Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery: 1 April – 31 August 2015
by Christine Hopkins SGFA
The Westbury Horse (1939) watercolour and pencil on paper, private collection, courtesy of Towner, Eastbourne.
It has been hard to avoid the recent mentions of the Eric Ravilious exhibition that opened on 1st April at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; every arts/media/culture page of the press has been encouraging us to visit. The gallery’s promotional material explains the bare bones of the show:
‘The first major exhibition to survey watercolours by celebrated British artist Eric Ravilious (1903-42). Well known for his iconic designs for Wedgwood, Ravilious is widely considered one of the key figures in mid-20th century British design but he was also one of the finest watercolourists of the century.
His astonishingly prolific career spanned peace and war. With the outbreak of World War II Ravilious was assigned to the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists producing a uniquely haunting record of Britain and War.
Over 80 watercolours will be on display – including famous works like Train Landscape and Westbury Horse as well as rarely seen works from private collections providing an inspiring look at his work between the mid-1920s and his tragic death in 1942.
Although he died at the age of only 39, Ravilious was largely responsible for the revival of English watercolour painting. He started out under the tutelage of Paul Nash at the Royal College of Art and although hugely versatile it was painting that Ravilious saw as his true vocation; it was this work that he exhibited, and he cared deeply about its reception by fellow artists like Moore and John Piper.
The exhibition is curated by James Russell, a leading specialist on Eric Ravilious whose books on the artist include the popular series Ravilious in Pictures’
Catalogue front cover, showing The Westbury Horse (1939) watercolour and pencil on paper, private collection, courtesy of Towner, Eastbourne.
The approach to the exhibition is via the permanent collections of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, past vast and highly coloured oil canvasses, so one of the first things to strike you is the muted colour palette favoured by Ravilious. In contrast to the preceding oils, the scale and subject matter are familiar, comfortable and perhaps even a little homely. Beginning with some examples of his earlier wood engravings (and the rare treat of seeing the actual tools used), it becomes apparent that his style of working was to stay with him throughout his short career. Described by Douglas Bliss (his friend and author of the 1928 book History of Wood Engraving) as ‘dot and speck and dash and dab’, his use of pattern and line is visible throughout the works shown here.
Divided into six sections, the exhibition brings together works held in public and private collections, and re-unites many works first shown together in 1939. With the benefit of hindsight it is tempting to see a shadow of the events that were to shake the world and eventually bring about his death, but there is a sense of contentment, a golden summer, and a feeling of place that marks much of the work. Perhaps because of his familiarity with the landscape of the South Downs the colours are pale and chalky and his repeated patterns are reminiscent of ploughed fields or distant seas. It isn’t necessary to peer closely at the works to see his love of cross-hatching and stippling, a very dry brush was often in evidence. Often, there is a curious sense of exaggerated perspective, and in his interior paintings the patterned textiles and wallpaper serve to show this. The rugs disappear off at strange angles, and patchwork bedspreads show the contours of the bed beneath. There is an almost total absence of the human form in his work, and yet the frequent placing of a chair hints that someone was there just a moment ago, and will return shortly. Many of the works have the appearance of stage sets – a backdrop for some action that is yet to happen. Many of the works are presented in a framed but unmounted state, showing the rusty marks left by the drawing pins he used to stretch his paper, bringing us somehow closer to the artist as though we were there watching him prepare to paint.
Catalogue rear cover, showing Train Landscape, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collection
Upon the outbreak of WW2, Ravilious volunteered for the Observer Corps, scanning the skies waiting for enemy aircraft. Later he energetically seized the opportunity of a contract working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. He was sent to serve with the Royal Navy, initially at naval bases within the UK, but latterly posted to an RAF station in Iceland. During the war years he painted some of his most recognisable work including the chalk figure of the South Downs used to illustrate the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. He still painted his characteristic landscapes, but with the inclusion of the signs of warfare. Beaches were now festooned with barbed wire, fields became landing strips for light aircraft, and distant convoys and gun emplacements appeared in the coastal images. Domestic interiors were replaced with scenes of operations and map rooms. A series of lithographs recorded his time spent observing submarine operations. It was during a search-and-rescue patrol off the coast of Iceland that his plane disappeared.
It is interesting to speculate on a possible connection between Ravilious and the SGFA – he is of the generation that would have been part of the Society’s early history, and some of his contemporaries and inspirations were certainly known to have exhibited with the SGA, as it was then known. It is entirely possible that without his untimely death he would have been one of our 20th century leading members. However there is a great deal of our early documentation which is missing or was destroyed, so it is impossible at this stage to claim him as one of our own.
The exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue by James Russell, published by Philip Wilson Publishers,
©2015 Dulwich Picture Gallery