In the first article of these two looking at the career and painting of Eric Ravilious (1903–1942), I covered the period up to the start of the Second World War in 1939. When that broke out, he joined the Royal Observer Corps, and by the end of the year had been given the honorary rank of Captain in the Royal Marines as a full-time war artist, working for the Royal Navy.
During the calm before the storm of war, Ravilious seems to have spent much of his summer in Sussex.
Interior at Furlongs (1939) has the appearance, and many of the traits of, a print, and combines its interior view of a largely empty room in a cottage, with one view through the open door, the other view through a closed window. The landscape shown is that of the South Downs in East Sussex. The fragmented view shows woods, a distant hut or cottage, and golden fields of grain crops, so would have been painted in the late summer, at the outbreak of war.
The landscape and cottage are empty, the only sign of life being a coat hung on a hook on the back of the door. In its way, it is as eerie and foreboding as the more overtly visionary landscapes of Samuel Palmer, which had been painted in Kent.
Tea at Furlongs (1939) is even more eerily devoid of figures. A table has been laid up for tea under a parasol. With a teapot, jug of milk, two places set out, two chairs pushed back, it’s as if their occupants have just got up and vanished. This compares with Félix Vallotton’s abandoned harvest in The Sheaves (1915), set in the early part of the previous war.
Prior to the start of the war, Ravilious may have taken a trip to France, to paint this Pilot Boat at Le Havre (1939), another eerily figure-free scene (there are few ghostlike figures at the left) in what should have been a bustling port.
At some time around 1939, Ravilious visited the famous White Horse cut in the chalk downs at Uffington in Berkshire, another theme which overlapped with those of Paul Nash. The Vale of the White Horse (c 1939) shows the view from an unconventionally low angle, in pouring rain.
Ravilious extended his occasional interiors into a series. The Bedstead (1939), with its wide angle projection, is full of patterns: the wallpaper, floorboards and rugs.
In his Farmhouse Bedroom (1939) the patterns almost overwhelm, and its projection is so extreme that it distorts.
One of his ‘civilian’ landscapes from the war years is this view through a window of a Train Landscape (1940). He had intended producing a book showing the many chalk figures found on the Downs in the south of England. This is in the form of a triptych, harking back to van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna, showing another White Horse, this time near Westbury in Wiltshire.
Conservation work on this painting has shown that it’s a composite, assembled using collage, of two different views painted from compartments in trains. One, originally showing the Wilmington Giant, provides the train interior, the other shows the Westbury White Horse as seen through the windows.
For Ravilious these composite paintings of train interiors and landscape triptychs were quite different in intent from their ancestors. The railway carriage was much more than a framing device, and the landscape much more than a means to add depth to the interior. This type of travelogue motif was popular at the time, as a means of promoting travel to see places, and it’s likely that would have been an important theme had Ravilious been able to complete his book.
In February 1940, he reported for duty at the Royal Naval Barracks at Chatham in Kent, which have long since closed.
It was probably in Chatham Dockyard, or possibly Sheerness in the Thames Estuary, that he painted Submarines in Dry Dock (1940), an adventure in their unusual composite forms.
Then in late May he joined HMS Highlander, an escort to the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, on deployment to recapture Narvik in north Norway. His ship returned briefly to Scapa Flow before returning to Narvik to recover the forces it had landed. In early June, HMS Glorious was sunk there with great loss of life.
Midnight Sun (1940) shows the aircraft carrier in the distance. In the left foreground is a depth charge launcher, used against submarines.
Following his return from Norway, Ravilious served briefly in Portsmouth, when his family moved to Ironbridge Farm, near Braintree in Essex.
His Ironbridge Interior (1941) is one of his most elaborate interiors, with a watercolour hanging on the wall and a jug of flowers.
Shelling by Night (1941) was most probably painted when Ravilious was on the south coast of England, during the summer of that year, before he was appointed to Scotland, where he stayed for a while with Paul Nash’s younger brother John, another painter.
In Scotland, his paintings concentrated on the Royal Naval Air Station at Dundee. However, his Wall Maps (1941) shows a view of an operational suite further south, possibly in the Home counties or on the Channel coast.
Similarly, The Operations Room (1942) was painted at an air station far to the south of the Scottish border. This hut was the centre for direction of flying operations in the Air Station, and normally bustling with staff and visiting aircrew.
Early in 1942, Ravilious was appointed to another air station at York, but his wife Tirzah required surgery so he was temporarily appointed to RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire. This was a flying school at the time, allowing Ravilious to sketch from the rear cockpit during flight.
This air station flew the Tiger Moth (1942), which Ravilious has captured so well here.
He started this painting of Demonstrating a Machine Gun in 1942, but never completed it.
With Tirzah now recovered, Ravilious flew to Iceland, where he joined RAF Kaldadarnes on 1 September. Its primary role was to monitor the Iceland-Greenland gap, which required flying in some of the most hostile conditions. Losses were high, and on the day of Ravilious’ arrival a Lockheed Hudson failed to return from its patrol. Three aircraft took off at first light the following morning to search, one carrying Ravilious, who had chosen to join its crew. His aircraft also failed to return, and no trace was found of it.
The same sky that Paul Nash had come to fear took the life of his former pupil, and friend, Eric Ravilious.
There are now several excellent books in print showing his work too.