Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Ravilious

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Ravilious

Article excerpt


Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 31 August

The most unusual picture in the exhibition of work by Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery, in terms of subject-matter at least, is entitled 'Bomb Defusing Equipment'. In other ways -- crisp linear precision, a designer's eye for the melodious arrangement of shapes -- it is typical of Ravilious. Characteristic, too, is the way he has given these implements associated with warfare and high explosives an almost jaunty air, shading into melancholy mysteriousness.

That's the Ravilious note, and I must admit I find it irresistible. Ravilious (1903-42) was one of the most beguiling of mid-20th-century British artists. Yet it is still not quite clear what position he has in art history: high or low, important or insignificant. The other day in conversation a well-known painter, pausing to find the correct term for Ravilious's pictures, settled on 'slight'.

Perhaps she was correct, in that he was, in musical terms, more of a Cole Porter than a Webern. His work is light in mood, unpretentious in ambition, but also superbly crafted and individual. You can spot a Ravilious as easily as a Henry Moore or Ben Nicholson (to name two of his more obviously heavyweight contemporaries).

'Vicarage in Winter'

Picasso was once defined as a 'painter/sculptor'. Ravilious, like his friend and stylistic confrère Edward Bawden, was a painter/designer. The Dulwich exhibition, though it mainly consists of watercolours, also contains such items as designs for a handkerchief, an alphabet mug done for Wedgwood in 1937, lithographs, wood engravings and book illustrations.

As an artist, he fits the category defined by Alexandra Harris 'romantic moderns' (exactly what many of the British would still love to be). Ravilious was romantic in subject and -- to an extent -- style; his aim was to emulate painters of the early 19th century. Bawden shared this. When I talked to him, near the end of his life, he said as much, 'We knew the earlier painters, of course, Turner and the rest of them; there were masses of them, all very good.'

'Bomb Diffusing Equipment'

Ravilious was, indeed, a designer before he was a painter. He studied the subject at the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s (which is where he met Bawden, who was on the same course). In the first decade of his career, it was really his work in black and white that stood out. He did not find a mature watercolour idiom until the mid-1930s; and though his output was prolific, his life was short. …

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