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"Ravilious" by James Russell, paperback, £25

Mon 20th Apr 15

Although the artist and designer Eric Ravilious died before the age of forty, his watercolours and engravings are among the most recognisable work of the first half of the twentieth century. A comprehensive exhibition is now on display at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the art historian James Russell has written this gloriously illustrated catalogue to accompany the show, supplementing the spectacular images with an illuminating commentary through which his deep love of Ravilious and his subject matter shines clearly.

Eric Ravilious was born in Eastbourne in 1903 and, after studying at the Royal College of Art, spent most of his life in the South of England, finding his inspiration in Sussex and the Downs and supplementing his income with commercial work which is impressive in itself. As well as designing stationery for many businesses he was also commissioned, in 1938, to produce an image for Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack; his woodcut design of two top-hatted cricketers has been used ever since and is one of the most familiar images in sport publishing, synonymous not just with cricket but with the arrival of Spring itself. Readers unfamiliar with his watercolours might also know him through the designs he made for cookery books, department stores and public buildings; the splendidly Art Deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe once boasted a large Ravilious mural and only recently a similar work was discovered at the pier in Colwyn Bay. Sadly, this last piece is now beyond salvaging.

It would be easy to view Ravilious’s watercolours as nostalgic, painting pictures of a bygone England using pastel colours and focusing on period advertising, but at the time they were painted these works portrayed life very much as it was. The illustrations chosen for the book’s cover are a case in point; on the front we see in the foreground the chalk hillside drawing of a white horse at Westbury, while beyond the hill a goods train chugs across a flat landscape, reminiscent of RL Stevenson’s land of counterpane. On the back cover we see the view almost in reverse, peeping out at the horse from a third class carriage whose moquette seat covers and leather window strap are lovingly detailed. These images, however, would seem thoroughly modern to the artist’s contemporary audience; the goods train is black and smoky, and the plain across which it travels is a grey grid of farmland, contrasting vividly with the bright colours of the hillside in the foreground. Similarly, the carriage on the reverse is the lowest, cheapest form of railway travel, its features only seeming grand and nostalgic to a modern viewer conscious of what we have since lost. The distant natural features are framed in the train window and viewed through glass from an enclosed, modern world; the train is an everyday sight with far less effect on the viewer than it would have had in Turner’s day.

The artist’s home life is as interesting as his pictures; he and his partner, Tirzah, had a literal cottage industry, working at home and producing a remarkable body of work. Sadly, once commissioned as an official War Artist in 1939, Ravilious was living on borrowed time. In his war paintings he turned his attentions to Norway and the Arctic where, at the age of 39, he went on a flight which never returned. This book is a gorgeous record of an incredible artist and anyone unable to get to the exhibition should grab the next best thing while they can.

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