly streamlined WWII fighters, instead the composition is dominated by the twin wings of the biplane creating an emphatic sense of perspective, along with a very Ravilious-esque delight in their complex of struts and cables, intricate and quirky.
Eric Ravilious, Hurricane in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Hurricanes in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

6. Darkness and Light

A room devoted to Ravilious’s use of light effects. There was a big, early and uncharacteristic composition of fireworks in London, and some copying Samuel Palmer’s experiments with depicting landscapes lit by moonlight. But the mature works experiment with the impact of modern electric light at night, or with the sun appearing at harsh dawn (rather than romantic pink sunset). Apparently he liked to paint with the sun shining into his face, making the world praeternaturally clear, hard-edged, whited out.

  • Beachy Head An orgy of cross-hatching, shading and lines arranged to create a stark image of a lighthouse at night.
  • Paddle Steamers At Night
  • Norway 1940 The low Arctic sun making diamonds across the sky and sea.
  • The Lifeboat The sinuous curve of the lines of the lifeboat and the wiry wiriness of cables, hawsers and tackle scattered throughout the image.
  • Dangerous Work At Low Tide In these late works it is as if the cross-hatching and diamond affects of the pencil have become an end in themselves. Mind you, this image is best viewed from the other side of the room, from where it breathes the cold wintry light of dawn over wet sand.
Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, © Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper,
© Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Ravilious’s images range from a kind of book illustration simplicity through warm evocations of the soft southern English landscape, innumerable sweet snapshots of 1930s England, to a mysterious few which hint at depths beneath the charm, an unknown meaning and purpose behind the smiling surfaces.

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: