Friday 18 May 2018

Ravilious & Co. The Pattern of Friendship: English Artist Designers 1922 - 1942 - Celia Rees

Eric Ravilious - The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes
This beautifully curated exhibition at Compton Verney Museum and Art Gallery chronicles the collaborations and significant relationships, personal and professional, between Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942) and various other artist-designers: friends, mentors, wives, lovers. The group included Paul Nash, John Nash, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Eileen ‘Tirzah’ Garwood, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon, Diana Low and Edward Bawden. Many of them were at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s, a group of exceptional students that Paul Nash termed 'an outbreak of talent'. It's good to see the work of so many women artists exhibited here and given equal space to their male compatriots.The exhibition brings together nearly 500 works (many rarely shown). The paintings, prints, drawings, engravings, books, ceramics, wallpapers, and textiles highlight significant moments in the artists’ lives and work and also demonstrate the deep influence this group of artists had on British Art and their profound impact on Art and Design in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. A previous exhibition at Compton Verney Britain in the Fifties - Design and Aspiration served to demonstrate just how pervasive their influence was. 
Enid Marx moquette design for London Underground
Eric Ravilious - Wedgwood Pottery Mug
Ravilious and his friends, with their teacher and mentor John Nash, believed that an artist could turn his or her hand to anything and their mission was to bring Art out of the Fine Art Gallery and into the lives of ordinary people through applied design. Quite apart from this lofty ambition, an artist had to earn a living. It made sense, therefore, to seek design work from various sources. The group were very successful. Their patterning, pastel colours and precision of line, their distinctive style of wood and copper engraving and lithography evoke a particular time so exactly that it has become that time. For us, it is the essence of nostalgia but in the 1930s and 40s, it was cutting edge modern. Their influence extended well into the 1950s and 1960s. Through applied design, their work became all pervasive, even ubiquitous. It could be seen at railway and tube stations, on advertising  hoardings and film posters, the walls of people's homes, the fabrics they wore, the furniture they sat on, the plates they ate from, the magazines and books that they read as they travelled, even the seating of their underground train. 
Eric Ravilious - Child's Handkerchief
Wisden - Eric Ravilous 
Eric Ravilious - The Windstorm 1931

Enid Marx - paper design

Everyman Books - Ravilious cover design

Edward Bawden - book cover

Their work is particularly powerfully present in book design. The Bookshop installation in the exhibition demonstrates the wide and far reaching influence these artists had on book production. Their hand can be seen everywhere: in covers and cover design, bookplates, endpapers, lettering, bordering and illustrations. Instantly recognisable, even if we cannot name the artist, and fiercely nostalgic. As my writer friend and companion Linda Newbery pointed out, we grew up with them. Art work so timeless and unequalled that it is still being used today.  
Edward Bawden - Film Poster

It is impossible to do justice to such a wide-ranging and comprehensive exhibition here. These artists concerned themselves with far more than art and design. They were committed to enhancing the lives of ordinary working people, bringing beauty and culture to them, rather than confining it to an art gallery. Many of the artists contributed original lithographs to the School Prints, a scheme designed to bring art into every classroom in the country and a whole section of the exhibition is devoted to the Morley Murals created by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden to adorn the walls of the canteen of Waterloo's Morley College for Working Men and Women. Sadly, their work was lost during the war. A grainy, black and white film and their sketches and drawings show us what a loss that was. 

The emphasis is not just on design, there are plenty of paintings on display. Principally those of Ravilious and Bawden, perhaps the best known of the group, but also their friends and associates. The paintings of Eric Ravilious are distinctive and hugely evocative. One can almost smell the tomatoes in The Greenhouse:Cyclemen and Tomatoes, the painting on the poster for the exhibition. Through his unique painting style, his use of pattern, texture, his palette of muted greens, greys and browns he made the landscape of Sussex, 'his own country', as particular and individual as Suerat's Paris or Van Gogh's Provence. To us, his paintings seem nostalgic, pastoral records of a lost rural past. But this is deceptive. This is no rural idyll. A Steam train puffs through the timeless landscape of the Downs. The same view is seen from the interior of a railway carriage, perhaps in the same train that is steaming past. 

Eric Ravilious - Westbury Horse 
Eric Ravilious - Train Landscape

A roller stands in the foreground of the cold, stark beauty of a winter landscape. A reminder that an agricultural labourer would be working in that cold all day.

Eric Ravilious - Downs in Winter

Eric Ravilious Hurricane in Flight
Eric Ravilious - Drift Boat
The Second World War cut across all their lives. Like their mentors, the Nash brothers, Ravilious and Bawden became War Artists. The patchwork of the British countryside was now viewed from the inside of a plane. A south coast beach is covered in snarls of barbed wire, the sea cut off from the land by coastal defences. Eric Ravilious was assigned to the Admiralty. In 1940 he was posted to Norway and swapped his muted greens and browns for the blues, whites, greys and black of the Arctic seas.  

H.M.S. Glorious

In 1942, he requested a transfer to the RAF. On 28 August he flew to Iceland to join a base outside Reykjavik. The day he arrived a Hudson aircraft had failed to return from a patrol. The next morning, three planes were despatched to search for the missing plane. Ravilious opted to join one of the crews. His plane failed to return. The log book recording him as missing is on display here, his name poignantly mis-spelt.  Four days later he was declared lost in action. One of the brightest talents in British Art had disappeared into the sea.
Celia Rees


Joan Lennon said...

Such wonderful images - thanks for this, Celia!

Celia Rees said...

It’s a wonderful exhibition - go and see it if you can.

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely! We have two shelves full of Wisdens - I hadn't realised that Ravilious designed the cover.

Celia Rees said...

Neither did I, Sue. The exhibition is full of surprises like that.

Mary Hoffman said...

I saw it in Dulwich - brilliant artist.