Renowned artist and designer Eric Ravilious (1903-42) has more than one hundred watercolours featured in Ravilious, a major exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
James Russell, a leading specialist on Eric Ravilious, curates the exhibition, which features well-known works such as Train Landscape (1940) and Edward Bawden Working in his Studio (1930), on loan from Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and the Royal College of Art Collection respectively.
Ravilious also offers a rare opportunity to view some of the artist’s rarely shown watercolours such as Wet Afternoon (1938).
Ravilious explores common themes and characteristics in Ravilious’s paintings through six themes: Relics and Curiosities; Figures and Forms; Interiors; Place and Season; Changing Perspectives; Darkness and Light.
Eric Ravilious – About the Artist
After growing up in Eastbourne on England’s South Coast, Eric Ravilious studied under Paul Nash at the Design School of the Royal College of Art. He became particularly well-known for his book illustrations and wood engravings, and he was also highly regarded as a designer.
Awarded a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1925, Ravilious visited Tuscany, Siena and Florence. He returned to England to teach at Eastbourne School of Art, and later at the Royal College of Art.
In 1928 Ravilious and his close friend Edward Bawden, whom he met while studying at the Royal College of Art, collaborated on a set of murals for the refectory of Morley College in South London. Prime Minister, Sir Stanley Baldwin, unveiled the murals early in 1930.
Widely reported in the press, the event propelled Ravilious and Bawden, two previously unknown artists, into the limelight. It sparked off a long list of commissions for watercolours and book illustrations. The murals no longer exist after bombing in 1941 destroyed them.
In his book, Edward Bawden, architectural writer Sir James Maude Richards describes the murals as “sharp in detail, clean in colour, with an odd humour in their marionette-like figures.” According to Richards, the work was “a striking departure from the conventions of mural painting at that time.”
Ravilious features Edward Bawden Working in his Studio (1930). The painting is unusual, firstly because it is a portrait, and secondly because it’s in tempera, a media Ravilious experimented with in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but didn’t really develop.
The artist depicts Bawden working in his studio. In the corner behind him, and on top of a cupboard, we can see rolled up studies for the Morley College murals.
Eric Ravilious Was Also a Popular Designer
During the 1930s Ravilious produced designs for Wedgwood including celebration mugs to mark the coronations of King Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II. Ravilious also designed advertisements for London Transport, glassware for Stuart Crystal and furniture for Dunbar Hay.
Although highly successful in these fields, Ravilious focused more and more on his preferred media of watercolour painting and colour lithography.
In his first solo exhibition held in 1933, Ravilious sold twenty of the thirty-seven works on display.
Eric Ravilious and World War II
Appointed as a full-time salaried war artist in 1940 by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, Ravilious received the honorary rank of Captain in the Royal Marines.
During his service he depicted various wartime subjects including Bomb Diffusing Equipment (c.1940) and Dangerous Work at Low Tide (1940).
The bomb diffusing equipment in the first painting is the same that the figures in the second use.
Eric Ravilious died on 2nd September 1942 whilst observing a sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland.
An Interview with Curator James Russell
Curator James Russell is a renowned specialist on Eric Ravilious. His recent publications include the exhibition catalogue, Ravilious, and the series Ravilious in Pictures (2009-12). James Russell spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts.
Decoded Arts: Ravilious created many wood carvings, but many art historians believe he saw painting as his true vocation. Do you agree?
James Russell: Yes, he started out as a wood engraver, but even in the 1920s, when he was comparatively young, he was determined to succeed as a watercolourist above all.
Decoded Arts: Did you have to make any difficult decisions about what to include or exclude from the exhibition?
James Russell: That’s a very good question – I was always looking at the exhibition’s themes and building the display around them. I wanted a balance of work that people knew well and work that they wouldn’t know so well. So, yes, it was a very careful process.
Decoded Arts: Has your research led to the re-interpretation of Ravilious’s work?
James Russell: Certainly, for me, looking at the pictures has changed the way I think about what he did. I see a lot more varied influences at work than I’d thought of previously. So, yes, it has.
Decoded Arts: How did Ravilious adapt his pre-war ideas and techniques for wartime paintings such as Midnight Sun?
James Russell: He continued much in the same vein, really. He had to pick military subjects. So he would look at a beautiful sky and there would have to be some kind of military activity going on. He continued to focus on light and always composed his work with the same care.
Decoded Arts: What is your favourite painting, and why?
James Russell: I have many favourites, but The Westbury Horse stands out particularly for me because it’s a site I know well. What strikes me about the painting is the way that the train is captured just as it is about to disappear behind the hillside. Ravilious has a way of sculpting hillsides and the hill has this three-dimensional quality. It’s hard to imagine that it’s actually a watercolour.
Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Although Eric Ravilious enjoyed only a short career, he was an important figure in the revival of English watercolour painting. In charting the development of this unique talent, the exhibition presents an intimate portrait of the artist.
A fully-illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, providing an enduring legacy of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable artists. Ravilious is on show until 31st August 2015. Tickets and further information are available from Dulwich Picture Gallery.