Eric Ravilious: The return of the bohemian artist prone to outbreaks of modesty

Eric Ravilious, HMS Actaeon, 1940-42. Fine Art Society.
Eric Ravilious, HMS Actaeon, 1940-42. Fine Art Society.
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Eric Ravilious and friends were as Bohemian as the Bloomsbury Set – except they had to work. Stephen McClarence celebrates an ‘outbreak of talent’.

The most money that Eric Ravilious ever made from a watercolour was 12 guineas (£12.60). Now, 75 years after his untimely death, his pictures can fetch £200,000. It’s an indication of the amazing rise in the reputation and popularity of this once half-forgotten British artist, currently the focus of an exhibition at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery. Just look at the range of Ravilious-inspired merchandise stacked in the gallery’s shop: prints, cards, calendars, mugs, bags, coasters, fridge magnets – and a dozen different books about him.

The exhibition, Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship, puts him in the context of a Bohemian network of young Twenties and Thirties artists (some well-known, some obscure) described by fellow artist Paul Nash as “an outbreak of talent”.

They were a sort of alternative Bloomsbury group: in and out of each other’s studios, and sometimes each other’s beds. The difference was that – unlike some of the Bloomsbury crowd – they had to make a living.

So they combined fine art with commercial design, working for Shell, BP, Wedgwood, the London Underground, the Post Office and (in Ravilious’s case) the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. His image of top-hatted 19th century cricketers survived on the cover from 1938 to 2003.

The artists were practical, not precious or preening, and rather outside the mainstream. But – and this may help explain the unfamiliarity of most of them – they lacked a handy group name to be remembered by.

They were very different from the Bloomsburyites, says the exhibition’s co-curator, Andy Friend. “There weren’t lots of private incomes around, they didn’t take themselves terribly seriously and they were quite modest about their own standing. This isn’t art that shouts about itself.”

The exhibition explores the interconnections between the artists – Ravilious, Tirzah Garwood (his wife), Helen Binyon (his lover), Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus and Diana Low. It’s a beguilingly attractive show, with 400 exhibits, though it throws you in at the deep end; it would be very easy to drown in detail. To get a real sense of context, Friend’s newly published group biography, also entitled Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship, is a valuable and absorbing companion.

Friend has been researching the artists for ten years, after coming to them by an unusual route. His background is in admin rather than art and he lived for some years in Australia as chief executive of the city of Melbourne.

“I missed the English landscape and became interested in representations of it,” he says when we meet during the exhibition’s installation. Parcelled-up pictures are being unwrapped all around us, like a grand cultural Christmas morning.

His interest in landscape led him to Ravilious, whose cool, serene watercolours and wood engravings seem such a lyrical distillation of inter-war rural England. They invest the everyday with elegance and enchantment – and could make even a cement works look fascinating.

Described by a friend as “tall, slim, modest, bonily handsome, mildly otherworldly, but quick to laughter”, Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne, whose vibrant Towner Art Gallery houses a large collection of his work and staged the exhibition before it came to Sheffield. It attracted 28,000 visitors, twice the usual number for a summer show.

Friend, a man of ebullient enthusiasm, has also borrowed pictures from 20 regional galleries and 40 private collectors. As well as paintings, there are book covers, illustrations and pottery, showing the artists’ versatility.

Many of the works have never previously been exhibited. Friend unwraps a watercolour of a mill interior by Tirzah Garwood. “This painting had lived its life in a cardboard box under a spare bedroom bed for the past few decades,” he says.

Some detractors, I say, reckon that Ravilious has now become a victim of his own popularity, that his work is too accessible, too nostalgic, to be really “great art”.

“What an absurd thing to claim – that because a lot of people respond to it, it isn’t good,” Friend retorts. “Too often the presentation of 20th century art is wrapped around by high-flown pretentious waffle that obfuscates more than it illuminates.”

Even so, when Ravilious was working as a war artist between 1940 and 1942, his pictures of submarines could be as unexpectedly elegant as his landscapes. A study of Hurricane fighter planes preparing to land on an aircraft carrier shows them performing a gracious aerial ballet.

“There was a very schizophrenic reaction to his war art,” says Friend. “Some thought it was superb, but some thought it was far too pretty to be war art because of the momentousness of what was going on.”

The war art was Ravilious’s last testament. The day after he arrived in Iceland to work with the RAF, he took off at dawn as an observer but the plane was never seen again. “Death presumed,” is the rubber-stamped verdict in the logbook, on exhibition here. He was 39.

What more might he have achieved? As Andy Friend says, it’s a question of “What if...”

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship runs at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (0114 278 2600; www.museums-sheffield.org.uk), until January 7, 2018. Open daily; admission free. The book of the same name by Andy Friend is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £24.95.