24 April 2015

Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Possibly like others, I’m not sure when I first became aware of the work of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). As late as 1982, Freda Constable commented in The England of Eric Ravilious that:
Despite three retrospective exhibitions [in1948, 1958 and 1972], Ravilious has been relatively neglected since the war. (page 35)
And again, perhaps like others, when I have seen his work it has been more by way of reproduction than on show. I missed the centenary exhibition, Imagined Realities, which was held at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 and is considered to have revived interest in his work, so I was keen to visit Ravilious, a major survey of his painting, mostly watercolours, currently at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Ravilious graduated from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1925 and died in 1942 in action as a war artist. A chronological survey spanning less than two decades would have been problematic in any circumstances and at Dulwich more than half of the works are 1938 or later, more than a quarter 1940 to 1942 (see Notes below). As an alternative the Curator has chosen six successive themes (matching the Gallery’s layout) for the artist’s work: Relics and Curiosities, Figures and Forms, Interiors, Place and Season, Changing Perspectives and Darkness and Light. Here are some of the items which I found particularly interesting within this sequence, but I could easily add more.

Relics and Curiosities

The Waterwheel (1938, below top) and Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck (1940, below middle) are both juxtapositions of man-made objects seemingly out of place in the landscape. Submarines in Dry Dock (1940, below lower) are even more like fish out of water. On Bomb Defusing Equipment (c1940), see below.

Figures and Forms

Figures are distinctive in Ravilious’s work if only by being absent when they might be expected. His portrait of his close friend Edward Bawden Working in his Studio (1930, below top) is in tempera so doubly exceptional, as were the lithograph studies of submariners like Commander of a Submarine Looking Through a Periscope (1941, below lower).


At the RCA Ravilious trained as a designer and few details seem to escape him, as, for example, in RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee (1941, below top) with its crested counterpain and Walrus aircraft, and in Train Landscape (1940, below middle), one of his most popular images and in marked contrast to the grim underground atmosphere of No 1 Map Corridor (1940, below lower).

Place and Season

There is a sense of loneliness conveyed in many of Ravilious’s works. The landscape of southern England, although shown as shaped by agriculture, is often unpeopled, as in Downs in Winter (1934, below top). There is only one sailor on deck on the Ship Leaving Scapa Flow (c1940, below lower).

Changing Perspectives

In 1939, Ravilious painted some of the chalk figures to be found on southern English hillsides, for example The Westbury Horse (in the poster and in Train Landscape above), which is in Wiltshire, South West England and the Wilmington Giant and The Cerne Abbas Giant (below), the latter in Dorset, South West England. 

Darkness and Light 

The fact that the majority of the pictures in this section, some of them particularly striking, are war art, adds to the appeal of the peacetime works, for example Bathing Machines, Aldeburgh (1938, below top). Ravilious witnessed the disastrous (for the British) Norwegian Campaign of 1940 and produced some remarkable images like Norway (below middle) and HMS Glorious in the Arctic (below lower). On this occasion his depiction of the monoplane aircraft (RAF Hurricanes) seems imprecise. The ship was lost with considerable loss of life the following day*.

A personal favourite of mine is Dangerous Work at Low Tide (1940, below top) portraying the disposal of a magnetic sea mine – note the non-magnetic wooden oars and barrels. Almost certainly Bomb Defusing Equipment (c1940, below lower) is a companion piece to this work. Sadly, if only from a technical rather than artistic point of view, this is not only hung back at the start of the show among the Relics and Curiosities but has been mis-titled at some stage in its life - it should be Mine Defusing Equipment. (One blogger recently called it Bomb Diffusing Equipment, even worse!).

Ravilious has shown a German magnetic mine in the background as in this contemporary (or more likely post-War) magazine illustration (below, from, but unattributed by, the World of Warships website).

Studying the list of items Ravilious included in his picture (below) makes it clear that the hoops on the barrels in both pictures are brass (11. Brassringed tub), another non-magnetic material, similarly some of the specialised tools (1. Copper Hammer”).  It looks as though the dangerous work started with the parachute case.

The Ravilious Catalogue by the Curator, James Russell, is well worth having and available on Amazon for those who can’t get to Dulwich. Ravilious continues until 31 August and is a must for anyone who likes his work, Bawden’s, the Nashs’, Rex Whistler’s … and the Romantic Moderns in general.

* See James Russell’s Ravilious in Pictures The War Paintings, page 20. His Ravilious Submarine is more wide-ranging than its title suggests but expensive.


While statistics and charts feature sometimes in posts on this blog, this is the first (and possibly the last) on an art exhibition to include histograms. The first supports the point that a chronological show would have been dominated by Ravilious’s final work particularly that after 1939**:

The Catalogue (pages 156-157) also lists three pre-War exhibitions and identifies those works which are at Dulwich in 2015:

** Data from the Catalogue pages 22-154. Works dated circa a particular year (7 in all) eg c. 1937 are included in that year; works with date ranges (5) eg 1939-1942, are included in the later year. Lithographs - 1937 (1) and 1941 (7) – are excluded as was c. 1930s (1).

1 comment:

  1. You have put together an excellent informative chronicle, thank you very much, Yours, John Rew