After writing rather a nerve-wrackingly controversial piece for the Spectator Arts Blog about the death of the woman’s hardback, which received a few comments about hardbacks being a waste of space, I thought I’d write about a book that is utterly, gloriously hardback. A stunning picture on the dust jacket, quirky endpapers, clean design on thick creamy paper – everything that makes a book a beautiful object is exemplified by this book.
Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life, is the latest beauty in a series of books about the artist Eric Ravilious, published by tiny publisher, The Mainstone Press. (I wrote about an earlier book in the series in another piece for the Spectator’s blog, which was rather less provocative.)
The Mainstone Press were kind enough to invite me to a smashing party to celebrate the book’s publication at Ben Pentreath’s quirky shop. The shop is bursting with beautiful things, most of which are rather expensive and extremely breakable. And I, with my giant yellow bike bag, in a very crowded, confined space, am liable to be rather clumsy. But people spilled out of the little shop into the streets of Bloomsbury, conversations about Ravilious and Bawden drifting through Spring’s evening air, to make a perfectly English bookish party. And one which was, to my relief, breakage free.
I left the party with a copy of the beautiful book and couldn’t wait to read it. Except, rather than being able to curl up in a bower deep in the English countryside to leaf through its lovely thick pages, I was heading off to a friend’s hen weekend in Lisbon.
So I slipped the book – slim, if not pocket-sized – into my backpack and took it with me. While I was out there, unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a second free to read it. The nights were filled with dancing, fuelled by extraordinarily-strong and abundant drinks, and the days were spent nattering away, fuelled by equally strong coffee. It wasn’t until I was on the plane coming home that I had a moment to myself to read this long-anticipated book.
Now, for all those who complain about the awkwardness of hardbacks, well I managed to read this perfectly comfortably in a small seat on a crowded aeroplane. I only had to put it away briefly while waiting for the stewardess to remove the chicken sandwich that looked vaguely radioactive, which was laid on for dinner.
I suppose it was a bit of a funny time to be reading this book. I’d just spent three days consuming nothing but coffee, booze, custard tarts, and cheese – who knew the Portuguese made such unbelievably delicious cheese? – had barely slept, other than brief snatches on a beach, and was suffering from the post-holiday horror of returning to the real world. Several times during the weekend, we’d all indulged in fantasies of staying, forever, in the sweet little Lisbon flat, spending the rest of our lives lazily wandering the cobbled streets, growing old and fat on cheese and custard tarts.
But, no. Back to London, exhausted, with mild liver cirrhosis all round (the bride-to-be is, in fact, a doctor, so really she should have known better), faced with a nuclear chicken sandwich and watery, nasty coffee. The plane journey was a bit bleak … until I opened up my Ravilious book. And then, looking at these quintessentially English scenes, I felt rather pleased to be going home.
Now, let me say straight away, that it is easy to think about Ravilious’s paintings in a clichéd twee way. They can go hand in hand with feeling rapturous about Betjeman and Shell guides. (Although maybe there is nothing wrong with tweeness so long as it involves hot buttered toast.)
Perhaps it is easy to find a cosy nostalgic comfort in some of the pictures in this book. Snow falling on village streets; sun gleaming on a vicarage; two women sitting under a tree, one reading, the other peeling vegetables. But Ravilious also depicted wreckage, dereliction and decaying industry. There’s a tractor, a brickyard, even an old bus.
No. 29 Bus is magnificent. The bus is bereft of its wheels and rests on barrels, their ability to roll (if only tipped sideways) a cruel mockery of its now stationary fate. The composition, the bus viewed from behind as it faces towards the horizon and the sun, makes it seem almost like a ship, sailing off to sea. The shape of the bus is described just exquisitely, picking out the curving elegance of its form. There’s something noble about its beauty in the face of dereliction.
But this book isn’t just a collection of paintings. Each painting sits alongside a brief insightful essay about Ravilious and his time in Essex. So just as one begins to wonder what on earth this old London bus is doing in a country field, one learns that hundreds of these old ‘B-type’ London buses, built in Walthamstow before and during the First World War, were:
used as ambulances and troop transports on the Western Front, their bodywork painted khaki and windows replaced by wooden panels. After the war some returned to service in the capital, but were quickly replaced by newer models and dispatched to the provinces, until the passage of time caught up with them even in rural districts. Eventually it became quite common to see a B-type bus dismantled in this way, its cab and chassis perhaps put to use in haulage while the body waits to be transformed into a henhouse, shed or, possibly, somebody’s home.
And so the painting gains a new resonance. The bus has traversed the streets of London and meandered along country lanes, but it has also seen the horrors of the trenches. Painted in 1934, as the shadow of the Second World War was beginning to creep over the horizon, here is a stark reminder of the Great War.
Just as nature soon regrew on Flanders fields, so with this wartime relic. Ravilious’s wife notes how ‘bindweed was climbing over them and there was a hen’s nest in one’. (It could almost be a description by Richard Mabey!) Yet, in spite of its dereliction, its present uselessness, reclaimed by nature, the beautiful shell of the bus bravely faces the horizon, the unknown future, with perfect composure.
This is how I tried to feel as I looked down on London’s twinkling lights from the plane as I flew home late last night. I thought of myself as a useless shell of a person, drained of vitality by a three-day binge, returning to London not knowing what the future may hold. But then, as I closed the book, the man next to me emitted a loud snore, and the rather poetic moment was decidedly over.
Tags: Eric Ravilious