Eric Ravilious' watercolours are the subject of a major new retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Richard Moss ponders his appeal
Is Eric Ravilious the most popular painter in England today? If the clamour at Dulwich Picture Gallery is anything to go by, it would certainly seem so.
© Tate, London 2015
England’s superstars of the auction rooms; Freud, Bacon and even Hockney may come with a slightly deeper sense of gravitas (and a price tag to match) and Ravilious' teacher Paul Nash has long been a bigger name, but the genial cross-hatching of Ravilious has been on the rise for the last decade or so to the point where the painter and designer who died in 1942 is now a “national treasure”.
So this exhibition of watercolours, curated by one of the key figures behind the Ravilious renaissance, author and art historian James Russell, should prove a smash-hit for the south London gallery - and boost a steady Ravilious rehabilitation that began with the Imperial War Museum’s Imagined Realities exhibition of 2003.
“Now”, says Russell, “is a good moment to have a survey of his watercolours – the work he valued above all else”, and with over 70 of them on show, it's also a good moment to take stock of what it is that strikes a chord in so many.
Ravilious first found success as a commercial designer and book illustrator but exhibitions of his watercolours at London galleries in 1933, 1936 and 1939 saw his reputation as a painter steadily build, and in 1940 he was appointed an Official War Artist.
© Victoria and Albert Museum
The new role took him from leafy Essex - where he was volunteering with the Observer Corps - to military locations the length and breadth of the British Isles.
He saw active service in Norway in 1941 with the Navy, joined the RAF, became captivated by flying and in 1942 took a posting to Iceland. He died there in September when an air sea rescue mission he joined never returned to base.
The watercolour paintings he left behind – whether of strangely lit interiors or Welsh country lanes shrouded in rain – are surprisingly cohesive, and Russell’s thematic display cleverly breaks down what he describes as “the artificial division between the pre-war and the wartime artist”.
This is an exhibition of beautifully distorted perspectives, of objects and landscapes that shift seamlessly between the rolling southern downlands of Ravilious’ youth to the underground bunkers of wartime Britain. All of them are shot through with a peculiar Ravilious approach to painting that seems to hover somewhere between technical brilliance and nostalgia.
The latter is a quality, according to Russell, that was noticeable even in his day and here the landscapes seem rather like 1930s versions of the Romantic-era works of Cozens and Cotman, but with abandoned vehicles and machinery in the place of ruined abbeys and castles.
The studies of objects and interiors, which again seem like fascinating snapshots of a bygone era, reveal Ravilious’ constant interest in the arcane and the random, which meant that in the 1930s art world, he was nonchalantly swimming against the tide of modernism.
© Private Collection
Even when he became an Official War Artist, he found himself drawn to the antiquated machinery of war.
“He would always prefer to paint biplanes,” says Russell. “He would make them look like they had drifted out of the past, like they had no military intent at all.”
It's this love of esoteric objects that offers some clues to his popularity, but as well as a sense of time stood still, most of these paintings also conjure a potent sense of place.
The Westbury White Horse, Cerne Abbas Giant and Long Man of Wilmington are classic images of an England on the cusp of war, while the views of naval bases, gun emplacements and harbours are equally potent evocations of the key locations of wartime Britain.
And, as Russell says, “it’s always worth looking at Ravilious' paintings very closely – lots of lovely detail.”
There is nothing plain on display here; close inspection reveals meticulous patterns, worked up in dry brush. Little wonder critics described the work in his 1939 show at Tooth and Sons in London as “almost untranslatable” and “magic and almost mystic”.
There are mysterious ciphers to be found on some of them, too. Ravilious’ would sketch outdoors then work from memory leaving notes on the picture to indicate colours so he could patch them up later. Sometimes he decided to leave the writing on - typical of the effortless approach of a man who simply painted regardless of fashion or mores.
An atmospheric display of interiors drifts effortlessly from skewed cottage bedrooms to underground wartime control centres and shows how Ravilious was a master of strange, filmic perspectives.
© Private Collection
Figures and Forms highlights the painter's rare but sensitive portrayal of people - from Edward Bawden's wife, Charlotte, comically beating a rug in the back yard of their house in Essex to submariners illuminated in claustrophobic interiors.
And despite the ubiquity of man of these images in the art print shops of today, there are paintings here that will surprise you. Some you will have never seen before, others reveal new details - like the wonky snapshot quality of his most famous work, Train Landscape (1940).
All of them are worth pouring over for the detail in the dry brush work, the stippling, the cross hashing, the pointillist dexterity and for their sense of time stood still.
The final room, explores the artist’s interest in light and flits from the wild carnival of Fireworks at Castle Hedingham on November 5th (1933) to the gun flashes of Ark Royal in Action (1940).
But it’s the great set pieces paintings from his stint on board HMS Highlander during the Narvik expedition of May and June 1940 that hint at a new grandeur – and the fateful fascination with the light of the Arctic that would take him to his final assignment in Iceland.
Midnight Sun (1940) is a perfect painting to ponder the Ravilious appeal. A shimmering sun recalling Samuel Palmer or William Blake casts its mystical rays across the ripples of the ocean while a detailed depth charge launcher dominates the foreground and throws abstract shadows across the deck. It's a painting of great beauty, detail and juxtapositions.
James Russel's masterly selection may leave you pondering what might have been, but it will also allow you to revel in the the magic, the mystery and straightforward nostalgic appeal of Eric Ravilious.
- Ravilious is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until August 31 2015. Book here.
© Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
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© Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne
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