Eric Ravilious: Sussex and the Downs by James Russell

I love Eric Ravilious’ paintings. They are so evocative of time and place; their bold and joyful style is charming and cheerful, a representation of a cosy, comfortable world where all is undulating green hills, endless views and traditional, pastoral activity. You can’t help but look at his paintings and feel uplifted; their gentle, domesticated settings frame the world in a colourful and delightful bubble of buoyant spirits, celebrating all that it is to be British. However, on closer inspection of his work, there is much more to his seemingly innocent scenes than meets the eye. Snaking across those undulating green hills is barbed wire; looping high in the air above the gently meandering country roads are electricity wires; puffing along beneath an ancient landmark is a speeding stream train; above the peaceful scenes of men working in fields are looming, cross-hatched, grey clouds.

As full as Ravilious’ paintings are of a confident, light hearted pre war world, they are also evocative of the tensions chipping away at the peaceful horizon; political unrest, growing industrialisation and mechanisation that would soon see an end to the scenes of horse drawn ploughing he so tenderly depicts, the fast expansion of urban life into the surrounding countryside, punctuating those green vistas with cement and bricks and steam. Ravilious was not a naive, idealistic painter; his portraits of 1930s England are not just akin to the common patriotic depictions of the Green and Pleasant Land in popular use in advertising posters of the time.  They are clever, intriguing, bold and lovely embodiments of an age that was both looking back and looking forward; stuck in a limbo between peace and war, innovation and traditionalism and a nostalgia for an idealised pastoral past and a relentless drive for a new, modern, technological future. Ravilious captures all of this while managing to retain his own, unmistakeable style that is really quite haunting, and offers much to think on. I’m no Art Historian, and I have no idea of how he fits in with the other artists working at the time, but Ravilious is to me the embodiment of 1930s Britain, and I can’t get enough of his work.

Thankfully, neither can The Mainstone Press, who specialise in printing beautifully produced books on Ravilious and his circle. I came across their books on Ravilious in the V&A shop, and they were a little outside of my budget, so I spent a happy half an hour browsing through and soaking up as much of their delights as I could before leaving empty handed. I knew I wanted to write about Ravilious, but with no book to hand, I couldn’t do much good. So I wrote to The Mainstone Press and asked them for some images from their series on Ravilious to use on my blog; they kindly said that they could do better than that, and sent me the first in the series, which is this beautiful book depicting Ravilious’ paintings of Sussex and the Downs. Each painting is reproduced in full colour on its own page, accompanied by an essay explaining the inspiration for it, points of interest, and biographical details. I was totally absorbed and read it in one sitting; it’s a truly fascinating book. James Russell doesn’t write in a dry style or go overboard on the art history; instead, he describes Ravilious’ life and that of his circle of family and friends, how and where they found inspiration, and provides insightful pointers for each painting so that you can appreciate them on a deeper level than just aesthetics but not have them reduced to mere objects. Through Russell’s eyes, the paintings came to life; before when I had just seen a lovely panorama of the countryside, now I noticed those ominous fences, those disconcerting clouds, those clashes of modernity, and was able to draw my own conclusions.

Ravilious lived amongst an eclectic group of artists who bought ramshackle cottages in the middle of nowhere, had hordes of people to stay every weekend, and took great pleasure in the new vogue for ‘touring’ Britain in their cars. Life was a round of raucous pleasure and good humour, but with a deep appreciation of and for the natural landscape and the traditions of the country they felt hugely patriotic about. Sadly, this idealistic life was not to last forever. Ravilious later became an official war artist and painted some magnificent and unusual imagery of war both at home and abroad. Sadly he died during a trip to Iceland in 1942; his plane disappeared en route and was never found. What a great tragedy this was, both to his friends and family, who described him as a chronically cheerful, light hearted and free spirited man, and to the world of art, to which he could and should have contributed so much more. I loved reading more about his portrayals of the Sussex countryside, which, as his birthplace, was etched so deeply on his heart. I now can’t wait to read the next three books in the series! The books aren’t cheap, but they are truly objects to treasure, and worth the investment for the pleasure and fascination they will bring for years to come. I think a little obsession with Ravilious is beginning!

24 comments

  1. Enjoyed your comments re: Ravilious, and thought you were spot-on about some of your observations. For me, I like him because his work, at first glance, looks pastoral and rather calm, but then the perspective is sometimes a bit off, leading to the feeling that things are not quite as ordered as they appear – perhaps a feeling of … not dread, per se, but perhaps wondering what’s around the corner?… Suffice to say, good post and I am envious of your Ravilious book. I had to order the one I read from ILL in some far off state. :-}

    1. Thanks RavingReader! Yes you are exactly right – his perspective is always slightly skewed and often from an odd angle which does lend a sense of uncertainty to the paintings which is intriguingly at odds with what he depicts. Such a clever man! I hope you can manage to ILL these books – they really are lovely!

