An English painter in peace and war

Eric Ravilious is not one of the best known 20th-century painters, but he may be the most English of them all, writes John Westbrooke

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A new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London provides a rare opportunity to see 100 of his works together, and you can tell at once how English he was, both in his response to landscape and weather, his restraint, and his eye for quirky objects.

No great swagger portraits, indeed hardly any portraits at all; he could paint people but seldom did. No brightly rendered sojourns in Los Angeles, just the muted colours of home, modest in size. Hardly anything in oil; his preferred medium was watercolour, though he produced murals, lithographs, china design, wallpaper, and the woodcut of cricketers that’s been on the cover of Wisden’s Almanac since 1938.

His father was an antique dealer, and Eric seems to have developed a taste for things freed from context so that they become still-lives: a waterwheel on dry land surrounded by swans; a Number 29 bus without wheels sitting on barrels in a field, the curved shape and low viewpoint making it look like a boat cutting through waves. Bomb-Defusing Equipment shows you just what you need for the job, complete with a sleek, grey bomb occupying a quarter of the picture, sitting there patiently yet pointing forcefully straight into the picture. (The structure of a Ravilious painting can easily be missed, but look out for bold diagonal lines, or roads that lead us firmly into the distance.)

He painted the age-old figures cut into rolling chalk hillsides, though often with an awareness of modern human presence. The Wilmington Giant is seen through barbed wire fences. A white horse is glimpsed out of the window of a third-class train carriage, itself depicted in careful detail; another is shown in a dull green countryside but with a steam train, perhaps the same one, puffing by in the distance.

Weather also has a part to play. Wet Afternoon shows just that, and in Wales too: a muddy lane between high hedgerows, the clouds lowering and grey-brown, the rain coming down in pencilled grey lines. For The Vicarage in Winter he developed a cross-hatching to represent the pale, snow-lit winter sky over the buildings and gardens. If the weather grew too bad on his painting expeditions, he drew the interior of his lodgings instead.

But England isn’t all as damp and grey as foreigners think, and neither is Ravilious, though his colouring is never exactly lurid. Bright bathing machines on wheels line Aldeburgh beach, like little gypsy caravans ready to take shy bathers straight down to the water. In Tea at Furlongs, a dining table and sun umbrella are set up in an angle of a garden wall: beyond are sunlit Sussex fields and trees. It was painted in 1939; maybe the stone wall reflects the war that was already breaking out.

Perhaps the most striking of all the works is November 5th, in which we suddenly see a different country. From a high window in a town we look down on bonfires and great gaudy fireworks spinning and exploding; people rush through the streets to join the fun; in one backyard dancers cavort wearing animal heads. This is a traditional England too, but urban and pagan, with a vigour Ravilious doesn’t normally unleash. (And now all suppressed again, because who is allowed to stage their own bonfire these days?)

Ravilious studied at the Royal College of Art, but design rather than painting; much of his work lay in book illustration. He was popular and sociable, a friend to many other well known artists of his generation (one of whom he married), and won plenty of praise from critics.

But at the end of 1939 he was invited to become an official war artist, with the rank of honorary captain in the Royal Marines. Though denied permission to draw an admiral’s bicycle at Chatham dockyard, he did go aloft to paint warplanes looking almost ethereal in flight. He also endured confined conditions on a training submarine, producing work that functioned as design, education and portraiture all at once.

War took him to the Arctic on board a destroyer, too, and offered him an altogether new light to portray. Vivid midnight suns hover over dark blue seas while dark planes buzz through the sky and camouflaged carriers cut through the water. But in September 1942, posted to an RAF station in Iceland, he volunteered to join an air-sea rescue mission, and did not return. He was 39. His was just one death among millions; but who knows what he might have become? Ravilious was a loss to art, but his work depicts an England that still has echoes for us today.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery, to August 31