Float­ing through life with gai­ety

Eric Ravilious and his friends shut out the cen­tury’s hor­rors, says Michael Bird

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books - by Andy Friend

In Paris for the In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion in June 1937, He­len Binyon dropped into the Bri­tish Pavil­ion to see the work of her for­mer lover Eric Ravilious. The brief to de­sign both pro­gramme cover and ex­hi­bi­tion dis­plays had cheered him up at a dif­fi­cult time. He and He­len had drifted apart; he was also about to sep­a­rate from his wife, Tirzah Gar­wood; and, de­spite reg­u­lar en­grav­ing com­mis­sions and sales of wa­ter­colours, cash-flow was a headache. Ravilious was “jolly pleased and re­lieved” when the De­part­ment for Over­seas Trade said yes.

A pho­to­graph shows him tak­ing a cig­a­rette break dur­ing work on a ten­nis scene. He looks at once tight-lipped and dreamy, as if giv­ing his best while wish­ing he had bet­ter things to do ( job­bing de­sign­ers every­where will know how he feels). For her part, He­len – her­self a gifted graphic artist – was unim­pressed. With Pi­casso’s Guer­nica in the Span­ish Pavil­ion and the dom­i­nant presence of Nazi Ger­many and the Soviet Union at the fair, the Bri­tish Pavil­ion’s dis­plays seemed “out-of-date and triv­ial”, con­vey­ing the bizarre im­pres­sion of a na­tion “largely ru­ral and in­hab­ited by com­fort­ably off sports­men”.

At this point in Ravilious & Co, Andy Friend briefly sets Ravilious, that most English of mod­ern artists, on an in­ter­na­tional stage. It prompts you to ask what it was all re­ally about, the Thir­ties re­vival of white-line wood­block en­grav­ing, the born-again zest for The Nat­u­ral His­tory of Sel­borne, the pale paint­ings of chalk country, like dream­scapes emp­tied of peo­ple. Ravilious must have heard of Pi­casso. What did he think of him? He was at art school with Henry Moore and Barbara Hep­worth. Wasn’t he even slightly cu­ri­ous about what they were up to?

These ques­tions are raised but not an­swered. The story that Friend un­folds, with its lively cast of young artist-de­sign­ers mak­ing reputations and form­ing re­la­tion­ships, takes min­i­mal ac­count of events be­yond their so­cial cir­cle. The 1936 In­ter­na­tional Sur­re­al­ist Ex­hi­bi­tion, in which their men­tor Paul Nash played a lead­ing role, the Span­ish Civil War, the Mu­nich Agree­ment pass with barely a men­tion. Maybe this is an ef­fect of Ravilious’s own tem­per­a­ment. A fel­low stu­dent de­scribed him as “float­ing through life with a gai­ety and en­thu­si­asm and the nicest sense of hu­mour of any­one I have ever known”. He was nick­named “the Boy”.

In­side the cir­cle, it’s an­other mat­ter. Friend maps a pattern of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional in­ter­ac­tions as closely woven as Enid Marx’s tex­tile de­signs for Lon­don Un­der­ground and as self­con­tained as Ed­ward Baw­den’s cal­en­dar il­lus­tra­tions, in which en­closed ru­ral spa­ces (a farm­yard, a gar­den, a lunch ta­ble in the shade of a large tree) prom­ise se­cu­rity, com­pan­ion­ship and leafy plenty. With dreams like these, who would pre­fer Sur­re­al­ist night­mares or ab­stract-geo­met­ric aus­ter­ity?

Alan Pow­ers’s con­tex­tu­al­is­ing in­tro­duc­tion char­ac­terises the art of Ravilious and his as­so­ciates as “sen­si­tive with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity, mod­ern with­out be­ing me­chan­i­cal”, though with “just enough Mod­ernist strange­ness” to save it from retro whimsy. These artists don’t, quite, form a group or a school, but you only have to sam­ple the pic­tures in this book – the line il­lus­tra­tions pro­duced by Ravilious, Binyon, Gar­wood and Baw­den, or Ravilious’s and Baw­den’s wa­ter­colours of Ne­whaven har­bour – to get the shared spirit.

