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The WWII artist and designer Eric Ravilious is celebrated in this survey of his watercolours.
Fair haired, tweed clad, a nice lad, Eric Ravilious (1903-42) looked like he could have bicycled straight out of one of his own paintings, perhaps waving to the stout cook outside ‘The Vicarage’ (1935) as he hastened home for tea – to crusty bread and flowers on the table. His is a uniquely comforting vision of Britishness (Englishness, really, and southern England at that) in the 1930s. A timeless one too – with its chalk giants and white horses carved into rolling Wiltshire hills and the South Downs. Which goes to explain why you can buy picnic throws, ‘Ravilious Limited Edition’ English Breakfast tea and ‘Blackcurrant Blighty Jam’ in the gallery shop.
But Ravilious (the name is probably Huguenot, though he liked to affect that it was Cornish) isn’t merely a purveyor of a cosy, heritage industry idea of Britishness. His modest watercolour paintings reveal a surprisingly complex relationship with the past, with modernism, with nation. From the off, Ravilious peddled nostalgia as a kind of Trojan horse. It’s there in early paintings of scrapyards and agricultural landscapes, in which defunct and abandoned machinery looms like surreal flotsam. Unlikely as it sounds, he’s also one of the best war artists this country has produced.
When we think of war art, we tend to summon images of tragedy or heroism (like Sargent’s ‘Gassed’) or artists irrevocably altered by combat (Paul Nash, CRW Nevinson). With Ravilious, who became an Official War Artist in 1939, there are changes of content but not of form. And the work remains beautiful, disconcertingly so. From making pictures of tea trays in works like ‘Design for Dunbar Hay Embroidery’ (1939) he moves, apparently seamlessly, to painting ‘Bomb Diffusing Equipment’ (1940), simply by substituting hammers and screwdrivers for spoons and kettles. The show has great fun in illustrating the privations of war through a sequence of deflating mattresses, from the overstuffed welcome depicted in ‘A Farmhouse Bedroom’ (1930s) to the impoverishment of ‘RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee’ (1941).
Ravilious could draw like a dream, and his restrained palette, cross-hatches and stipples of paint and way of framing the subject of a painting – often through barbed wire fences – are similarly sophisticated. He’s spectacularly good at recreating the claustrophobia of underground bunkers, such as ‘The Teleprinter Room’ (1941) or ‘Map Corridor’ (1940), where you can almost hear clipped accents whispering into telephones, or imagine Cumberbatch doing his agitated in shirtsleeves and braces routine.
There are darkening skies and torpedoed ships on display in the final gallery, in works like ‘Norway’ (1940), which seem to show war taking its toll on the unstoppably upbeat Ravilious. But here’s where the show plays a trick on you. Because you will already have seen Ravilious’s final works in the previous room – joyous images like ‘Runway Perspective’ (1942) and ‘Hurricanes in Flight’, in which land and sky are choreographed into radiant, exhilarating patterns. ‘Reported missing, presumed dead’ read the report from the air-sea rescue mission in which Ravilious took part on September 2, 1942. He was 39, apparently unfazed by war, but finished off by it all the same. That’s the tragedy of this unmissable show.