Dulwich Picture Gallery
Until 31 August 2015
Eric Ravilious was a not only a peculiarly English painter, he was also a peculiar one. His watercolours are difficult to define – quirky, idiosyncratic, ethereal and occasionally impenetrable, and he was sometimes a stranger to perspective. He rarely painted people in his watercolours, and then, usually at a distance. He preferred disparate objects, peopleless landscapes, empty interiors, buildings, boats, harbours and aeroplanes. Unlike many of his fellow painters, he did not join the Artist’s Rifles in 1939, but was invited by the Admiralty to become an Official War Artist. He was posted to Chatham, then Hull, Grimsby, Newhaven and Dover, and worked aboard a submarine at Gosport, where he produced some rather spooky lithographs, complete with ghostly figures. He liked to start a painting en plein air, but if it was wet, he stayed indoors and painted interiors, with great attention to detail, particularly the patterns on carpets and wallpaper, and his signature skewed perspective.
Train Landscape is basically an interior, but of a third-class carriage, with carefully painted upholstery and fittings, looking out onto downland, with a white horse on a distant hillside. This is possibly the same horse that features in another painting, The Westbury Horse, seen from slightly above, with a little train puffing through the plain below. Mechanical objects feature heavily in many of his watercolours: Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck in a bleak, snowy landscape; Yellow Funnel, which has the celebrated Rothschild steam yacht berthed in the middle distance, which he described as “a beauty; the most elegant boat I ever saw, all white and a white funnel with a figurehead in front elaborately carved.” For the life of me, I could not make it out. Other inanimate objects in a landscape include No. 29 Bus, abandoned in a field on barrels, a derelict 1922 Talbot-Daracq in a farmyard and an array of caravans. Inanimate objects in a seascape include warships and submarines in dock, anchors and boats, coastal defenses, harbours, bathing machines and paddle steamers.
His series of paintings he did in 1940-41 of the Home Security Control Rooms situated beneath Whitehall, pre-empt Cold War times after World War II, and they evoke a feeling of Orwell’s 1984 or a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, with faded, spectral figures in bleached-out surroundings. In 1941 he was transferred to the RAF and then to The Royal Naval Air Service, where he first flew in an aircraft, a Walrus seaplane. Shortly afterwards, he volunteered to join an air-sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland, where he had been transferred. Sadly, the aircraft failed to return and he was officially presumed dead, aged just 39 years old. Apart from being a gifted watercolourist, he was also a very talented wood engraver, on a par with John Buckland Wright and Eric Gill, although lacking their salacity.
It is always amusing to see what related merchandise is on offer in the shop, and what inspired the buyers to select or commission certain items. For instance, there is a tin of Ravilious Limited Edition ‘hand-crafted, ethically sourced blend of tea’ for a tenner, a stoneware tea-pot to make it in, available in heritage green or buttercup yellow, a pot of jam for £6.50 and, to complete the picnic, a recycled woollen picnic throw for £18.50, which is “completely unique”, as opposed to just “unique.”