Posts Tagged ‘Eric Ravilious’


January 22, 2014

Those of you who might have thought I was slacking off in not providing a post for your delectation on Monday, I hereby prove you wrong! I was merely getting you hungrily excited for THIS:

Six Views from a Window

Click through to read my essay in the brand new issue of the wonderful Junket.

Enjoy! And I’d love to know of your own window-gazing thoughts and experiences.



Ravilious in the rain

March 6, 2012

The first picture that struck me in the gorgeous new Ravilious book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist, was Wet Afternoon. That’s Edward Thomas, I thought, looking at the man strolling down the muddy hedge-lined track, the green-grey sky streaked with stripes of rain.

Well, of course it isn’t Edward Thomas. He was long dead by 1938, the year Ravilious painted it. And yet there is something about the watercolour that summons the spirit of Thomas so much. It makes me think of the first stanza of Thomas’s poem, ‘Like the touch of rain’:

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

For there is certainly something joyful about the man in the picture, who looks to be almost hopping or skipping, or at least walking jauntily, undeterred by the inclement weather. Perhaps it is Thomas’s ghost. Perhaps it is Ravilious himself. Or perhaps he is just one anonymous man in a long line of Englishmen who delight in treading through the countryside, most happy and himself with the damp bluster of English air on his face and mud on his boots. As Thomas points out in his striking simile, however awful it seems to be walking in the rain at first, suddenly, surprisingly, one can find it rather wonderful.

But James Russell points out in his introduction to A Travelling Artist that Ravilious found the rain could be a bit of a pain, forcing him indoors when he’d far sooner be out in the landscape, using his watercolours. One of the happy side-effects of the rain-forced retreats are the interiors he was forced to paint. I like the way these often show a preoccupation of the outside world, as experienced from the inside.

Both November 5th and River Thames give the feeling of being an onlooker, of looking on a scene from the vantage point of a window above. Yet the dynamism of the scenes is infectious, crossing the barrier of the window and into the quiet room inside. (Incidentally I gave rather a lot of thought to windows in this post about Mrs Dalloway and the Tate Modern.)

My favourite of Ravilious’s inside/outside pictures are where the window itself is actually shown, such as in Room at the ‘William the Conqueror’ and Belle Tout Lighthouse. The first is intriguing in any case due to the strange dark patch in the middle of the foreground, where Ravilious had initially painted a chair. I expect most of you know by now of my preoccupation with the stories held in houses, how much history can be written in such small traces. Well here is rather an interesting trace. A chair was here, and then it wasn’t, yet it’s left its mark, its imprint. Looking at that patch, it’s impossible not to imagine Ravilious moving the chair there and then perhaps a friend coming in and sitting on it for a while, talking to him over a beer which he found ‘as good as any I ever tasted’.

But, aside from this intriguing dark patch, what I love about these two paintings are the way the outside and inside influence each other. The colours are continued – the bluey grey of the exterior landscape in Room is echoed in the curtains and the floor mimics the sea, both in the colour and in the long lines.

The outside colours are inside too in Belle Tout Lighthouse. Here I love the way the light streams in, making the window frames cast shadows that remind one of the path outside. And, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can image the cold wind blowing outside, the exposure of being out there. Inside, however, you are protected. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling, yet you are able to bask in the filtered sunlight.

The windows of the lighthouse are quite similar to those in my flat and all yesterday morning I felt the same effect here. It was cold, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and yet the flat was incredibly bright. There was the same feeling of being connected to the outside and yet protected from it. When one’s view is so taken up with what’s outside, it can be uncanny to feel somehow separated; part of it and yet removed from it. The table at which I’m sitting, for instance, looks out on sunny roofs outside. My view of the roofs and chimneys is utterly connected to my table, to my experience of being in my flat. And yet, those roofs are far away and separated not only by distance but by windows too. Sometimes the connection can make one forget the separation, and to be reminded of it so forcefully in Ravilious’s paintings feels somewhat shocking.

Sometimes this outside/inside tension is extended to strange places that seem to be both outside and inside at once. Most striking, to me, is Strawberry Bed, in which Ravilious portrays a space that is outdoors, yet also undercover, the netting forming a permeable barrier between the sky and the ground. Russell points out the ‘hallucinatory detail’ of the nets and also ‘the peculiar quality of the space beneath’. It really is an extraordinary picture. There is a similar feel to his painting Geraniums and Carnations which is filled with diffuse grey-white light but this time the effect is from a glasshouse. And, again, it is the ceiling of the glasshouse where the eye is drawn; this point of connection and separation is where the pillars are pointing and the flowers are climbing towards.

I’m sure you’ll find your own points of intrigue and fascination in this book. It really is a lovely thing, wonderful to leaf through, full of beautifully-reproduced paintings at which one can happily stare and dream over for hours.

Ravilious in pictures

May 16, 2011

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.