Fashions in art have a way of carrying all before them. They crash into the public consciousness, all splash and spectacle, and it is all too easy, in the rage to reorder and make sense of what ensues, to take epoch-making headlines for the whole story. It is under these conditions that a talent like Eric Ravilious can drop momentarily out of sight. In an age of oils, found objects and intoxicating new means of mechanical reproduction, he carved out a hugely successful career as a wood engraver, designer and – most significantly to him – watercolourist. But he was largely lost to us after his early death, in 1942, in an air-sea rescue mission during his posting as a war artist.
It is tempting, at first glance, to look at his beguiling landscapes and interiors and assume that he felt no influence from his peers; that his visual intelligence was so anchored in the conventions of his medium that he never lifted his head above the easel to take in the wider vistas of his time. Following on from Imagined Realities at the Imperial War Museum in 2003, this exhibition of over ninety watercolours and selected works at the Dulwich Picture Gallery not only consolidates his standing, but teases out the strands of his formal language to reveal an artist who was informed by contemporary innovation, as well as a consummate master of the traditions on which he chose to make his mark.
As curator James Russell reminds us in the catalogue accompanying the show, Ravilious’s decision to move from wood engraving to watercolour in the 1920s, far from cranky and outmoded, should be set against a fashionable flowering in the post-war period, where hordes of visitors were beating a path to exhibitions of JMW Turner and the like. And even as he painted the well-known topographies of East Sussex, or landmarks such as the Long Man of Wilmington or the Westbury Horse, his awareness of English landscape tradition led him to filter the familiar through the lens of his own uniquely graphic vision, seeking out unusual light conditions, stylising, tilting perspectives and imbuing known beauty with a lyrical otherness, at once playful and surprising, and entirely his own.
Where people appear in Ravilious’s works, they are attenuated presences or tiny figures in the distance.
Russell has ordered the exhibition thematically, introducing us first to “Ravilious’s world of objects,” and making the case for an artist whose eye for form and composition was such that anything takes on an equal aura and beauty: from a humble broken bucket and assorted detritus scattered on a beach, to a ship’s propeller on the back of a truck, massive, yet gleaming like a jewel of engineering. Perhaps years of engraving in his youth accustomed Ravilious to discerning underlying patterns, and to bending his subjects in the service of symmetry, rhythm and composition. The absence of human figures in his works speaks to this urge to re-form, distort, make slightly strange. Where people appear in Ravilious’s works, they are attenuated presences: an apparition at a desk, so faint one has to look twice to make sure it is deliberate, and not the effect of light and age on fading pigment; or tiny figures in the distance, markers for scale against which to read the vastness of the Sussex landscapes he dedicated so much of his middle period to making his own.
Graphic elements, always assertive on careful viewing, sometimes take over altogether, relegating the subject firmly to the status of a motif against which a riot of colour and line is given free reign. In Farmhouse Bedroom, a sober wrought-iron bedstead is assailed from all sides by adornment gone feral. It battles to hold its place against a cacophony of carpet, wallpaper, runners and rugs. Even the ceiling bows down over it like a sagging mattress. This is not the work of an artist using watercolours in the mimetic tradition, but of one who has drawn on what Douglas Bliss called the “dot and speck and dash and dab” of engraving, together with the collapsed perspectives and staccato rhythms of abstraction, to create a singular and intimate interpretation of the very process of seeing. Similarly, in Beachy Head, his life-long fascination with “capturing the texture of light” is evident in the way the lighthouse’s beams slice through the night, wedges of white paper cutting through gloom, then gradually hatched across the sky in shades of milky yellow and grey.
This is an exhibition packed with quietly dramatic works, one to tarry over and take in, to adjust one’s vision to; like slipping from the glare of the mid-day sun into the cool, shimmering dimness of shuttered rooms. Art is long. Eventually, the churnings of time deliver forgotten nuggets back to us, like the flotsam and jetsam so beloved of Ravilious. Our mind’s eye clears enough to see them and wonder at subtleties that speak softly, but carry their reverberations clear and true, through time.
Ravilious is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 31st August 2015.
Image credits (from top to bottom): Train Landscape; Boats and Anchor, Rye; The Waterwheel