A fascinating artist and his circle of talented friends are the focus of an excellent new exhibition at Compton Verney art gallery which you really must not miss.
Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship is a densely-packed exhibition, with dozens of paintings and engravings, plus textiles, ceramics, book covers and illustrations by the circle of artists who were active in the early 20s.
Curated by Andy Friend and Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, where Eric Ravilious grew up and which houses the largest collection of his work, it consists of more than 400 items, with 90 of them not seen before. They are shown chronologically so you can follow through the artists’ stories, and see where they interact, with their artistic influences, political involvements, friendships, marriages and affairs.
The exhibition opens with Ravilious’s The Greenhouse: Cyclamens and Tomatoes which illustrates his mastery of colour and style, with the rows of identical ceramic pots filled with pink flowers, and plants hanging heavy with green tomatoes overhead.
It then backtracks to the Royal College of Art, and the many artists Ravilious interacted with professionally and personally. It includes the influence of Paul Nash on the development of his wood engraving, and his prolific output, with a later mocked-up bookshop containing nearly 100 books, covers and illustrations by Ravilious, Paul and John Nash, Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman to show the influence they had in the 1920s and 30s, and the incredibly stylish work they produced.
Their work was transferable to other materials as well, with a huge bowl created for Wedgwood by Ravilious to commemorate the Boat Race also featuring, and looking more like an item from the 1950s than 30s.
There are paintings from brothers John and Paul Nash, with Whiteleaf from 1921 by the former showing a dark brown countryside with movement in the trees, and Paul’s The Shore, Dymchurch, a recurring subject appearing twice in the exhibition, with variations on the distant sea, birds aloft and breakwaters. Other paintings by Barnett Freedman show his developing painting work throughout the 1920s.
Waterwheel, a watercolour of 1934 by Ravilious, shows his style of muted colours, and clear texture, though apparently he’d artistically ‘moved’ the wheel in question to fit in with what he wanted to paint. Westbury Horse of 1939 is equally attractive, though a freight train rushes by the ancient English scene, showing new developments and possibly a portent of war.
Women artists feature well in the exhibition, and there are designs on show by Enid Marx (who also features heavily in Compton Verney’s excellent and re-hanged Folk Art collection), including a headscarf in Spanish Republican colours, and designs by Diana Low. A wood engraving by Helen Binyon, The Wire Fence, of 1935, shows the odd subject matter of a woman climbing through a fence, in a similar pose to Ravilious’s Boy Bird Nesting from 1926. Later, Diana Low became close to the 40-year older William Nicholson and they painted each others’ portraits; she is shown standing, attractive and vibrant, but she paints him looking portly, laying full out on a sofa.
Ravilious went into teaching after the Royal College of Art, in his early 20s, and one 17-and-a-half-year-old student made a particular impression on him; he apparently spent several years sure of his feelings for Tirzah Garwood, but not sure if they were reciprocated. There is a fantastic engraving of the bleak attic room she lived in while studying, The Boxroom of 1929, where he used to visit her, with a woman pictured laying on the bed under some drying washing. It contrasts with another fantasy engraving of a woman on a sumptious bed with fantasy-forest wall hangings surrounding her.
A striking portrait by Phyllis Dodd shows Tirzah in a green coat and hat, looking like a woman who knows her own mind; Ravilous and Tirzah later married and there are paintings and other works by her on show too, demonstrating her clear style and interest in different subject matter to Ravilious’s landscape passion. Her work include paintings of the Four Seasons, with spring seen as spring cleaning, and others showing the good people of Eastbourne, some more as caricatures than characters.
New areas of countryside and coast, and house moves, inspired Ravilious and visiting friends at different times, as selections of their work shows. There is his only known surviving pastel work, Study of a Sussex Woodland from 1924, showing shade under a low canopy of trees. He went on an Italian tour, and the engraving of San Gimignano from 1925 includes its recognisable towers, though his image of a Sussex Church, framed between trees, is just as beautiful.
Helen Binyon painted watercolours of Furlongs, East Sussex, when the Ravilious’s lived there in the early 1930s, and there is Furlongs by Ravilious, showing horses pulling towering carts of hay. He subsequently had an affair with Binyon, depicted by her friend Peggy Angus in 1940, with him looking pensive at the bottom of the stairs, she with her chin in her hands and a cup of tea beside her.
The exhibition also includes a design shop made to look like Dunbar Hay, a London retailer which sold works by Ravilious, Enid Marx, Tirzah, Bawden, Diana Low, Peggy Angus and others, with them designing for organisations such as the BBC, London Transport, Wedgwood and the GPO.
As the Second World War approached, the Artists’ International Association was formed, flirting with communism, and led by Helen Binyon, with other artists taking in refugees. Her affair with Ravilious had ended but they remained close and there is a letter praising her illustrations for Pride and Prejudice. A poignant 1939 lithograph by Binyon called The Flower Show is said to be based on an Eastbourne event, and to show a man who looks like Ravilious carrying a small child.
There is a selection of Ravilious’s pre-war watercolours showing scenes such as Beachy Head and Rye Harbour, next to his work as a war artist; the same colours are there, but there’s suddenly the jarring notes of barbed wire on the beaches and barrage balloons above. Corporal Stediford’s Mobile Pigeon Loft is a different subject matter for Ravilious, showing lots of the birds.
Ravilious went on an RAF reconnaissance flight off Iceland on 2 September 1942, and disappeared; a few days later a jolly letter he had written to Tirzah arrived at her home, including instructions for her to draw round her hand so he could buy her gloves. Left alone with three children, she had already survived cancer once, but went on to remarry a few years later before succumbing to the disease. The exhibition closes with her painting The Springtime of Flight, showing a plane in a brilliant blue sky over a sea of colourful flowers.
This really is an exhibition not to be missed, packing in fantastic paintings by Ravilious and the Nashs in particular, plus more of their contemporaries and lots of great engravings, ceramics and textile works too. It continues until June 10.