by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bradford Art Galleries & Museums
'Leaving Scapa Flow,' by Eric Ravilious,
shows the H.M.S. Highlander as it steams out to join the Norway campaign in 1940.

The Idiosyncratic Perspectives of Eric Ravilious's Watercolors

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 18 June 2015


For much of his career Eric Ravilious was known principally for his wood engravings, book illustrations, murals and designs for Wedgwood ceramics. But, as the artist told his lover, the British printmaker Helen Binyon, during the 1930s, his 'greatest ambition was to revive the English tradition of watercolor painting.'

Ravilious exhibited his watercolors three times in London in the 1930s, impressing critics and collectors. On the last occasion, in 1939, Jan Gordon noted in The Sunday Times how he managed to make every subject he painted 'appear as something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary everyday.

At the end of the same year Ravilious was recruited as an official war artist, serving with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, a challenge that gave rise to numerous memorable images. A few days after being posted to an R.A.F. station in Iceland in 1942, he volunteered to join an air-sea rescue mission. The aircraft failed to return, and on Sept. 2 he was reported missing, presumed dead, at the age of 39.

Since then, Ravilious's reputation as a watercolorist has steadily grown. An absorbing exhibition of his works in this genre, accompanied by lithographs, woodcuts and drawings, is now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London.

The show, which contains more than 100 pieces, is rewardingly arranged around a succession of themes rather than chronologically. It is curated by James Russell, an expert on the artist, and continues through August 31.

Ravilious was born in London and raised in Eastbourne on England's south coast. His father, who had been apprenticed as a coach builder, was running an antiques shop, which may have influenced his son's fascination with objects and his penchant for depicting antique vehicles.

Eastbourne's proximity to the Sussex Downs nurtured a love of the countryside, but the rural scenes he homed in on were highly unusual — as the title of the opening section of the show, 'Relics and Curiosities,' indicates. 'Talbot-Darracq' is a painting of a rustic junkyard containing decaying farm machinery and the derelict remains of a Talbot-Darracq jalopy. 'No.29 Bus' features the skeleton of a wheelless, open-topped omnibus marooned in an open field. 'Caravans' depicts two former horse-drawn, Boer War fever wagons that he stumbled upon in 1934 and had converted into a living room and studio, which he parked near the Sussex cottage of his artist friend Peggy Angus.

The aspiring artist's natural gifts won him scholarships to the Eastbourne School of Art and to the Design School of the Royal College of Art in London. One of his tutors there was Paul Nash, who encouraged his students to disregard traditional distinctions between the fine arts, crafts and commercial practice, and also shared with Ravilious his expertise in watercolor painting.

Ravilious revealed himself to be a talented wood engraver, who rapidly developed his own techniques and even tools. These instruments are on show here with some striking examples of his work in this medium. Proposed by Nash, Ravilious became a member of the new Society of Wood Engravers in 1925 and soon received his first commissions for book illustrations, which helped pay for his other artistic activities.

Notable characteristics of many of the artist's watercolors were not only their original subject matter but also their idiosyncratic and amusing perspectives. Often a particular element is given exceptional prominence in the foreground (a device beloved of the Japanese artist Hiroshige). Examples in the first section of the show include the rusting wreckage and rowing boat in 'Anchor and Boats'; the wartime images of the towering ship's prow in 'Warship in Dock' and the scaffolding and huge propellers in 'Submarines in Dry Dock'; and the concrete blocks and tangle of barbed wire in 'South Coast Beach.'

Ravilious's prewar scenes were typically devoid of human figures. A rare exception is a tempera portrait of his friend and fellow artist Edward Bawden, though the subject's personality is largely conveyed by the objects surrounding him in his studio. But then in 1940-41 Ravilious combined his little-used life-drawing training and watercolor skills to create a brilliant series of lithographs of submariners and divers at work.

Other atmospheric works of confined spaces include prewar images of greenhouses, hotel bedrooms and cottages. Ravilious became adept at capturing strongly delineated, strangely suggestive empty interiors that then lead the eye on to fainter, more shadowy exterior scenes — of the wartime flying-boat stations and airfields of 'R.N.A.S. Sick Bay Dundee' and 'The Operations Room,' and of the countryside, as in 'Train Landscape.'

Broader landscapes and vistas are examined in the section 'Time and Season,' such as a Thames River view, the Sussex and Wiltshire downs and the Welsh hills. These works also reveal an increasing mastery of elusive light effects, as in 'Vicarage in Winter,' with its luminous icy sky. In this and in some of his later paintings Ravilious employed techniques, such as cross-hatching and patterning, that he had developed in his wood engravings.

Ravilious rarely made preparatory drawings, leading him to discard two-thirds or more of his watercolors executed on the spot. But the spontaneity of this approach was rewarded by such exhilarating views as the one captured in 'Leaving Scapa Flow,' looking along the deck of the destroyer H.M.S. Highlander as it steams out of its anchorage to join the Norway campaign in 1940.

The final section, 'Darkness and Light,' offers a superb lineup of watercolors, mostly painted in the last four years of the artist's life, including tranquil holiday beach scenes at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast; the cliffs and lighthouse of 'Beachy Head'; 'Paddle steamers at Night' in Bristol; 'Dangerous Work at Low Tide,' in which a bomb disposal team makes its way at dawn through the shallows at Whitstable in Kent to defuse a mine; ships silhouetted against the Arctic grandeur of 'Norway'; the 'Midnight Sun' viewed from the stern of a warship; and the guns of an aircraft carrier lighting up the night sky in 'H.M.S. Ark Royal in Action.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024