Friendship by design
An exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of Ravilious’s death explores his close network of artist and designer friends and collaborators. Peyton Skipwith introduces us to this creative circle
The key to this exhibition lies in its subtitle: ‘The Pattern of Friendship’. This remarkable show of 500 or so exhibits created between 1922 and 1942—paintings, watercolours, drawings, wood engravings, lithographs, textiles, china, furniture, marble papers, books and ephemera—is an enduring testament to a creative circle of friends and lovers. For those two decades, a gossamer-like web linked the 16 artists represented, most of whom had met at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London.
The dates are explained by the fact that eric Ravilious and edward Bawden met on September 27, 1922, the day they enrolled at the college, inaugurating a friendship that was only severed by Ravilious’s untimely death in Iceland on September 2, 1942. The closeness of the bond between these two very dissimilar characters forms the central narrative of the exhibition and of Andy Friend’s excellent book of the same title.
In 1922, the RCA was being transformed under its inspiring principal, William Rothenstein, who had been appointed four years previously. The reforms he had instigated, especially with regard to the different disciplines—painting, sculpture and design—were already attracting outstanding students to what was rapidly becoming one of the country’s leading art colleges.
Among those who enrolled at roughly the same time as Ravilious and Bawden were Barnett Freedman, Douglas Percy Bliss, Phyllis Dodd, enid Marx, Percy horton, Charles Mahoney, Charlotte epton (later Mrs Bawden), Peggy Angus and helen Binyon, who are all well represented in the exhibition.
Rothenstein had augmented the permanent staff of the college with part-time tutors, including, in 1924, Paul Nash, whose influence, particularly on Ravilious, Bawden and Marx, was seminal. Rothenstein also persuaded Sir Joseph Duveen, who had recently funded Slade-trained Rex Whistler’s mural in the Tate Gallery restaurant, to fund similar schemes for RCA students at Morley College. Mahoney was allotted the main hall; Ravilious and Bawden were assigned the refreshment room.
The murals were unveiled to great acclaim by Stanley Baldwin in early 1930, making the artists’ reputations and revealing Ravilious’s future wife, Tirzah Garwood, to public view for the first time.
Following this triumph, the nexus moved east, exchanging
South Kensington for the Essex village of Great Bardfield, where Bawden and Ravilious lodged at Brick House. Tom Hennell, who is one of the four relaxed figures in Bawden’s 1932 drawing May in Ambrose Heath’s Good Food, had turned up there one evening while researching his book Change in the Farm.
A further country outpost was added when Peggy Angus acquired the lease of Furlongs, a primitive cottage on the South Downs that became both a trysting place and a centre for artistic activity. Bawden’s May and Ravilious’s
Tea at Furlongs might suggest a life of leisure, but this was far from the truth. Work was not only a necessity for both men, it was the motivation for their lives, as it was for most of their friends, whose products make for the rich diversity of this exhibition. Charlotte Bawden’s and Tirzah’s marble papers compete for wall space with Marx’s textiles, Bawden’s Curwen Press wallpapers and Freedman’s lithographs. An early, grainy film, The King’s Stamp, shows Freedman at work, cigarette in mouth, designing the 1935 Jubilee stamp.
A nearby showcase devoted to ephemera produced for the Artists’ International Association (AIA) reveals another aspect of the group: their commitment to the Spanish Republican cause. It was not for nothing that Peggy Angus was known as the ‘Red Angus’.
The Towner’s cavernous spaces have been transformed and humanised for the occasion. Visitors enter by way of a large blow-up of Ravilious’s joyfully Italianate engraving conceived for the dust jacket of Osbert Sitwell’s Winters
of Content, to find themselves in a sequence of forget-me-notblue, primrose-yellow and mutedsalmon-pink spaces, the colours redolent of Ravilious’s Wedgwood Coronation and alphabet mugs.
Despite the high ceilings, the emphasis throughout is of intimacy and discovery. The creation of a ‘standalone’ bookshop within the exhibit is a brilliant way not only of displaying the array of books, illustrations and printed ephemera amassed, but also of evoking the spirit of Ravilious’s and Jim Richards’ High Street, published by Country Life in 1938.
Books, of course, are everywhere throughout the exhibition, as are the great prewar watercolours of Bawden and Ravilious. One of the wittier juxtapositions is that of the latter’s 1940 Barrage Balloons at Sea with Enid Marx’s children’s book Bulgy
the Barrage Balloon, dating from the following year. The exhibition is a true delight. ‘Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship; English Artist Designers: 1922 to 1942’ is at Towner Art Gallery, College Road, Eastbourne, East Sussex, until September 17 (01323 434670; www.t owner eastbourne. org.uk) ‘Ravilious & Co’ by Andy Friend is published by Thames & Hudson (£24.95)
Furlongs (1934) by Ravilious, showing Peggy Angus’s primitive shepherd’s cottage near Lewes, where many of the group stayed
Left: William Nicholson’s portrait of the captivating Diana Low, with whom he, and later Ravilious, had an affair. Above: The Wire Fence by Helen Binyon (1935)
Nocturne, Bristol Docks by John Nash, who came here in 1938 with Ravilious, whose Paddle Steamers at Night shows the same view