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!