Tal­ented as Ravilious’s friends were, how­ever, their work never slips the con­straints of its time and place as his some­times does. In its un­earthly heat-shimmer, Rye Har­bour looks more like a

With dreams like these, who would pre­fer Sur­re­al­ist night­mares?

landscape filmed by Tarkovksy than a topo­graph­i­cal wa­ter­colour.

Friend opens new ground in fo­cus­ing on the fe­male artists, no­tably Tirzah Gar­wood, the Binyon sis­ters He­len and Mar­garet, Enid Marx and the in­domitable Peggy An­gus, one of few po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cals we meet in these pages. A stal­wart of the left-wing Artists In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion, An­gus also owned Furlongs, a shep­herd’s hovel on the South Downs, which be­came a meet­ing and tryst­ing place for artists and art-world folk from all shades of the ide­o­log­i­cal spectrum.

Quo­ta­tions from the me­moir Tirzah wrote after Ravilious’s early death make her a vivid presence. Ravilious’s fa­ther was a shop­keeper whose bankruptcy caused a scan­dal in East­bourne; she was a colonel’s daugh­ter. When Eric came court­ing, she noted how “he seemed to re­cede into his clothes and sat in our chairs with the ap­pre­hen­sive­ness of a s----ing dog”. The en­grav­ings she pro­duced be­fore their mar­riage are as strong as his, and more con­tem­po­rary in spirit. There’s scant ev­i­dence that he en­cour­aged her sub­se­quently to con­tinue her own work.

Read­ers hop­ing for rev­e­la­tions of bed-hop­ping on a Blooms­bury scale will be disappointed. The pro­saic brisk­ness with which Friend re­counts Ravilious’s ex­tra­mar­i­tal flings may re­flect the way Ravilious and his cir­cle dis­cussed such things among them­selves. “Diana came and slept in his bed, say­ing that her hus­band wouldn’t mind,” Tirzah wrote of Eric’s visit to his old flame Diana Low, now Mrs Tuely. “Next morn­ing Eric ob­served that he ob­vi­ously did mind, so he left for East­bourne.” Mean­while, He­len Binyon had started a re­la­tion­ship with John Nash (Paul’s brother): “You know I only said he wanted bed-work from me,” she told her sis­ter. Well, he wanted ego­mas­sage too. Plus ça change.

Though Ravilious & Co adds much new de­tail and fac­tual fine­tun­ing to our pic­ture of na­tional, in con­trast to in­ter­na­tional, mod­ern art in in­ter­war Bri­tain, Friend is not a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller. Things get mov­ing in the fi­nal chap­ter, which deals with Ravilious’s em­ploy­ment as an of­fi­cial war artist. Here at last, Big His­tory catches up with the Boy. It makes for poignant read­ing.

First Ravilious is dis­patched to Nor­way. “I’ve done draw­ings of the Mid­night Sun and the hills of the Chankly Bore,” he en­thuses. Then, in Septem­ber 1942, comes a post­ing to RAF Kal­dadarnes in Ice­land. Soon after join­ing 269 Squadron, he takes off as an ob­server with a search party look­ing for a miss­ing air­craft. His plane never re­turns. Tirzah, mean­while, has been strug­gling with preg­nancy, breast can­cer and “ther­a­peu­tic” abor­tion in a freez­ing old farm­house. The book’s fi­nal im­age is a paint­ing she pro­duced in 1950, a year be­fore her own death, Spring­time of Flight. It shows a Wright Broth­ers-era bi­plane soar­ing over flow­ery greensward – an El­iz­a­bethan herbal sprout­ing into the 20th cen­tury, the put­ter of a dis­tant en­gine. That’s Ravilious and Co in a nut­shell, re­ally.

336PP, THAMES & HUD­SON, £24.95, EBOOK £17.99

In a nut­shell: Eric Ravilious’s HMS Ac­taeon (1940- 42), right; and Tirzah Gar­wood’s Spring­time of Flight (1950), left

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.