Eric Ravilious was an Engilsh painter, designer, book illustrator and engraver. He lived from 22 July 1903 to 2nd September 1942, and for many years after his premature death, he was regarded as a quintissentially English painter, whose work was considered decorative rather than serious.
A student of the Royal College of Art, he was influenced by the tutelage of Paul Nash who was engaged part-time in 1925. Nash started wood engraving in 1919, when the practice was entering a revival, in demand from publishers of books and magazines. Ravilious followed in 1923 and used Nash’s technique of cutting a white line into solid areas of black, but he also incorporated tonal areas using small strokes, as used by German engravers in the sixteenth century. In her book The England of Ravilious, Freda Constable finds a superficial similarity in the work of the two artists, in terms of subjects (downland, empty rooms and complex man-made forms), but she contrasts Nash’s engagement with the mystical with Ravilious’ tendancy to distance himself from his subject and concentrate on portraying a “naturalistic truth” (Constable. 1982).
Ravilious acheived the suggestion of colour in black and white work through his precision and technical control, which embued his abstract designs and small country scenes with energy and sparkle, as seen in the depiction below of a Sussex Church.
Fig. 1.Untitled (1925)
Fig. 2. Almanack. (1929)
Ravilious learned about texture and the portrayal of depth through his engraving work. He transposed the techniques using line, flecks, scratches and dots to his paintings, and was able to retain the reflection of light off the paper by avoiding overpainting. Whatever subject he painted, he was keenly aware of the value of shape and texture. This is seen in Interior at Furlongs (fig. 3) where he uses cross hatching and stippling and a restricted palette. The picture is equally about the landscape outside as it is about the empty room, and the landscape is framed by the window and doorway, which draws the attention of the viewer, as does the red of the curtains and gold frame of the window; the only bright colour in the painting.
Fig. 3. Interior at Furlongs (1939)
Ravilious became a designer for Wedgewood between 1936 and 1940, when he was appointed a War Artist. His work included designs for commemorative wares, and also incorporated patterns for dinner and tea ware, lemonade sets and nurseryware. Because of War time restrictions on the produce of decorated ware, many of his designs were not put into production in any quantities until the l950’s.
Fig. 4a. Wedgewood Coronation Mug
Fig. 4b. Wedgewood Bowl
He was appointed as Official War Artist by Kenneth Clark during World War 2, but his paintings from this period do not portray the brutality or carnage of the war, concentrating rather on the landscapes within which the weaponry is contained, or on sanitized scenes of the weaponary of war (see fig 5 and 6).
Fig. 6. Firing a 9.2 Gun (1941).
Michael Prodger, of The Guardian, reviewed Alan Powers’ book (2013), Eric Ravilious: Artist and Designer, which stresses that Ravilious was a member of a series of a long tradition of artists and printmakers, including William Blake, Samuel Palmer and John Sell Cotman. These artists of the early 20th century made watercolour a distictively British medium. Cotman in particular was very influential with his sense of pattern in nature, and his avoidance of the loose, wet style of watercolour painting that was popular in the late nineteenth century (see another research post John Sell Cotman).
Alan Powers, wrote of a number of books on Ravilious, and also curated the first retrospctive of Ravilious’ work, in 2003 at the Imperial War Museum. In his book Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities (2003) he examines Ravilious’ scope as a designer, illustrator and watercolourist. He quotes Laurence Binyon who described Ravilious’ technique of under-painting and elaborate superimposed washes and stipples, as a new method (Binyon 1944, cited in Powers, 2003:33), but draws the links between the late nineteenth century artists such as John Sell Cotman and Francis Towne and the modernist trend of approaching painting in terms of design.
There is a dream-like quality in the well-known series of watercolours of the Sussex Downs. These are stylised versions of familiar landscapes, not overly sentimentalised, but none-the-less portraying an idealised view. Not to say that the influence of man upon the landscape is omitted, rather the opposite, there is generally reference to man’s activities, which gives the works a domstic feel in some instances.
Fig 7. Downs in Winter ( 1934).
Although this image (fig. 7) is austere, the mood is one of serenity, acheived through the soft light of the winter sun, low in the sky, and the calm rolling movement of the hills. The roller in the foreground acts as a reminder of the long agricultural history attached to the land. In defiance of convention, he often painted facing the sun, ‘which produced a flattening of space and a different perception of colour’ (Powers, 2015:80).
