The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer

Alan Powers (Lund Humphries, 216pp, £35)

Reviewed by Penny Laughton

Alan Powers curated the 2003 exhibition Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities at the Imperial War Museum, and anyone who enjoyed that show and his accompanying catalogue will welcome this fine book. In the interim, publications and exhibitions devoted to the artist have for the most part tackled single themes relating to his life and work. The scope of this new assessment is therefore most welcome, placing Ravilious in the context of his era and the specific traditions on which he drew, as well the real and imaginary places that inspired him. While some of the story may be familiar, this perceptive analysis makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in Ravilious or more widely in inter-war art and design.

Rather than a linear chronology, the chapters are structured around the media and techniques (watercolour and print-making) that Ravilious used so dexterously, and the types of commission he received – especially his murals and his design work for Wedgwood). The processes of experiment and making were central to his creativity and to why the results are so arresting. Reproductions of works are accompanied by contemporary photographs richly conveying the personal and historical contexts.

The first chapter covers the early years, from his birth in 1903, the varied programme he followed from 1922 to 1925 at the RCA (where on his first day he met his most important friend, Edward Bawden) and the formative influence of Paul Nash. It goes on to survey the mural projects, from the refectory at Morley Hall (1928–30) which he shared with Bawden to the final large-scale works of the mid-1930s. A discussion of printed work then begins with the wood engravings, including those for specialist presses from the mid-1920s, before moving on to his work in the following decade, including his collaborations with the Curwen Press for which Ravilious provided his distinctive engraved images and patterns and which led to many other commissions. Towards the end of the 1930s, he produced lithographic prints at the same company, including the plates for ‘High Street’ (originally published in 1938 by Country Life and republished in 2012 by the V&A). Powers makes illuminating connections between the artist’s use of this printing method and his highly original use of watercolour, both combining pools of colour with varied graphic strokes.

Most space is devoted to the medium of watercolour and the author places Ravilious within the climate of renewed interest in late C18 and early C19 water-colourists such as John S Cotman. Works in public institutions are complemented by those from private collections, including some partially finished paintings. From his tentative beginnings in the late 1920s, Powers analyses the artist’s increasingly individual approach to subject, composition and method developed in the early 1930s, before finally turning to the last series of paintings he produced as a war artist from 1940. We examine works in this quintessentially English medium that are pared down yet elaborate, dream-like yet rooted in specific places: his vision was situated in a unique space between English tradition, surrealism and modernism.

The book, which includes a chronology, a select bibliography and a list of works in public collections, is designed by Nigel Soper with elegance and clarity. With at least one illustration on each spread for most of the book, it seems fitting that the text is left unadorned on the two facing pages recording contemporary responses to the artist’s tragically early death on an air-sea rescue mission in September 1942.