What if we’d lost the Battle of Britain in 1940? It’s a tantalizing, if extremely unpleasant thought. The Nazis had a Sonderfahndungsliste, a dossier of notable Brits to be immediately liquidated in the event of a successful land invasion. It’s a bizarre collection of names. Churchill and Attlee are there of course, but also figures from the world of entertainment and literature. Virginia Woolf. Noel Coward. Sybil Thorndike. E.M. Forster. H.G. Wells. With this purge, a body blow would instantly have been struck at the heart of our free expression and, of course, at the essence of our nation.
As I walk round the display of Eric Ravilious paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I sense the nail-biting tension of this moment of history from an extremely human point of view. In 1939 the artist made a whistle stop tour of the countryside, painting the rolling green hills of England. Significantly, he focused on ancient earthworks – the Westbury horse, the Cerne Abbas giant, the Wilmington Long Man. They offer the sense of a man trying to grasp at history and stop the forward flow of time – to capture an ancient and magical imagined past. These landscapes would surely pull on the heart-strings in any era – but in 1939 they have a much deeper significance.
As I look at these pictures, unusually for me, a musical association floats into my mind too. It is Vaughan Williams’ ‘Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus’, from that same year of 1939. This piece, like the Ravilious work, conjures Englishness in a wordless, tear-jerking way that might seem redundant, parochial or old-fashioned now, but which still lurks somewhere deep in the English psyche. I know this firsthand, it’s inside me too. When I spent three years living in Japan, I used to dream very vividly about looking at the lush green landscapes of our home counties from the window of a train.
Ravilious’s name only entered my consciousness about twelve years ago, when my flat-mate Rowena flagged him up as a lifelong favourite. I’d considered myself a fan of 20th century realism, but his work had been absent from my art books. In the intervening decade, though, I’ve started seeing his name all over the place. There’s a Ravilious calendar, and a diary. The Tate shop flog dubious ‘limited edition’ giclees of his work. Eric Ravilious is back in fashion.
Fittingly, Rowena and I visit the Dulwich exhibition together – and it’s exciting to experience this art alongside a fellow fan. The show consists mainly of watercolour pictures, Ravilious’s favoured medium. The imagery is representational, yet undoubtedly influenced by the Modernist modes of Cubism and Futurism. The viewpoints, with their flattened perspectives and stylized forms, imitate nature without slavishly copying it. Pictures such as ‘The Bedstead’ offer us a nostalgic window into a recent past of muted colours, bare floorboards and chintzy wallpapers. The artist applied his watercolour strokes sparingly, often allowing the white paper to show through – and now these sheets have gently yellowed like the pages of an antiquarian book. The pieces feel precious, personal and fragile. They emit a different vibe to oil paintings.
Ravilious was educated at the Royal College, where he forged a lifelong friendship with fellow artist Edward Bawden. He was mentored by Paul Nash, who proposed his election to the Society of Wood Engravers, and helped him find work as a commercial illustrator. He produced hundreds of book illustrations in his lifetime, and his engraving of cricketers has featured on the cover of Wisden’s almanac for over seventy years. The paintings in this exhibition show a printmaker’s eye, to be sure. Ravilious’s distinctive watercolour style consists of cross-hatched dry brush strokes which are laid down with the precision of an engraver’s tool. They also show the rigour of an illustrator’s communicative approach. Every shape is defined, there is no vague painterly fluffiness. The forms are easy to read yet, like all good illustrations, belie their own complexity and sophistication of composition.
Ravilious became a War Artist in 1940, and many of his placements were at training bases in the UK. Participants in the scheme were encouraged to continue working with their own modus operandi – though it seems the war offered Ravilious new subjects and refined his visual language further. With freedom to choose which aspects of army life to draw, it’s interesting to see what kind of things he gravitated towards. Bold visual composition was immensely important to him, and in many scenes he looked for strong abstract elements to create visual interest. For ‘Ships Screw on a Railway Truck’ we can sense his enjoyment at the almost Surrealist wartime juxtaposition of a propeller shape with a snowy English landscape.
Ravilious again gravitates towards a strong abstract motif in ‘Hurricanes in Flight’. The view across the wings puts us right into the heart of the action, but also gives harmony and structure to the piece. To dwell upon the reality of planes fighting it out above the English Channel may, of course, give this scene a less lyrical connotation – but the artist, it seems, chooses not to go there visually. It’s light, airy and beautiful.
In 1941, Ravilious was invited to sketch the Home Security Control Room, a deep level base underneath Whitehall. A large teleprinter machine sits in the middle of a room, like some Hartnell-era Doctor Who monster. There’s an air of mystery about it, it sits in a halo of light like a saviour. The machine is an essential line of written communication, and we can only guess at how many lives might depend on the messages typed back and forth on its keys. Ravilious manages to create drama and significance in a scene which, let’s face it, in reality was quite probably rather dark, mundane and dingy. Isn’t that the joy of representational art though?
My friend and I walk though the exhibition quickly and excitedly, then go back through – as is my usual custom – to spend time with our favourite pictures. I stand for ages in front of the Teleprinter, mesmerized. I move across to the Train Landcape and allow myself to be transported. Yet I still come away from this show strangely saddened. In my mind I must confess I’d lazily conflated the careers of Ravilious and his friend Edward Bawden (who lived til 1989), imagining that I’d see lovely Ravilious artworks from the 1950s and 60s. But the show ends – it didn’t happen. Ravilious was lost during an air sea rescue mission with the RAF in Iceland in 1942. He was 39.
‘They never found his plane’ Rowena tells me, ‘so I like to think he didn’t die at all. He escaped. He left the war effort and just did something else.’ She smiles expectantly. I think we both know it’s is a rather outlandish suggestion, but it could almost be real, in a parallel universe kind of way – Ravilious biding his time like some sort of latter-day Merlin. His late work doesn’t presage his demise – there are no pictures of front-line combat, military hospitals or the darker recesses of war, just here today, gone the next. Only his beautiful pictures remain and for that, of course, we can be grateful.
Ravilious is at Dulwich Picture Gallery til August 31st 2015. 10 til 5 daily. Admission £12.50