Review. Extraordinary Everyday: The Art & Design of Eric Ravilious and Turn and Return by Dierdre Wood

Maybe it’s the non-stop disturbing news from around the world, or the long dark winter and the recent wild storms (including Storm Eunice which carried a Red Alert warning) but I just haven’t been feeling the love. The year has felt slow in getting started.

This week I visited a new exhibition at The Arc in the historic city of Winchester, to explore the work of Eric Ravilious. It is the first time I have experienced Ravilious’ work up close. A display of stunning woven textiles by weaver, Deirdre Wood outside The Gallery was an added bonus. The intensity of colourful art proved inspirational and I’m back at my laptop with the first blog in a few weeks.

Eric William Ravilious (1903-1942) was a British painter, designer, book illustrator and wood-engraver and this is evident in his paintings which have an element of all of these creative mediums. Having grown up in Sussex, he is well known for his landscape paintings, including watercolours of the South Downs, where I live.

Ravilious’ love for the simple pleasures of everyday life (a mug of strong tea, a train ride in Train Landscape) is repeated in his work over and again. It is this deceptively simple approach that charms but the techniques involved, the muted colours and the intense detail is remarkable. Ravilious studied at both Eastbourne School of Art and the Design School at the Royal College of Art.

The clean lines of the windows, door and fields juxtaposed with the askew White Horse and rolling hills creates one of those fascinating, constantly changing landscapes as the train rumbles on through the countryside.
Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939. © Aberdeen City Council (Archives, Gallery & Museums Collection).

He also time spent working under British surrealist painter, Paul Nash, and this is is revealed in the off-kilter perspectives, or the corridor that leads to a blank wall instead of a doorway. Ravilous’ work is colourful and yet shadowy and this gives his work a slightly melancholic feel. In his paintings of neatly furnished domestic rooms there are no figures and there is a sense of abandonement or loneliness, everything is a little too tidy and rather sad. The muted light and the atmosphere of emptiness, draws the viewer in nonetheless. Has someone just left the room, or will they soon be returning? There’s something too of the Fifties’ kitchen sink realism about the scenes.

Ravilious’ work brings to mind the interior paintings of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). Both artists pull together the interior and exterior worlds through complex and highly decorative everyday items (a patterened rug, curtains and china), set against an exterior landscape or garden, and it creates a sense of intimacy and voyeurism.

Wedgwood designs

L to R: ‘Garden’ pattern dinnerware in sepia with yellow enamel, 1953-4, private collection; King Edward VIII Coronation Mug, designed 1936. Created for Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd by Eric Ravilious. Photos © Hampshire Cultural Trust.

A selection of the artist’s decorative designs for Wedgwood on display includes delightful pieces from the Alphabet and Garden sets and a set of six (rather large) mugs in the style of the Edward VIII Coronation Mug, rarely seen together.  

Detail of Ravilious’ King Edward VIII Coronation Mug, designed 1936. Created for Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd. Photos © Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Ravilious’ Wartime work

Ravilous was accepted as a full-time salaried war artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in December 1939, with the rank of Honorary Captain in the Royal Marines. His war paintings are particularly striking. The painter would fulfil the remit – to faithfully record battle ships, war planes, bomb disposal and coastline defences – but these are presented in juxtaposition to the ‘everyday’. So, in the exhibition, a painting recording lines of dark battleships heading out to sea can be seen in the background, with around two-thirds of the work given to the colours and textures of the beach and landscape in the foreground. It is a highly evocative image of war set against the natural beauty of the English coast.

Ravilious’ paintings also have the feel of a book illustration and a woodcutting. L to R: RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, 1941 by Eric Ravilious. © The Imperial War Museum; The Yellow Funnel, 1938. Eric Ravilious.

In September 1942 Ravilious, just 39, died on active service when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland, ironically while on a mission to search for a missing plane and its crew. After four days of further searching, the RAF declared Ravilious and the four-man crew lost in action. The bodies were never recovered. Ravilous and his wife, British artist Eileen Lucy “Tirzah” Garwood, had three young children. An all too familiar story from that period.

The exhibition is curated by James Russell, previously curator of the 2015 blockbuster Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Extraordinary Everyday at The Arc runs until 15 May 2022. Tickets Adults £6, children £3, concessions available.

Turn and Return: by textile artist, Deirdre Wood

A smaller display outside the main gallery, of stunning textiles by Dierdre Wood, was striking. Wood’s colourful triangles, circles and crosses, created in silk, cotton, linen and wool, complement Ravilious’ work in terms of colours and textures, detail and graphic design.

Clockwise from top left: Ginger Ikat Snaking Triangle, 2009; Twisted Strip Construction, 1998; Running Cross, 2013; In Focus with Nickel Detail, 2021; Blue and Burgundy Triangle, 2021; prices range from £320 to £2,800 by Deirdre Wood.

Using natural materials such as linen and wool, the yarns are dyed using the Ikat (a technique originating from Indonesia used to pattern textiles that employ ‘resist dyeing’) and dip-dyed techniques. Each piece is hand-woven, twisted or turned to create dramatic sculptures. Wood has been a weaver and dyer for 27 years and specialises in reinterpreting narrow-strip weaving, an ancient technique that has seen a revivival. The colours and dramatic interplay of the fabrics is compelling. These architectural pieces need a big space to fully appreciate the scale and composition. Curiously, while one or two were mounted, many of the sculptures on display appeared without a solid base, so directly attached to the wall, and would presumably require bespoke installation by the artist. Turn and Return is set on the mezzanine floor of the extensive library and so it is free to view and, happily, photographs are allowed here.

A visit to The Arc in the historic city of Winchester. Photo Irene Caswell

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