Fry Art Gallery celebrates the watercolour world of Eric Ravilious in Essex

By Richard Moss | 03 June 2011
a watercolour of two women seated in a garden beaneath a tree
Two Women in a Garden (1933)
© Private Collection on permanent loan to the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Exhibition: Ravilious in Essex, The Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, until August 12 2011

His paintings are as reassuring and ubiquitous as the Keep Calm and Carry On poster in art and print shops across the UK, but there is more to Eric Ravilious than wartime nostalgia or propaganda.

One of the few war artists to perish between 1939-1945, in his short life he painted distinctive watercolour landscapes, engraved more than 400 illustrations, drew more than 40 lithographic designs for books and publications and created iconic ceramic designs for Wedgwood.

Ravilious's output can appear to capture the English way of life during the 1930s. And it was the way he observed and recorded the timelessness of the English landscape during this turbulent decade that makes his paintings resonate today.

a watercolour painting of an attic room with a camp bed
The Attic Bedroom (1934)
© The Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden
In Eastbourne and Sussex, where he spent much of his childhood and returned regularly in his adult life, Ravillious's iconic paintings of the South Downs still adorn the shop windows. Towner Art Gallery retains the best holdings of his work anywhere in the UK.

But there is another pastoral location that is equally important in the Ravilious story, as this exhibition at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden reveals. 
 
In 1932, together with his wife Tirzah, he moved to rural North-West Essex, where they lodged with his great friend Edward Bawden and his wife Charlotte at Brick House in Great Bardfield.

From 1933 the couples occupied the whole house until the Raviliouses moved to Bank House in nearby Castle Hedingham.

Essex-born Bawden went on to hold court over a community of artists that included the likes of Walter Hoyle, Michael Rothenstein and Kenneth Rowntree. This has been credited with starting the craze for artist’s open houses, but rural Essex was the real inspiration for Ravilious.

a watercolour painting of two people riding on biciycles through rain strewn village streets
Hull's Mill (1935)
© Towner Art Gallery on loan from Eastbourne Sixth Form College
Featuring paintings from the Fry’s permanent collection, together with works from private and public collections, Ravilious in Essex focuses on scenes from the North of the county made during the productive final 11 years of the artist’s life.

After moving there at the age of 28 he continued to consolidate his reputation for work on paper and in wood engraving, ceramic and other designs and illustrations. He also scoured the countryside in search of what has become iconic Ravilious imagery. 

What he captured makes for a vivid portrait of country life in the 1930s; a now-vanished rural world mixing the landscape style he also honed in Sussex with glimpses of small town and village life that visitors may recognise from his High Street work for the Curwen Press.

Watercolours such as Village Street, in which a man and a woman cycle through the water-strewn lanes of Castle Hedingham, reveal his love for a world that was still essentially pedestrianised and old-fashioned.

a waterclour painting of a mill at the end of a lane
Hull's Mill (1935)
© Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden
Another Hedingham landmark, Hull’s Mill, which Ravilious captured in all its rustic splendour in 1936, attests to his penchant for country buildings and his tendency to present the rural idyll curiously devoid of inhabitants. 

There are other familiar Ravilious ciphers; rusting machinery, old trams, telegraph poles, ironwork fences, broken down cars and discarded farm equipment, all favourites of the peripatetic and famously genial artist as he cycled around the North Essex countryside on the look out for engaging scenes to capture.   

But apart from providing a pleasing glimpse into rural Essex before the war, the paintings offer a great insight into the use of watercolour. Both Bawden and Ravilious were early converts after their RCA tutor, Paul Nash, championed the medium. 

In his book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life, which provides a perfect companion to the exhibition, James Russell describes how “Ravilious used watercolour to portray distinctive subjects in his own style, sketching an abandoned bus or train going over a bridge with a peculiar clarity of vision.”

It mesmerised the critics, says Russell, who describes how Ravilious made them “feel that they were seeing familiar things for the first time”.

To modern eyes these strangely familiar scenes are glimpses into a disappeared world.

For Ravilious, too, whether combing the Essex countryside or peering from an upstairs window of his home across the local back gardens, he was all too aware he was recording a world on the cusp of great change - something that became all too acute with the outbreak of war in 1939.

a watercolour of the interior of a butcher's shop
Butcher's Shop (1935)
© Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
Ravilious was appointed an Official War Artist in January 1940 and for two and a half years he moved to different UK postings, but he regularly returned home to Essex and his growing family and to paint the surrounding landscape.

In 1941 the family moved to Ironbridge Farm at Shalford, near Braintree, and paintings from this late period include Tree Trunk and Wheel Barrow (1942) with its sawn log lying in a winter field and Ironbridge at Ewenbridge (1942), portraying a small bridge across a modest brook through winter trees that seem to lead hopefully into the fields beyond.

Later that year Ravilious died when, in his capacity as war artist, he accompanied an ill-fated air sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland.   
 
In the surroundings of the Fry Art Gallery the rural paintings of the Essex he left behind are particularly effective. A beautiful building originally designed to house the collection of local Saffron Walden businessman Francis Gibson in 1859, the gallery now houses an impressive North Essex collection constituting more than 1,750 items.

With the accent on work by artists of the 20th century, in particular Bawden, Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, John Aldridge and Bernard Cheese, it’s the perfect place to look again at a quintessentially English landscape artist in the heart of the environment that inspired him.

  • Open 2pm-5pm Tuesday, Friday, Sunday and Bank Holidays (11am-5pm Saturday). Admission free. Visit the gallery online for more details.
  • Ravilious In Pictures: A Country Life by James Russell is part of The Ravilious in Pictures Trilogy published by the Mainstone Press, priced £25. Visit www.themainstonepress.com for more details.
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