In his watercolour, The Long Man of Wilmington; The Wilmington Giant, (fig.8) he successfully combines two- and three- dimensional images, painting in the traditional landscape manner, but with the picture plane right up against the picture surface.
Fig. 8. The Long Man of Wilmington: The Wilmington Giant (1939).
Ravilious also used interiors as subjects, but these did not include people. In the painting below, his skill as a designer is seen in the patterned wallpaper and floor coverings, and the curves of the iron bedstead, but the perspective is distrorted, creating an oppressive mood overall.
Fig. 9. A Farmhouse Bedroom (1930s)
Edward Bawden and Ravilious were two of a group of artists who became known as the artists of Bardfield. They were both taught by Paul Nash. Their watercolour style still has no acknowledged name. Powers discusses this, quoting Richard Seddon, who called it ‘textured watercolour’. (Seddon 1943, cited in Powers, 2015:78) Powers suggests it owes its modernist roots primarily to Cezanne’s way of building up a painting, whether in oil or watercolour, with clearly structured strokes. Ravilious also acclaimed the work of Derain (see fig. 11) and Dunoyer de Segonzac (see fig. 10).
Figure 1. Ravilious, E. Untitled [wood engraving] Available at:https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=eric+ravilious+wood+engravings&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=610&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjS7b_sr9vKAhWKcBoKHeo2CyYQsAQIHg&dpr=1#imgrc=lcxteQUNm75nBM%3A [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 2. Ravilious, E. (1929) Almanack 1929. With twelve designs engraved on wood by Eric Ravilious, London, Lanston Monotype Corporation. Available at:https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=eric+ravilious+almanack&espv=2&biw=136. &bih=610&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiisq-FudvKAhUEMhoKHb4oAyIQsAQIJA#imgrc=i_ymHqJkuuA0ZM%3A [Accessed on 14/02.2016]
Figure 3. Ravilious, E. (1939) Interior at Furlongs [Watercolour] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=Ravilious+interior+at+furlongs+image&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=610&tbm=isch&imgil=-jo75fP_op2RvM%253A%253BtVWY0myzkVHRZM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.townereastbourne.org.uk%25252Fravilious-room-temporarily-closed-until-12-september%25252F&source=iu&pf=m&fir=-jo75fP_op2RvM%253A%252CtVWY0myzkVHRZM%252C_&usg=__BQiKOUUhNrmVCSbqFRY3q3QDGzo%3D&ved=0ahUKEwjzuKzPrffKAhUG6RQKHbk6A4wQyjcIMg&ei=k4DAVrOjIIbSU7n1jOAI#imgrc=jV9-YfqPa2xj3M%3A [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figures 4a & 4b. Wedgewood designs. Available at: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/22468. [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 5. Ravilious, E. (1942) Runway Perspective [Watercolour] Available at: http://www.iwmprints.org.uk/image/726958/ravilious-eric-runway-perspective [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 6. Ravilious, E. (1942) Firing a 9.2 Gun. [Watercolour] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=war+images+ravilious&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=610&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwix4fT609bKAhWGWhQKHR_cB_0QsAQIHg#imgrc=j31CX_NxeWRGNM%3A [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 7. Ravilious, E. (1934) Downs in Winter. [Watercolour] Available at: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=downs+in+winter+ravilious&espv=2&biw=1366&bih=610&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjLqIHH8-3KAhVIbxQKHVEHBtoQsAQIHg#imgrc=iZQwyQvJUs_hWM%3A [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 8. Ravilious, E. (1939) The Long Man of Wilmington; The Wilmington Giant. [Watercolour] Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16431/the-long-man-of-wilmington-watercolour-ravilious-eric/ [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 9. Ravilious, E. (1930s) A Farmhouse Bedroom. [Watercolour] Available at: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O75781/a-farmhouse-bedroom-watercolour-ravilious-eric/ [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 10. Dunoyer de Segonzac, A. (1918) The Lockgate. [Oil on canvas] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-lockgate [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Figure 11. Derain, A. (1912) The Church at Vers. [oil on canvas] Available at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-church-at-vers [Accessed on 14/02/2016]
Russell, J. (2009) Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs. Norwich Maidstone Press
Powers, A. (2003) Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities. Philip Wilson Publishers 2012 (paperback edition).
Constable, F. (1982) The England of Eric Ravilious. Lund Humphries 2003 (paperback edition)
Powers, A.,2015. Eric Ravilious. In: G. Suanders and M. Yorke, ed. 2015. Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield. London, V&A Publishing. Chap. 3.