Mad about the Boy : The Enduring Popularity of Eric Ravilious - by Alan Powers

At the Royal College of Art, Eric Ravilious’s friends nicknamed him ‘The Boy’. His death at 39 in 1942 meant that he never needed to grow old, and Enid Marx wrote that he had a sort of Papageno air to him – like the bird-catcher in The Magic Flute who is at once sympathetic and a little supernatural.

The 1920s, when Ravilious moved from being a provincial aspirant in Eastbourne to become a nationally-known figure in art and illustration, was itself a time of youth – ‘the bright young things’ – and as a natty dancer and tennis player, he was born into the right moment, when Noel Coward was writing songs like ‘Mad about the Boy’. His physical grace came out in the easy way he could glide his graver over a woodblock while whistling in thirds, sometimes with a rather Papageno touch of a canary sitting on his shoulder. Critics have searched for the right words to describe his paintings. ‘Lightness’ was the key word chosen by Christopher Neve for the chapter on Ravilious in his recently reprinted Unquiet Landscape of 1991. Certainly, as watercolours his paintings convey qualities of light and transparency peculiar to that medium. He worked with what looks like a dry brush, but on inspection turns out to involve layers of colour applied both wet and dry and manipulated with a skill that is hard to unravel as one’s eye travels over hills, trees or clouds. There is an emotional buoyancy to them as well.  Douglas Percy Bliss, another of Ravilious’s college friends, described him in terms of what a friend of Dr Johnson said about his own attempts to be a philosopher, ‘cheerfulness was always breaking in’.

 Eric Ravilious, Newhaven Harbour, 1937. Lithograph. 50 x 75 cm (19 5/8 x 29 1/2 in). Private collection.
Reproduced in 'Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer'.

His illustrations and printed images, in books, advertisements and on Wedgwood pottery, have a different form of imaginative intensity that cause them to linger in the mind. He took just what he wanted from Modernism, a freshness of perception and a lean technique, exact but never mechanical.

This kind of levity and skill are too easily elided with the pejorative term ‘lightweight’. Ravilious has been placed in the ‘also ran’ category by most survey histories of his period. The enormous popularity of his work in all media today becomes proof of shallowness rather than depth, but depth is whatever the beholder sees, and the eye is just what mainstream art criticism and history has demoted in favour of theory, unsubtle political readings, or prescriptive views of historical development. It feels as if we need a new way of understanding shallow and deep, light and heavy, light and dark, that allows for things that strike a deeper chord in the onlooker that cannot be explained. Mozart’s music (production of another boy wonder) is easy to like, but that doesn’t preclude emotional depth, even at its most joyous.

I’d like to make the case that Ravilious’s lightness has a resilience and strength that may bely first appearances. If he has a correlative in contemporary art, his choice of motifs might compare with the slow tracking and intense framing of an artist-film-maker such as Tacita Dean, except that what he does is also a beautiful work of craftsmanship with old-fashioned materials.

Eric Ravilious, Aldeburgh Bathing Machines, 1938. 
Reproduced in 'Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer'. 

In an interview in 1968 with Edward Lucie-Smith, the American critic Clement Greenberg, the great exponent of Abstract Expressionism, was addressing the weaknesses of English painting. I feel that in this passage he could as well be talking about Ravilious as about painters he is known to have admired such as John Sell Cotman and Alexander Cozens,

‘English neatness. English patness – they’re your weakness, I’m presumptuous enough to say. Cézanne said that painting involved crude, crass materials; the English artist seems shy of this generally. Maybe that’s why he had to make watercolour, for the first time, a serious medium. But I’m the last one to turn my nose up at the likes of Girtin, Crome, Cotman, the younger Cozens, Cox. Don’t misunderstand me about that. If you can’t see how good the English watercolourists are you can’t really see painting.’

I like Greenberg’s emphasis on seeing, although I think this transcends the need to consider whether there is any essentially English quality involved. Seeing is rather at a discount in the way we deal with art just now, preferring iconography, meaning and association. These elements are not absent from Ravilious’s work, but unless he had the capacity to make ordinary things so vivid, they wouldn’t account for the special quality in his pictures. One critic wrote in 1939, ‘a combination of the unexpected selection, exactly apt colour, and almost prestidigitous water-colour technique and textural variety appears as something mystic, distilled out of the ordinary experience.’


Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939. Pencil and watercolour. 45.8 x 56 cm (18 x 22 in). Private collection. 
Reproduced in 'Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer'.

Does this account for Ravilious’s popularity in the past 20 years, which has snowballed onwards as more people discovered his work through exhibitions and books? I should like to think that out a number of painters contemporary with him who depicted similar subjects, he has attained a special place through this ‘something mystic’, whether it is consciously recognised or not. Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps another surprising witness to bring to Ravilious’s defence, but in Human, All Too Human, 1878, he foresaw the changes in sensibility that were coming, and the danger of over-intellectualising sensation,

‘All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what “it means” and no longer what “it is” …The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists.’

Or, to put it more succinctly in the words of a song made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Tain’t what you do it’s the way that cha do it – That’s what gets results.’


Alan Powers' book: Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer is available to order HERE.


Hardback • 216 Pages • Size: 270 × 249 × 24 mm
ISBN: 9781848221116 • Publication: October 16, 2013


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