Exhibition: Eric Ravilious: Going Modern / Being British at the Royal West of England Academy Bristol, until April 29 2012.
© The Estate of Eric Ravilious
Given his current popularity we could be forgiven for assuming there is nothing new to discover in the watercolours of Eric Ravilious. After all, his landscapes and rustic scenes have a familiarity that cheerily evokes the innocence of 1930s England - and satisfies a yearning for the past.
Recent years have seen galleries, including Eastbourne’s Towner, the Fry in Saffron Walden and the Imperial War Museum in London, enjoy highly successful exhibitions celebrating and even fuelling the nostalgic notion of the England of Eric Ravilious. But in terms of placing him within a historical art movement, it has proved to be difficult.
This may be due in part to Ravilious' reticence to promote his own work and the fact that he successfully turned his hand to commercial work in wood engraving, book illustration, ceramic and furniture design. But it also lies in our own notions of the 1930s English landscape and Ravilious' vision of it.
Now a new exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy is taking a fresh look at some of the classic watercolours – from the landscapes to the war works - to try and tease out some new perspectives and place Ravilious in a wider tradition of British art that encompasses Romanticism and Modernism.
According to Curator Gemma Brace, Ravilious’ short life and prodigious output is rich with “all sorts of connections in terms of friendships and his place within the artistic community".
"But the sense I get is that he wasn’t someone who was very vocal about his work," she adds. “He seemed to be someone who just got on with what he was doing, and I find that very interesting because it allows us to put our own interpretation onto his work and to consider him in a different light. This is what we’ve tried to do with this exhibition.”
Following Ravilious’ relationship with the social, cultural and geological landscape of Britain throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the exhibition conjures an overriding sense of time and place, but the intention is to also help visitors make connections with other movements and see the technical innovations in his work.
A pupil of Paul Nash at the Royal Academy and a successful artist in his lifetime Ravilious became an official War Artist in 1940. His death in a RAF air sea rescue accident off the coast of Iceland in 1942 robbed British art of a highly distinctive watercolourist who, according to Brace, was on the cusp of developing some new approaches and elements in his work.
“I think if you look at the light he captured in the war works it raises some interesting questions about where he would have gone with his art” she says. “You also get more figures, which increasingly become the focus, so perhaps this would have become more dominant in his painting after the war.”
Ravilious’ untimely death had the effect of preserving his work in aspic, and today it is this sense of nostalgia that draws may of us in. But Brace believes even the pastoral scenes of 1930s Britain deserve a closer look.
"The more you look at the pictures the more odd they seem," she says. "They are sometimes cosy or domestic scenes; but there is this sense of distance in them, which is always a little bit disconcerting.”
This disconcerting sense of distance is apparent in a painting like Still Life with Acanthus Leaves, which with its book lying open, pages turning and the chair askew from the table subverts the traditional interior. Other domestic scenes suggest an absent, recently departed figure by drawing attention towards open doors and windows - the world beyond the four walls.
The famous Ravilious hills and headlands and the rusting engines and gleaming warships are also viewed through the cool prism of Modernism to emerge as gently avant-garde works.
Even the village scenes, which perhaps more than any others evoke the vanished rural England of the 1930s, are investigated via his highly distinctive style and technique, which is rich with gentle abstractions and juxtapositions.
A close look reveals how the paint was cross-hatched and scraped across the surface with a sense of purpose and definition. Greying clouds rest autonomously upon the white paper rather than scudding across inky skies as in the more sublime sky-scapes of his Romantic pastoral forebears Samuel Palmer or even Constable.
“I think it’s the technique that is particularly interesting,” adds Brace, “and his use of watercolour. Watercolour has this duality to it; it encompasses light and shade, transparency and opacity. The way he was using it was very modern. I think that’s what interested him - how he was painting as much as the subjects themselves.”
This then, is a fascinating re-eximaniation of an artist who we think we know intimately - but is here cast as Ravilious the Romantic Modernist.
It’s also simply a welcome chance to see some stunning paintings by an artist whose work is rightly enjoying a renaissance.
To mark the RWA Ravilious exhibition we have a beautiful set of four Ravilious art books to give away courtesy of the Mainstone Press. See our Ravilious competiton page for more details.