Imagined Realities - Eric Ravilious At The Imperial War Museum

By Imogen Lillywhite | 29 October 2003
Shows a photograph of an image, depicting a view down the central aisle of a greenhouse, rows of red and green plants on either side.

Photo: The Greenhouse Cyclamen and Tomatoes, 1935. © Tate, London, 2003. © Estate of Eric Ravilious. All rights reserved DACS.

Sticking to her genuine reality rather than imagining one, Imogen Lillywhite nipped across London to see this new exhibition.

Imagined Realities, at the Imperial War Museum, London until January 25 (2004) celebrates the centenary of Eric Ravilious’ birth with a comprehensive display of the war artist’s paintings, lithographs, ceramic designs and engravings.

Some of the later paintings depict the landscapes in Iceland that Ravilious (1903-1942) admired before his life was tragically cut short in 1942, when he failed to return from an air-sea rescue mission two years after becoming an official war artist.

A highly skilled craftsman in drawing and watercolours, Ravilious’ work is painstakingly detailed. It is entirely suited to the careful nature of painting designs for ceramics, a discipline in which his teacher at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, encouraged him, as he believed art should be integrated into modern life.

Shows a photograph of an image, depicting the rolling green landscape of downland at the centre of which is a small clump of trees, while there is a farm roller in the foreground.

Photo: Downs In Winter, 1934. Reproduced by kind permission of the Towner Art Gallery. © Estate of Eric Ravilious. All rights reserved DACS.

His early paintings show traditional English pastoral scenes, a classical subject with a modernist twist as they appear slightly hard-edged and two-dimensional.

They anticipate the period in Ravilious’ life that would become dominated by World War Two. Men sent in to battle would be encouraged to fight for these traditional English scenes and values, repelling the foreign invader who would destroy the English way of life.

‘No 29 Bus’, showing a disused horse bus propped up on bricks, suggests however, that the traditional English scenes may self-destruct of their own accord with the changing of the times.

The set of greenhouse paintings, ‘Carnation House’ in particular, show the incredible patience and skill that Ravilious possessed as each hothouse flower is carefully painted in minute detail.

Shows a photograph of an image, depicting a view through a pile of anchors, barrels and chains of three barrage balloons attached to boats out at sea.

Photo: Barrage Balloons At Sea, 1940. Reproduced by kind permission of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

However, with the propaganda pieces ‘They Did Not Reach Germany’ and ‘Industrial Strength Since the Last War’, the mood of his work changes abruptly.

The most notable of the war paintings are the romanticised dark and foreboding Icelandic landscapes and the remarkable ‘View from the cockpit of a Moth’, which shows Ravilious’ fascination with the view of the earth from the air. The painting has an unfinished quality, which suggests that it was drawn in the air and painted on landing.

The closest the artist’s work comes to danger is ‘Bomb Defusing Equipment’ which is a stark reminder of a war fought with basic technology. It shows a selection of tools and some carefully written out instructions next to a bomb.

Ravilious’ work diversifies and blossoms in skill and subject matter as the years pass. The Imperial War Museum exhibition is a poignant tribute to what he might have achieved had he survived the war.

Reader Sue Craske sends this remark about the show:

"The Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was incredibly satisfying. So many different examples of his work. He was fantastically prolific in his short life. It wasn't just his war pictures (which I was worried about), but even his war pictures shine out of the walls like beacons."

"I would never have gone to the Imperial War museum if it wasn't for the exhibition, but I was impressed by how slick the rest of the museum was."

"A wonderful afternoon." Sue from Brighton

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