Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship English Artist Designers: 1922 to 1942

Patricia Cleveland-Peck enjoys this exhibition at The Towner Gallery Eastbourne

When I was young I lived in a house which opened directly on to the South Downs and I often think of Eric Gil’s words, ‘If you have been a little child brought up in those hills… you will understand their mortal loveline… if you have seen their sweeping roundness and the mists on them and the sheep and the little farmsteads… you will know what I am talking about.’ I think Eric Ravilious, who spent his early years in Eastbourne felt and understood this too, for it is communicated almost magically in some of his watercolours.

This exhibition has assembled some 400 pieces – over 90 of which have never been shown before. The general layout of the show is exemplary with clearly lettered explanations throughout and some innovative installations. It does contain some of the South Downs paintings which I love – but also much, much more. Here, I was able to follow the development of this versatile artist who was as at home creating murals, ceramics, lithographs and wood cuts as paintings. I was interested, for example, to see how his skill as a wood engraver and his mastery of what he and his fellow artists referred to as, ‘the dot and speck and dash and dab’ which provides the varied textures and tones in his woodcuts, such as Sussex Church which we see here, later translates into the idiosyncratic mottling and stippling effect found in so many of his landscapes and even the patterning we see in wallpaper and train seats in some other watercolours.

Most of all, as the title implies, this exhibition introduces us to Ravilious’s circle of artist friends – and lovers; Edward Bawden, Tirzah Garwood, Paul and John Nash, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Henell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus, Diana Low and Helen Binyon. We meet some of these characters almost in person as the show contains not only their works but portraits which they painted of each other. Their works are skilfully interleaved and I was delighted to encounter so many who deserve to be better known, especially the women.

It is interesting to see how, when artists come together in such groups, each member benefits from the mutual support and stimulation. We see this with The Scottish Colourists and the group around Cedric Morris at Benton End in Suffolk as well to some extent, as the Bloomsbury Group. In fact these last two overlapped with Ravilious’s circle both in time and territory but there was almost no communication, each group remaining self-contained.

Ravilious was not born into a wealthy family. His father, who was obsessively religious, tried his hand unsuccessfully at many business ventures and family life for Eric and his siblings was insecure although Eric, a brilliant draughtsman from childhood, did not seem unduly perturbed – wealth was never of much importance to him. The family moved to Eastbourne when he was four and he later won a scholarship to Eastbourne School of Art after which he moved to London and the Royal College of Art where he studied book illustration and mural painting in the Design School. It was here that the life long patterns of friendship with fellow artists and designers were formed. Ravilious showed a precocious talent as a wood engraver and in his last year he was taught by Paul Nash who, ignoring the deep divide between fine art and design, encouraged his students to find work as commercial artists. Ravilious illustrated his first book aged 23.

Eric Ravilious was a lively, good looking young man who worked hard and played hard and was blessed with a great sense of fun – something apparent in the first big commission which he undertook together with Edward Bawden – the murals at Morley College in London. Sadly these were lost when Morley was bombed during the war but this show provides us with a vivid impression of them.

Around this time Edward Bawden, who has married Charlotte Epton, moved to Brick House at Great Bardfield in Essex and when Ravilious married fellow-artist Tirzah Garwood, they too lived there for a while.

Ravilious was working at woodcuts but both artists wanted to paint watercolours which in fact were very fashionable at the time. Ravilious did produce a number of rural landscapes in this medium but they were quite close to being tinted drawings. Some however did include tractors and farm implements, a foreshadowing of the addition of odd objects such as the waterwheel and the abandoned farm implement which sometimes almost take the place of characters in his Downland paintings.

It was at Furlongs, the isolated cottage on the South Downs belonging to Peggy Angus that Ravilious found the strongest inspiration for these works. As well as the exterior and interior of the cottage, Waterwheel, Caravans, Chalk Paths, Mount Caburn and the magnificent Downs in Winter owe their being to stays at Furlongs, as do the paintings of the greenhouses at Firle and his depictions of Newhaven and Cuckmere Haven.

Furlongs was open house for the group and for many a stay there was a life-changing experience. As in many artistic cliques, love affairs, extra-marital and often complex, blossomed – Ravilious spent time at Furlongs with his lovers Diana Low and Helen Binyon as well as with Tirzah.

As well as wood engraving and water colours Ravilious had many other strings to his bow. Barnett Freedman had made a name for himself in book illustration by pushing the boundaries of commercial lithography to produce subtle and innovative images. This inspired Ravilious to try the medium which culminating with the book High Street (the idea itself being Helen Binyon’s another example the cross fertilisation of ideas within the group.)

This exhibition also marks the 75th anniversary of Ravilious’s death in 1942. He was only 39 years old and was working as a war artist when the plane he was on was lost over Iceland. Prior to this he had produced a superb series of war paintings He had always be fascinated with machinery and had even produced some almost lyrical images of the unlikely subject of a cement works. His war paintings of propellers, ships, funnels, views from planes and ward rooms constitute a body of work considered by some to be his master works.

For me though, it is his South Downs paintings to which I return. In fact when I imagine these gentle hills which I love so much, it is often the Ravilious depiction which comes to mind rather than the real thing, so vividly has he captured the timeless essence of the landscape.

This is a wonderful exhibition and it is accompanied by many interesting related talks and events including walks with the curator Andy Friend in the footsteps of Ravilious. Truly an artistic feast not to be missed.

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship English Artist Designers: 1922 to 1942
22nd May-17th September Tickets £8/£7 members & concessions.

Towner Art Gallery Devonshire Park, College Road, Eastbourne BN21 4JJ.Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am- 5pm & Bank Holiday Monday 10am – 5pm with late opening Thursdays until 8pm.