Floating through life with gaiety
Eric Ravilious and his friends shut out the century’s horrors, says Michael Bird
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and the dominant presence of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the fair, the British Pavilion’s displays seemed “out-of-date and trivial”, conveying the bizarre impression of a nation “largely rural and inhabited by comfortably off sportsmen”.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