Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In the Ravilious Room

2015 was the year in which one of East Sussex’s most famous twentieth century artists became the property of the whole country. When I say ‘the country’, I mean that London finally caught up with the simple beauty of the paintings of Eric Ravilious. Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, was the biggest-ever showing of his work and was a sell-out this summer; the public, the art world and the media were united in praise for this largely unsung watercolourist.

In his delightful end of year review, The Guardian’s Ian Jack wrote, “He is an easy painter to enjoy … bright and tender even in his depictions of war. His pictures give the viewer the permission to like England and to mourn it”; but not all is from a lost age. If his work as a war artist portrays the nation at a particular point of conflict, other images capture a timeless essence of England: his paintings of Sussex, the South Downs and the South Coast capture a landscape that is largely unchanged.

Born in west London in 1903, Eric Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne where his parents ran an antique shop. A scholarship boy, he was educated at Eastbourne Grammar School and Eastbourne School of Art before moving on to the Royal College of Art. Ravilious excelled in a variety of media – ceramic design, wood engraving, book illustration – but it is for his watercolours that he is mostly remembered.

At the start of the Second World War, he was commissioned as a full-time war artist; his watercolours recorded the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in action from a number of postings around Britain and abroad. In August 1942 whilst based at Kaldadarnes in Iceland, Ravilious was on board an aircraft that went missing. After a four-day search, the aircrew were declared lost in action. Ravilious’s body was never recovered; he was 39 years old.

The Dulwich exhibition may now be over, but Eastbourne’s wonderful Towner Art Gallery holds one of the largest public collections of Ravilious’s work. The permanent Ravilious Room contains watercolours, books about the artist and a unique archive of associated materials. Currently, there are Ravilious works on display that have been loaned from Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum and it is the perfect reason to visit, particularly in this interregnum between Christmas and New Year.

When I was there today, it was one of the loaned paintings, Train Landscape, that especially caught my eye. This popular work dates from 1940, when Ravilous spent a day travelling up and down the Eastbourne to Lewes line painting the interior of the railway carriage with the landscape viewed through the window. However, the figure in this watercolour is of the Westbury Horse in Wiltshire and not the Long Man of Wilmington that was in the original work. Ravilious was very interested in the hillside chalk figures of the South Coast and painted several, including two viewed from trains; but he was dissatisfied with both and wanted to discard them. It was Tirzah Garwood, married to Ravilious, who cut and pasted together the best parts of both works to create such an enduring image of England.

Towner Art Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holiday Mondays, between 10am and 5pm. Admission is free. The gallery will be closed on New Year’s Day.

Note: The Ravilious Room will be closed from 26 January to 5 February 2016, inclusive, to change the works on display.

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