It is hard to believe, looking at the extraordinary work of Eric Ravilious, that the artist’s entire output – from student days to seasoned illustrator – was limited to a mere 20 years of painting, printing, and designing.
One of the very first Official War Artists to be appointed, Ravilious was famously attached to an Air Sea Rescue plane in Iceland, 1942. After a seaplane was downed off the coast, Ravilious’ crew was sent in search of the wreckage but never returned. What so talented an artist might have done in his latter years had it not been for that flight, we can only speculate and look back upon the unusual yet often-overlooked collection of work he left behind.
‘Naturalist: Furrier: Plumassier’, from the ‘High Street’ suite
Born in South Essex in 1903, Ravilious initially studied at the Eastbourne School of Art before being awarded a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art (1922-25) where his tutors included the renowned portraitist Sir William Rothenstein and wood-engraver Paul Nash. During the early 1920s, regarded by many as a ‘golden age’ of British art schooling, the college was home to immense artistic talent, fellow students including the painters Charles Tunnicliffe and Edward Burra, the sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and Ravilious’ lifelong friend Edward Bawden.
Rothenstein, the college’s Principal, took many of these young talents under his wing, instilling in them an excitement at the possibilities that the art world might hold. In Bawden and Ravilious, both students of the college’s Design School, he saw great skill and promise, and an inventive attitude towards graphic work that stood in stark contrast to the contemporary predilection for rather dreary imitations of [William] Morris designs. Ravilious’ work – youthful, lively, and with a lightness that matched his character – embodied Rothenstein’s desire for a more alert spirit…[with] a special interest in the application of art to craft and industry, and he encouraged his pupil to develop his eye for design.
Technical teaching came by way of the other major figure working at the college at that time, the British artist Paul Nash. Nash was an experienced printmaker with a particular aptitude for wood-engraving, and quickly saw Ravilious’ potential in the medium. Under Nash’s tutelage, Ravilious soon became a natural, closely working on his woodcut blocks and accepting commercial commissions for advertising and illustration.
Bawden once described watching his friend at work on a new printing block, noting the meticulous care he took composing the shape and movement of his design: He covered [it] with a wash of white paint, then drew in pencil on it, often with a good deal of shading. Then with the graver he cut slowly and decisively. [He] must have had a remarkably clear mental image of what he intended to do.
In the mid-1920s after graduating from the Royal College, Ravilious made his early reputation with several well received wood-engravings, as well as his first solo commission – illustrations for Martin Armstrong’s Desert, a Legend, published by Jonathan Cape – and a collaborative effort with Bawden, producing a mural for Morley College in South London.
While these early engravings bore resemblance to the traditional work of 18th century engraver Thomas Bewick, transmitted via the woodcuts of Blake and Samuel Palmer, Ravilious’ pastoral prints never veered towards the saccharine. Like Blake and his fellow visionaries, Ravilious’ landscapes, town-scenes, and off-beat interiors always retained a sense of the strange and the unnatural. His eye for arrangement, combined with a penchant for rotational, curved planes and lines, lent mundane objects and everyday views a mystical aura that prevented a decline into the overly twee.
After the success of his first illustration work for Jonathan Cape, further work for Britain’s many small, independent publishers followed. In 1936 Ravilious started making lithographs with the printing firm the Curwen Press, publishing the well-known High Street series in collaboration with Country Life magazine. He also received commissions for illustrations from famous private houses such as the Golden Cockerel Press ( Twelfth Night, 1932), Golden Hours Press (The Jew of Malta, 1933), and the Nonesuch Press (The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne, 1938).
In total, Ravilious produced over 400 book illustrations and more than 40 jacket designs for publications in his lifetime (cricket lovers will recognise his cover for Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack (1938), reproduced annually for over sixty years.) By the end of the 1930s, he had established himself as one of the country’s foremost illustrators and book-jacket designers, well-known throughout his trade (as noted by Bawden) for his almost flawless taste.
In the same decade Ravilious became engaged in a range of commercial design work, lending his eye to the world of ‘arts and crafts’. In 1934 he made designs for Stuart Crystal glass, and the following year designed dining chairs and a table for the new boutique ‘Dunbar Hay’. But his best known work was for Wedgwood & Sons, the mammoth ceramics producer for whom he designed the Coronation mug for Edward VIII in 1936 (altered somewhat awkwardly a year later after Edward’s absconsion for George VI), alongside various tea and dinner services and commemorative ware for the Boat Race.
In 1934 Ravilious moved to live at Castle Hedingham in Essex where, as well as continuing to paint locally, he ranged further afield in the south of England. His subject matter, painted almost exclusively in watercolour, typically included rural landscapes, often with abandoned agricultural machinery, domestic interiors, and the large chalk figures cut into the downlands of Wiltshire. In his approach to inks and washes Ravilious was conservative, applying paint to paper in small, controlled strokes and building up an image that used the natural radiance of light through white paper to create bright, almost ethereal bucolic scenes.
With the outbreak of World War II Ravilious was initially posted as an anti-aircraft observer, but in February 1940 he was later assigned to the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists with the temporary rank of Captain. By April he was aboard the destroyer H. M. S. Highlander, viewing action at the Battle of Norway and completing some of his best known images of the military aircraft and carriers in action.
As with his earlier work, Ravilious’ wartime efforts – in contrast to the gritty, combat-oriented work of fellow Official War Artists – frequently focused on the smaller details: the merging of domestic routine and military equipment, the strangeness of everyday sights. His now famous images of submarine crews in Submarine Dream, published posthumously by the Camberwell press, depict men at work and rest in their quarters looking more like dock workers or commercial fishermen than soldiers in the midst of naval warfare.
Ravilious was clearly exhilarated by his experiences, determined to extract as much beauty from the war as he could in his official role. Bombing runs appeared to him like wonderful fireworks lighting up the sky, rescue missions and cargo drops a great adventure in the otherworldly geography of the North Sea: the grand thing was going up into the Arctic Circle with a brilliant sun shining at night, Arctic terns flying by the ship – I simply loved it and in fact haven’t enjoyed anything so much since…
In 1942 Ravilious was transferred to the Air Ministry, painting Spitfires and Lysanders and snow-covered seaplanes. These final images were to be prophetic. Sent to Iceland in September of that year accompanying an air sea rescue mission, his plane crashed somewhere near the coast: the crash-site was never found, his body never recovered. He was one of just three War Artists to die during the conflict, his life cut brutally short at 39.
(above) ‘Diver’ (left), and a mysterious, surreal print (right) in which the artist’s hand is depicted drawing its own underwater image; (below) ‘Testing Escape Apparatus’, illustrating Ravilious’ love of circular, ‘moving’ composition
In the years since, Ravilious’ reputation as an artist has remained relatively unexamined. The Imperial War Museum held an important retrospective exhibition of his work in 2004 and, more recently, a 2015 exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery looked to put greater emphasis on his watercolours, for a time overshadowed by his much larger graphic catalogue. To many commentators, his work is ‘too English’, wrapped up in a bucolic nostalgia that lacks the force of the major art movements that shaped the face of modernist art: surrealism, abstraction, and expressionism.
Such criticisms, however, overlook the eeriness that often underscores Ravilious’ obvious wit and levity. Certainly his prints and paintings are light, colourful, frequently stylised; but look closer, and you find in the strange use of light, in the uncanny juxtaposition of objects and colours, these once-comfortable images become ever more unfamiliar, faintly menacing or magical, revealing a mysterious outlook on the otherwise ordinary and everyday.