Two exhibitions celebrate the Sussex work of artist Eric Ravilious
10:18 04 June 2010
Artist Eric Ravilious adored the Sussex Downs and tirelessly recorded its changing rural scene painting everything from a chalk giant to a cement works. As a new book is published celebrating his Sussex paintings and with two Ravilious exhibitions planned this summer Angela Wintle looks back at his extraordinary artistic legacy
No one responded to the magic of the South Downs quite like the artist Eric Ravilious. It was a landscape that fascinated and inspired him like no other. He was enchanted by it and saw subjects for his paintings everywhere. The spaciousness and breadth of views of land and skies excited him... and he felt he had come to his own country, wrote his biographer, Helen Binyon. Ravilious himself said it changed his whole outlook and way of painting the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious.
But if youve never heard of Ravilious, I doubt that youre alone. For many decades after his premature death in 1942, he faded from view. English art historians tended to treat him as a marginal figure, detached from the great movements of his time such as abstraction and surrealism.
That all changed when the Imperial War Museum in London staged a major retrospective exhibition in 2003. There was intense interest even before the opening and the museum had to restrict visitor numbers; Ravilious had come of age. Today, the artist, who left behind a substantial body of work in watercolour, lithography, wood engraving and ceramic design, is recognised as one of the finest painters of the last century and the public appetite for his work shows no sign of abating.
Just to prove it, Sussex is going Ravilious mad this year. First on the scene is a charming new book, Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs, bringing together the cream of his Sussex watercolours. Each image is accompanied by a short commentary by writer James Russell.
A lot of Raviliouss paintings dont have people in theyre about place, says publisher, Tim Mainstone. But when you read his letters, you realise there was this extraordinary life going on behind the pictures. We wanted
to repopulate his images and tell those stories.
This summer also sees the opening of two exhibitions celebrating the artists unique Sussex vision. The first, at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, will showcase his Sussex landscape paintings; the second, at Charleston near Firle, will display his exquisite woodcuts of the local rural scene.
But what of the man and the environment that shaped him? Well, Ravilious was one of our own. Born in Acton in 1903, he moved to Eastbourne as a boy, where his father ran an antiques shop. At the age of 11 he joined Eastbourne Boys Municipal Secondary School (later Eastbourne Grammar School for Boys) and in 1919 won a scholarship to the Eastbourne School of Art. Three years later, he won another scholarship this time to attend the design school at the Royal College of Art in London.
But Sussex soon reclaimed him and in 1925 he accepted a part-time teaching post at his old school of art in Eastbourne, later marrying his most talented student, Eastbourne native Tirzah Garwood. During the long, lazy summers between the wars, he took his students on sketching expeditions to Saxon Downland villages such as Jevington, Wilmington and Alfriston.
But although his paintings hinted at the great artist he would become, it was his rediscovery of the Sussex Downs in his early thirties that was to prove crucial, and he produced a remarkable body of work ranging from ancient chalk figures to a 20th century cement works.
In 1934, his great friend, the artist and designer Peggy Angus, invited him to stay at Furlongs, the stark, flint-faced shepherds cottage she rented below Beddingham Hill on the Firle Estate. Eric felt he had come to his own country, though he had never explored this particular stretch of the South Downs, with Mount Caburn to the north, and Firle Beacon to the east.
Over the next five years he visited many times, relishing the informality of life there, and wasted no time in getting to work. Rising early, he would set off with his drawing board in a canvas satchel and an easel on his shoulder. He selected familiar subjects such as the Long Man of Wilmington, painting them from new or unexpected angles. He was such a perfectionist that he ripped up two thirds of his watercolours. Time and again critics refer to his extra-perception; his ability to distil magic and mysticism from the ordinary and the everyday. Ravilious left us with a captivating portrait of Sussex and the Downs that combines a topographers eye for detail with a seers extraordinary vision, says Russell.
Tragically, Ravilious was cut down in his prime. Appointed an official war artist in 1939, he flew to Iceland in September 1942 to draw the planes of the Norwegian Squadron, but his aircraft went missing in bad weather and never returned.
He lives on in his paintings and his unique interpretations of the Sussex scene are accessible as never before.
FIND OUT MORE
The captions and the pictures in this article are extracts from Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs by James Russell, published by the Mainstone Press at 25. Russell will be staging a talk and book signing event in Eastbourne in July.
To order, ring 01362 688395 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne will be showcasing the Sussex landscape paintings of Eric Ravilious, alongside photographs of the rural Devon landscape by his son James Ravilious, from July 3 until September 5. Featuring major loans as well as works from the Towner Collection.www.townereastbourne.org.uk
In tandem with the Towners exhibition, Charleston, near Firle, will be staging an exhibition of Eric Raviliouss woodcuts of the Sussex landscape from June 18 until August 30, drawing on both the Towner collection and works on loan. www.charleston.org.ukn You can also learn about the techniques Ravilious used to create his wood blocks, and make your own woodcut in a workshop at Charleston on June 29 from 10am-4pm.
Tickets, priced 65 (which includes all materials and lunch), can be booked on 01323 811626, or via www.charleston.org.uk/whatson