  2. I’m not British and I’ve never been to Britain, but I find that these pictures and the books you feature on your blog and your blog as whole so familiar. They are so cheerful and comfortable. Maybe it’s just my personality, or maybe it’s because our contemporary period is very similar to the interwar & WWII years: war, both sybaritic excess and economic depression simultaneously or almost. I’ve been tinkering with this idea in order to explain why I’m attracted to domestic British Lit; I’d love if you could share your thoughts on this. Or maybe it’s just plainly good writing that’s why!

    1. How interesting. I do think that there are a lot of similarities to our lives now as there were then, and it’s no coincidence that there is a real revival of ‘austerity values’ and fetishisation of the mid century lifestyle going on at the moment. Early to mid century literature certainly strikes a chord with me, and I think it’s because literature of the period tends to be very domestic and very suburban; it focuses on the little things of real life, while the battlegrounds rumble on in the background. Our lives are like that, really – wars are going on, governments are failing, we’re all struggling to make ends meet – but ultimately life goes on and we don’t stop being interested in what’s for dinner or the boy we met last night or what we’re going to go and see at the cinema this weekend. PLUS there is a quality of writing during that period that is rarely found today. The use of language was so much more eloquent and elegant. I find modern novels so samey – they’re all attempting to be either very clever or they’re terribly written – I don’t find that of 1930s and 1940s literature.

  3. If you ever visit Saffron Walden, you will enjoy the Fry Art Gallery which has a permanent exhibition of Ravilious, Edward Bawden and other artists who lived near each other in Great Bardfield. There is now an exhibit about Tirzah Garfield, Ravilious’ wife who was also a fine artist and interesting woman.

    1. Thank you Felicity! I had never heard of that gallery before. I must go and see! I’d particularly be interested in seeing the work of Tirzah – she comes across as a remarkable and vibrant woman in the book. Such a shame she died so young.

  4. Thanks for your kind remarks. If you want more info on Ravilious or the ‘Ravilious in Pictures’ series, do visit my blog, jamesrussellontheweb.blogspot.com. You’ll see what happens when the obsession really takes off!

    1. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book! What an honour to have you come and comment! I love your blog – I shall be reading religiously from now on!

  5. I had never heard of Eric Ravilious before you mentioned him. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful artist.

  6. Such lovely paintings, so innocent and cheerful (despite whatever’s lurking on the edges). I love finding out about things I never would have come across otherwise thanks to you Rachel! I’m so glad you’re sharing these treasures🙂

  7. I’ve admired your banner ever since you first posted it, Rachel, and now have an even greater appreciation for it and for the artist. I did not know of Ravilious until I saw the banner, and now your review here, though I keep feeling I do know him. Odd, isn’t it, how some artists seem so familiar right off the start?

  8. Thank you so much for expanding my art horizons by introducing me to this painter. I love his work and — as I am hard at work researching a book set in England — I have printed off a few of these paintings to hang above my desk for inspiration when energy or enthusiasm wanes.

    1. You are very welcome, AJ! I love the idea of your little writing area being decorated by Ravilious paintings – I hope he gives you the inspiration you’re looking for!🙂

  9. Love your review. Had a look at the Mainstone Press site. Would quite like to go to one of their talks / events! Sounds interesting. Fortunately for now as my pennies seem to be exiting my bank account, before even entering, I have ordered the first three books from the library. Can’t wait to read them!!! Also interested in Bawden’s London – but not available from library. Have you seen it? Any good? Btw I found a few of those Brian Cook Batsford books second hand and am currently mid reading Lakes one by Doreen Wallace. Am loving the nostalgic view!! Oh and thanks for introducing so many new things to all of us. Finished Peking Picnic yesterday. Really enjoyed it!

    1. Thanks Jane! They do have some wonderful events don’t they! I’m so pleased to have found them too🙂 Glad you could get hold of the books. I have seen the Bawden’s London book in the V&A shop and yes it does look very good. I shall be getting around to buying it eventually! How lovely! I’m so pleased. I have got two Batsford books with dustjackets and I am so looking forward to reading them – they’re gorgeous aren’t they?!

  10. Rachel, I really enjoyed your post and am delighted that you have caught the Ravilious bug – it’s wonderfully addictive isn’t it! For anyone wishing to see the work first hand, the Fry in Saffron Walden and the Towner in Eastbourne are two must see locations. I would like to add, for anyone that might be interested, that our books are made in this country: written in Bristol by James Russell, designed in Shoreditch, East London by the Webb and Webb design agency and printed and bound south of the Thames in Woolwich by Empress Litho. For anyone interested in Ravilious and forthcoming events do look at James Russell’s blog.

    1. Thank you so much Tim! I am so grateful for you sending me a copy, and I can’t wait to get the others in the series now. I think it’s wonderful that you are working so hard to create beautiful British made books and to raise awareness of these amazing artists and I am looking forward to seeing what else you publish in the coming months and years!

  11. These are simply stunning. I’ve never come across the artist before but now I am going to have to go and search out James Russell book. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s