They are two of Eric Ravilious’ best known watercolours - reproduced in countless prints and postcards - but when he originally painted the Train Landscape and The Westbury Horse, they were destined for the pages of a children’s book.
© Courtesy Wiltshire Heritage Museum
Ravilious’ brown paper mock-up of the work, called White Horse, recently surfaced at auction where it was acquired - and now put on public display - by Wiltshire Heritage Museum. The "pop-up exhibition" reveals how the artist planned to use the two paintings for the Puffin Book and paint more Wiltshire hill figures for the project, which the museum hopes to revive.
A sketch for the cover features the now famous Train Landscape, with its glimpse of the Westbury Horse through the carriage window. Sketches inside include other chalk hill figures, as well as ancient monuments and prehistoric earthworks.
The accompanying text was to be written by H.J. Massingham who had worked with Ravilious on an illustrated ‘Writings of Gilbert White of Selbourne’ in 1938, but plans for the new partnership came to an abrupt end in September 1942 when Ravilious died in an Air Sea Rescue mission off the coast of Iceland where he had been posted as an official war artist. For years it was thought the book had been lost with him.
"People have actually been out to Iceland to see if they could find the book because they thought he had taken it with him,“ says Wiltshire Heritage Museum Director David Dawson. “But it appeared at auction in January and no-one had really known of its existence until then.”
Ravilious had in fact sent the mock-up to London and Puffin Books editor Noel Carrington who is thought to have passed it on to one of his neighbours during the post war period, the artist Roland Collins. From here it made a circuitous and elusive journey to the auction rooms, where Wiltshire Heritage Museum snapped it up for around £6,000.
“The opportunity to get a real Ravilious item, especially something that was so important in terms of White Horse hill figures, was something we really couldn’t pass up on,” adds Dawson whose cash-strapped museum spent “thirteen years of acquisition budget in one fell swoop” on the book.
© Courtesy of Wiltshire Heritage Museum
“There are nine hill figures in Wiltshire, and in 1939 Ravilious painted two of them, the Westbury White Horse and Uffington which is just over the border. Clearly they were being done for patriotic reasons; the white horse hill figures and the English downland were symbols of England and something to fight for.”
For Dawson, however, it’s the way the book chimes perfectly with the local history of horse figures (the buzz about their 2010 exhibition about them is “still rippling on” via events and talks) that prompted them to break the bank to buy it. It also enlivens a painting collection, which like Ravilious’ output, is mainly topographical watercolours.
The plan is now to republish or even re-imagine the book with newly commissioned artwork - possibly by the Devizes-based painter David Inshaw whose acclaimed landscape work makes for a curiously agreeable accompaniment to the work of Ravilious.
“What we would like to do is have watercolours of the other White Horses to fill in the things he would have done had he lived,” says Dawson.
“I would love to see work commissioned by young artists to fit alongside work by Ravilious and people like David Inshaw together with new text that would continue the topographical tradition and offer an account of what the White Horses are about, what they mean to people today.
“White Horse are so special to Wiltshire, so important, and such a feature of the North Wiltshire landscape around Devizes. One was built in 2000 on a hill above Devizes, the latest one is at a school just up the road, which is going in as we speak. There’s another at Alton Barnes, which is four or five miles up the road and Westbury is 12 miles away. So they are important features of the local landscape and a continuing tradition.”
Ravilious' premature death may have left an engaging project unfinished but, it seems, in Wiltshire his ideas may yet flourish amidst the unique landscape that he loved.
- Wiltshire Heritage Museum is now fundraising to pay for the book. Donations can be made by post or online through the museum website at www.wiltshireheritage.org.uk
- Ravilious and Wiltshire’s White Horses, a pop-up exhibition, is on display at Wiltshire Heritage Museum until July 29 2012.