“He died in his thirties living the life he dreamed of”: artist Eric Ravilious

On September 2, 1942, a plane on a search and rescue mission off the coast of Iceland crashed into the sea, killing its pilot and 39-year-old passenger. The passenger was Eric Ravilious, whose last letter to his wife, three days earlier, had extolled the deep shadows and leaf-like fissures of the subarctic landscape. He was one of 300 artists hired by the War Artists Advisory Board to cover World War II and the first to die on active duty.

Back home to their damp Essex farmhouse where she was abandoned with their three young children, his wife, Tirzah Garwood, was struggling: she had just been operated on for breast cancer which was to kill her nine years later. The pressures of illness and domestic life had ended his own successful career as an artist. But every night, after putting her children to bed, she sat down to type her autobiography.

He addressed his future readers directly: “I hope that you are part of my descendants, she wrote, but I have only three children and, at the time of writing, a German plane circled around my head taking photos of the damage yesterday’s looters did, reminding me that there is no certainty about our survival.

Tirzah Garwood with her husband Eric Ravilious in the 1930s
Artistic union… Tirzah Garwood with her husband Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. Photography: ESRO/The Dungeon

Ravilious’ reputation as an artist of all worth almost did not survive at all. At the time of his death, a large mural, at Morley College in Waterloo, had been bombed into oblivion, some of his war paintings had been censored and dozens more had been sunk at sea as they sank into oblivion. were going to an exhibition on the art of propaganda. in South America. For more than 30 years, most of his surviving works lay forgotten under a bed in a house he and Garwood once shared with artist Edward Bawden, leaving only the mass-produced legacy of commissioned playful alphabet mugs. by Wedgwood and a woodcut of top-notch gentlemen players who for years graced the cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

But a new movie, Eric Ravilious: drawn to war, sets the record straight, drawing on an impressive array of advocates – from Grayson Perry to Alan Bennett – to cast him as one of Britain’s great artists, whose prints broke ground technically while his watercolors carried the Turner tradition into the 20th century. The film is a passion project for its writer and director, margy kinmonthwho began researching 15 years ago but was repeatedly pushed back by backers who insisted no one had ever heard of Ravilious.

Kinmonth’s previous film was a 2017 documentary about artists of the Russian Revolution, but when the pandemic hit she realized she would have to move closer to home, so she returned to the interview snippets she had previously recorded with surviving members of the Lovely Family. “They call the arts the tumbleweed of television,” she laughs, “but luckily film and art go very well together.”

Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig
Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig, who plays Tirzah Garwood in the film. Photography: foxtrotfilms.com

His perseverance paid off. A circle of “friends” have been involved in helping with the funding, and more than 70 theaters have already signed up to screen a film, which is both a full account of a passionate but unconventional marriage and a tour of persuasive conservation around a work whose silent surfaces are never quite what they seem.

Nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who featured Ravilious in his bestselling book The old ways, shows how the artist framed bucolic watercolors of the rolling countryside of southern England with strands of barbed wire. “I think Ravilous is an example of the fatal Englishman, with the mountaineer George Mallory and the poet Edward Thomas: they didn’t have to go to war or climb Everest, and all died in their thirties living the life they dreamed of as children. It is this old fatal love for the landscape. The result, says Macfarlane, is that “Thomas and Ravilious are seen as picturesque rural people when in reality they are not – they are modernists”.

Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious
A bucolic landscape – with barbed wire… Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious. Photography: foxtrotfilms.com

A Wiltshire landscape that is one of the artist’s best-known works a casual red van approach the junction of a road that stretches towards an ominous future (it was created for artists against fascism). A domestic scene of a deserted outdoor tea table under an umbrella is titled Tea at Furlongs but could be called Munich 1938, Alan Bennett reflects in the film, quoting WH Auden’s pre-war poem The Witnesses: “Something will fall like rain / And there won’t be flowers. Even more striking, a letter to Garwood describing his shock at witnessing the drowning of a young airman during a military exercise is juxtaposed in the film to a painting of biplanes seen through a window floating gently on the sea.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei admits he didn’t know anything about Ravilious until Kinmonth approached him because of his installation History of bombs at the Imperial War Museum. “I was curious to know how a war artist worked, so I accepted the invitation to participate in the project,” he says. He was amazed by what he discovered. “His expression is very calm and he has such an innocent and almost naive style of painting. I was deeply moved by the authenticity, attention to detail and humanitarianism expressed in his works about war. He is able to “to observe and express himself in an extraordinary way. Although many of his works are watercolors which seems to be an understatement, they are deep, rigorous and meticulous. I think Ravilious is one of the best artists in the United Kingdom. United.

The film begins and ends with the cursed plane emitting a distress signal that has never been heard, before looping back to Ravilious’ childhood in the Sussex countryside where he enjoyed drawing mundane objects. – a brush and a bucket, his father’s collar and tie, as well as the planes flying over the chalky hills. He then won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and was teaching at the Eastbourne School of Art when he met Garwood, the daughter of a colonel who was studying woodcut and whose parents were snobbishly opposed to their relationship.

The story is semi-dramatized, with the task of voicing Garwood falling to Tamsin Greig, whom Kinmonth approached after seeing her in a play at the Hampstead Theatre. Greig was also unfamiliar with Ravilious’ work. “The reason I was drawn to the film is because it’s really a love story between two human beings who share the same passion, but there is a cost in the partnership of two artists , that someone has to put up with,” she says. “They try to hold together the wildness of creativity but also live within the constraints of societal systems.”

Two Women in a Garden by Eric Ravilious
Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious. Photography: Fry Art Gallery/foxtrotfilms.com

In his autobiography, Long live the Great Bardfield, Garwood is open about the impact on her of two cases that Eric pursued publicly, beginning when she was pregnant with the first of their three children. His story is painful but never feels sorry for himself. “I like this combination of deep sensations written on a very fine epidermis”, says Greig. “I find Margy’s narration very tender and elegiac.”

Part of the story is told by Ravilious and Garwood’s daughter, Anne, who was a baby in arms when her father was killed (in his autobiography, Garwood recalled the effort of trying to lift her for him say goodbye) and only 10 years old when her mother also died. As Kinmonth points out, the film would not have been so rich if it had not made available the couple’s personal correspondence and all the letters between her father and her two lovers, which she inherited after their deaths.

Despite all the turbulence and injustice in their relationship, there is a balance between Ravilious and Garwood as artists that is evident in two of their photos. Both were third class train carriages traveling through the countryside. But while Ravilious’ watercolor carriage stands empty, giving center stage to the white horse carved into the hill beyond, Garwood’s woodcut is crammed with passengers.

Poignantly, it falls to the couple’s granddaughter, Ella Ravilious, now a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to read the passage of Garwood bequeathing his book to posterity, had he survived. “If you are not a descendant of mine,” the passage continues, out of the film, “then all I ask of you is to love the country as I do, and when you walk into a room, observe discreetly his pictures and furniture, and sympathize with painters and craftsmen. It may be the story of a great man, but it is a story told by women.

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