An Exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery
Eric Ravilious, (‘tweed clad, fair-haired and hesitant in speech’) was a lesser known British artist and designer whose short life (1903 to 1942) ended aged 39 on active service during the height of the Second World War. Ravilious joined the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists during which time his watercolour technique blossomed. I came across his work for the first time during a recent visit to The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London where an exhibition of his watercolours was in full swing. A previous exhibition in 2003 at the Imperial War Museum was a turning point in appreciation of the artist.
His life and works are covered in a beautifully produced catalogue of the current exhibition. (It runs until the end of August 2015). Written by James Russell who has already published works on Ravilious, we learn about his background, his brief career and his relationships with fellow war artists such as Paul Nash with whose style Ravilious has much in common.
Previously known for his book illustrations, wood engravings, murals and his designs for Wedgwood ceramics he is now attracting attention with his depictions of the more tangential activities of war and his nostalgic portrayals of an England that the war changed for ever.
In an article in The Observer on 14 May 1939, journalist Jan Gordon commented that each work ‘appear[ed] as something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary every day.’ His ability to perceive the beauty and significance of individual moments in time is hinted at in a remark made by art critic and writer John Rothenstein. ‘From time to time he would smile as though at something distant.’
In Eric Ravilious we find an example of how the artist perceives beauty in the seemingly mundane. This is a gift but it is also a discipline. The discipline of ‘standing and staring’ instead of rushing about so ‘full of care’ that we miss the visual delights laid before us.
In the 1940 watercolour Train Landscape there is one such example how Ravilious notices his surroundings with an almost ‘mindful’ immediacy, an achievement in itself given that the view from the window could have been missed in a moment. The fabric of the seats is vivid enough to feel as is the leather window strap and the wooden panelling. Outside the window the chalk figure of the white horse is almost lost from view before the rest of the wintry English landscape fills the carriage windows. How often do I barely notice my surroundings preoccupied with the invasive lens of distracted thoughts? A painting like this one makes me envious of the beauty that Ravilious could find in such an un-astonishing scene. He seems to be inviting us to wake up and notice the beauty of the ordinary that surrounds us.
This beauty that Ravilious perceived and shares with us points to a greater and more perfect reality, one unmarred by the horrors of war or damaged by change. The beauty of heaven. Might it be that artists are experiencing a longing for this perfection whether consciously or unconsciously?
C.S. Lewis speaks powerfully of the desires that such beauty stirs in us in his essay The Weight of Glory:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located
will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”