FACED with another week of lockdown, escapism is the theme of this week’s picture choice – in terms of theme, period and geography.
So while our chilly Chilterns landscape continues to provide plenty of inspiration for local artists and photographers, our weekly feature is taking a trip a little further afield – and a step back in time to the unsettling period between the wars when Eric Ravilious was at the height of his powers.
Raised in Eastbourne, the outstanding British painter and designer is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs, and he remains as popular as ever almost 80 years after his early wartime death, when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland.
For the definitive story of the artist’s home life, the people and places he knew and the culture and customs of 1930s England, essays by art historian, lecturer and curator James Russell feature in a series of volumes published by The Mainstone Press collecting many of his most memorable watercolours.
Various other profiles fill in fascinating details about his work and life – including Paul Laity in The Guardian and Frank Delaney – while Henry Rothwell pays frequent tribute to Ravilious in his Twitter account @HenryRothwell.
More recently Rothwell has launched a trio of greetings cards featuring the artist’s work accompanied by short explanations by James Russell, whose published works include Ravilious, Ravilious in Pictures 1: Sussex and the Downs, Ravilious in Pictures 2: The War Paintings, Ravilious in Pictures 3: A Country Life, Ravilious in Pictures 4: A Travelling Artist, and Ravilious: Submarine.
Russell writes of Ravilious in his blog: “I love the fact that his watercolours and designs are both enjoyable and serious, light-hearted yet powerful, dream-like but rooted in reality.”
Although he settled in Essex and roved as far afield as Wiltshire and Wales, as captured in his Wet Afternoon portrait from Powys in 1928, Ravilious rediscovered the South Downs in 1934 and over the next five years painted a series of watercolours capturing the beauty of the Sussex landscape.
In a Youtube tribute in 2019, Tom Outdoors embarks on a six-mile circular walk in Essex following in the footsteps of the artist, visiting the church where a war memorial commemorates him and walking through the fields and woods that inspired some of his work.
As an official war artist, Ravilious visited ports, naval bases and airfields around Britain, witnessed the Allied invasion and retreat from Norway and produced watercolours of subjects ranging from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to the interior of a mobile pigeon loft.
He was only 39 when he died in 1942, yet he had already achieved amazing things. A brilliant wood engraver and designer, he remains best known for those haunting watercolours in which lighthouses, white horses, empty rooms and downland paths came to life.
Ravilious was an enigmatic figure who made little public comment on his work, but in his books and blog entries James Russell manages to piece together many of the jigsaw pieces of the artist’s short life.
And at a time when so many families have been taking a fresh look at their local landscapes, this seems a good week to spend a few moments in the company of Eric Ravilious; luminous, evocative and timeless, his extraordinary watercolours reflect the talents of an artist now regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century.