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Art & artists

Ravilious – experimenting with tradition

— May 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939. Pencil and watercolour. 45.8x56cm. Private collection.

'Ravilious loved the ordinariness of everyday scenes' says Patricia Andrew - yet his work was anything but ordinary, as this new book shows

Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer by Alan Powers

It has been interesting to see the numerous publications on Ravilious appearing in recent years, many dealing with very specific aspects of his work. In the past 20 or so years he has become much better known to the general public, both in Britain and aboard. There were clearly a large number of people quietly appreciative of his work, even though the artistic styles of British art in the 1930s had yet to be re-evaluated.

Today, the work of Eric Ravilious epitomizes for many people the style of the inter-war period. His atmospheric watercolours are now his best-known work, though during his lifetime it was his wood engravings that made much of his name as an artist. Her also produced designs for textiles and furniture, ceramics and glass.

His style is an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern. His paintings, for example, show a clear influence of the great English watercolourists such as John Sell Cotman  (indeed, Powers makes a specific comparison between a work by Ravilious and another by Cotman). Yet he tended to handle watercolour with an almost dry brush, an unusual and experimental technique.

Ravilious loved the ordinariness of everyday scenes, whether interiors of homes, back gardens, streets and shops, and vehicles of all kinds. Nonetheless, he tended to portray them from odd perspectives, giving them a looming and sometimes eerie presence. This quirky rendering of life about him, and its apparent (though often misunderstood) qualities of whimsy and other-worldliness, has been a major factor in making his work so popular today, for at first glance his compositions appear very simple, and so typical of the art and design of their period. But underlying them is something more – a seriousness, an atmosphere of tension, or a sense of looming danger. He includes barbed wire at the edge of fields, the clutter of telegraph wires intruding into the rural landscape, and the bleak loneliness of the South Downs in winter. His work can certainly provide nostalgia for those who seek it, but his world is never sentimental or cosy. 

How would  his career have developed, had he lived longer? It is difficult to speculate. Ravilious was not an artist driven by social concerns or any form of personal angst. But although thriving as a relaxed and popular figure in his artistic and social circle, he appears to have been searching for new artistic challenges. He may well have become a rather more major painter, though he disliked painting in oil, which he said was like using toothpaste!  

Ravilious was lost on active service as an Official War Artist. He revelled in this work, his status bringing welcome opportunities for new experiences. All his war work, and his correspondence from various locations around Britain, display his characteristic sense of wry humour and an ability to take everything in his stride. He particularly delighted in the novelty of ships and planes, and had a real desire to visit Iceland, where he was lost when his plane failed to return from a reconnaissance flight. 

This book provides a full, all-round artistic biography of the artist, with copious illustrations; it includes a Chronology, a Bibliography, and a list of public collections holding his work, and should stand as the principal monograph on the artist for some time to come. 

Alan Powers’ last book on Eric Ravilious (1903–42), Imagined Realities (see Cassone October 2012  for my review) wasa very brief, general survey but did include somepaintings and documents that had not been published before, and was welcomed as the most up-to-date survey of the artist’s career as a whole. This much fuller study, also including comparative material, puts Ravilious into a wider artistic context.

Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer  by Alan Powersis published byLund Humphries, 2013.  216 pp.  163 colour /52 mono illus. ISBN978-1-84822-111-6



Patricia Andrew
Art historian

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