Working predominantly in pale hues of pencil and watercolour, Ravilious’ style is precise and architectural yet he has an idiosyncratic vision. The exhibition begins with pictures that reflect this aptitude for homing in on the unexpected beauty and oddness of the ordinary. ‘Talbot-Daracq’ (above, 1934), for instance, takes as its subject a rusting car, the parts strewn across unkempt grass behind a wooden shed: a scene one would pass by without looking twice. Yet the derelict machinery is rendered with the exactitude and aestheticism of graphic design.
Ravilious’ debt to his tutor at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, is clear from the start: like Nash, he sees both the geometry in nature and the surreal. The man-made and the natural co-exist in peaceful yet uncanny scenes – most without any living human presence (as in ‘Downs in Winter’, above, 1934). As do the ancient past and mechanised modernity in pictures such as that of the ‘Westbury Horse’ (right, 1939), dominating the chalk hillside with a train steaming along the valley below seeming toy-sized in comparison; or ‘Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck’ (below left, 1940), stranded in a snowy landscape.
And, like his tutor, he is a master of his medium. Watercolour (which predominates in this exhibition – his printed work very much sidelined bar an interesting series of lithographs) is a very English technique – particularly well suited to our climate – and often unfairly sidelined, though Tate’s ‘Watercolour’ exhibition in 2011 certainly made a good attempt at rectifying that. But in the early 20th century, and especially the interwar decades, watercolour made a significant come-back among the British Modernist avant-garde: in addition to Nash, Edward Burra, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton and John Piper, to name but a few, were advocates of this subtle and delicate medium. Ravilious made it his own, and it is to the credit of the curator, James Russell, that the ways in which he did this are represented to the spectator in an understated yet illuminating manner. A small text appended to ‘Vicarage in Winter’ (below, 1935), for example, points out the cross-hatching technique that Ravilious brought from his experience in wood engraving to create the luminescent, pellucid light of an English winter’s dawn.
Ravilious’ career was cut short by his untimely death in 1942 – lost in action in a plane over Iceland – and therefore the exhibition chooses a looser thematic, rather than chronological, structure. The major theme that runs through the exhibition, alongside and in contrast to the timeless landscapes, is that of ships and biplanes preparing for war (‘De-Icing Aircraft’, below, 1942).
Ravilious was signed up by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1939 and assigned to the Admiralty. His subsequent paintings of ships in dry dock and on the North Sea pay homage to earlier war artists such as C.R.W. Nevinson (especially ‘HMS Glorious in the Arctic’ of 1940, below, with its jagged, jazz-age streak of light across the water) and Edward Wadsworth, whose ‘Dazzle Ships in Drydock at Liverpool’ (1919) appears the Futuristic forerunner of Ravilious’ ‘A Warship in Dock’ (1940).
People do sometimes appear in Ravilious’ work – theatrical and puppet-like in the design for the Morley College murals, more serious in the lithographs from the ‘Submarine Dream’ series, but still with the two-dimensionality of story-book illustrations. More frequently one is struck by the absence of people, especially in the his bedroom interiors such as ‘A Farmhouse Bedroom’ (below right, 1930s).
This painting is deeply unsettling with its weird architectural arrangement – a seemingly dead-end corridor, a ceiling like a gauzy canopy – and de-stabilised perspective that recall Paul Nash’s hallucinatory ‘Harbour and Room’ (1932-6), created during the years that Nash was most closely associated with British Surrealism. The exhibition panel suggests comparison with the interior scenes of Van Gogh and Vuillard; though I can accept the influence of a post-Impressionist predilection for pattern here, Van Gogh connection seems based only upon the subject matter of a bed and wooden chair.
‘Train Landscape’ (left, 1940) also seems oddly deserted, as if something has caused the inhabitants of the carriage to flee, the seats still warm. Again the White Horse appears, a symbol of the historic English landscape that captured Ravilious’ imagination, and which he would revisit in his well-known paintings of the Cerne Abbas and Wilmington Giants.
Another empty interior – of flowers on a country kitchen table – is akin to Winifred Nicholson’s compositions, while other images are closer to Ben’s precise linear style. This geometry combines with Ravilious’ love of natural forms in the wonderful ‘Greenhouse – Cyclamen and Tomatoes’ (above, 1935). It is a trait that teeters on the edge of surrealism; like Edward Burra, Ravilious paints ‘living landscapes’ with gently slumbering hills or hedges that roll and glower, threatening to submerge the insignificant figure in ‘Wet Afternoon’ (below, 1938).
Ravilious’ ability to portray in watercolour the harsh and brilliant effects of fireworks as well as the shifting and subtle natural light of dawn breaking or the onset of a summer storm is unsurpassed. Coupled with his empathy for English landscape and history, his work is a transcendent document of a time and place that speaks more forcefully than words.