Research point: Eric Ravilious

Find out more about this artist and his techniques.

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) of Sussex, studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where his contemporaries included Henry Moore & Edward Bawden. He was much influenced by Paul Nash, who encouraged him to take up wood engraving, before moving on to lithography, and ceramic and glass design. Increasingly, however, he concentrated on watercolours. Having married in 1930, he and his wife continued to live in Hammersmith, London, until his death in 1942. Despite this, he remained a constant visitor to the South Downs, where he pursued a seemingly idyllic life amongst fellow artists. At the outbreak of war, in 1939, he was appointed an official war artist, a role he carried out until his death three years later, in an air crash off Iceland.

A cheery and sociable man, he was not overly concerned with political issues. His work is often viewed as witty and charming, much of it focusing on pastoral scenes or vignettes of provincial English life. However, despite the popular view of him as a nostalgic artist, his work was shaped by modernism to a great extent – ‘”I like definite shapes”, he once wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract in their preference for flat planes and hard lines and patterns’, (Laity, 2011). The same article refers to his restrained palette, and use of light & dry paint application, with lots of hatching and stippling.

Train Landscape, 1939, watercolour

Train Landscape, 1939, watercolour

Train Landscape is a delightful example of what has come to be known as typically Ravilious – a cosy glimpse of a bygone era. Yet, for all its nostalgic value, his modernist influences are apparent. The ‘flat planes and hard lines and patterns’ mentioned above are in evidence here, as is the ‘slight strangeness’ of the landscape, as seen through his ‘innocent eye’, (British Council, 2011).

The Long Man of Wilmington or The Wilmington Giant, 1939, watercolour

The Long Man of Wilmington or The Wilmington Giant, 1939, watercolour

This watercolour offers a clear example of the linear nature of much of Ravilious’ work. The landscape is scored at varying angles, creating a play of light across the slopes of the green hills. The fence in the foreground continues the use of line, framing the central figure. It also exhibits Ravilious’ stylised and elegant simplicity – a landscape imbued with mystery.

Vase of Flowers in a Garden, pencil and watercolour

Vase of Flowers in a Garden, pencil and watercolour

Vase of Flowers in a Garden demonstrates Ravilious’ use of sgraffito even more sharply. Deep, swirling scores pick out the long grass in this strange garden. The table and vase are depicted largely via the use of negative space.

Ravilious is also known for his lithographs, commemorating both wartime Britain and more domestic scenes. These illustrations record much of the minutiae of daily life, yet do so in great graphic style, as seen in Public House, below. In this series of lines, dots and squiggles, broadly drawn characters act out a scene that could have been found in most towns and villages at that time. Such treatments led to him being described as a ‘modernist and devout chronicler of British life’, (RWA, 2012).

Public House, 1938, lithograph

Public House, 1938, lithograph

Even when working as a war artist, ‘he tended to domesticate any novelty or threat’,   (Laity,2011). His lithograph, Submarine, is about as domestic a view of life on a wartime submarine as one could find. It also provides a feast of mark-making – hatching, cross-hatching, loops, dots, and negative space.

Submarine, lithograph

Submarine, lithograph

Tom Lubbock refers to the somewhat abstracted forms in Ravilious’ watercolours – ‘everything is rounded and reduced’. This roundness is usually counter-balanced, however, by devices such as a sudden jagged edge interrupting the curve of a cliff contour, or ‘the chaos of minute detail’ against ‘the broad, smooth uniformity of a view’. The frequent hatching, streaks, scores and striations evident in his work leave space and light in a way that complete areas of tone would not. They offer illumination. They also provide edge, both literally and metaphorically. The white of the page is rarely obliterated completely, lending an air of translucence to his work – an ephemeral quality. ‘This landscape has a cutting edge’, (Lubbock, 2010).

Beachy Head

Beachy Head

These abstracted contours can be seen in Beachy Head, along with closely stippled colour, in typically muted palette, and more razor blade scoring, the latter casting shards of light across the dark cliff tops. This is a positively structural world – a formal, ordered vision of nature, mysterious in its very detachment.

Ravilious’ work, particularly that which displays both formality and strangeness, holds a great appeal for me. Mystery is the common denominator in much of the art to which I’m drawn, and I hope to see that surface in my own artwork in the future.

References:

British Council (2011) Eric Ravilious [Online] Available at http://collection.britishcouncil.org/collection/artist/5/17834 (Accessed 26 October 2012).

Laity, P. (2011) ‘Eric Ravilious: Ups and downs’, Guardian, 30 April, [Online] Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/30/eric-ravilious-painting-landscape-watercolour (Accessed 26 October 2012).

Lubbock, T. (2010) ‘Eric Ravilious: Green and pleasant land’, Independent, 13 July, [Online] Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/eric-ravilious-green-and-pleasant-land-2025022.html (Accessed 26 October 2012).

Royal West of England Academy (2012) Eric Ravilious: Going Modern/Being British [Online], Available at http://www.rwa.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2012/03/eric-ravilious-going-modern-being-british/ (Accessed 26 October 2012).

 

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