For an artist who died in 1942 and who very much embodied the spirit of the inter-war period in England, the continuing popularity of Eric Ravilious is sometimes hard to grasp. Indeed, as Ravilious-expert Alan Powers writes in the final chapter of his new book on the artist (my Book of the Week), Ravilious is more popular now than he ever was in his lifetime.
What is it that gives Eric Ravilious one of the largest fan-bases of any early 20th-century British artist? It is often claimed that his art elicits a sense of nostalgia for a lost age. His watercolours depict places mostly unencumbered by people and there’s a quiet serenity about them, a comforting timelessness to landscapes which are reassuringly there, unruffled by human activity. It is a world of high streets populated by traditional shops, of ordinary lives, of steam trains chugging steadily through the night, and quiet villages seen through the changing seasons. In our complex 21st-century lives, perhaps we yearn for that lost simplicity.
But there’s a strangeness to Ravilious’s world too which means that it stops short of sentimentality. English Eden with an edge, is how Powers describes it. It’s not quite the world we know, but a parallel dream-world in which figures are shadowy presences while things take on a prominence which is almost symbolic. The flat patterning of their composition transforms the watercolours into stylised versions of the landscape, both familiar and unfamiliar. That is their elusive magic.
Alan Powers has embarked on his Ravilious promotional tour, attracting crowds at talks in London, Eastbourne and Chichester, and in the New Year he will be at the V&A, in Aldeburgh, and at the Royal Watercolour Society. At Pallant House Gallery, Chichester Ravilious’s glorious prints are on display until 8th December 2013. And if you can’t get to hear the author or see the work, then Eric Ravilious: Artist and Designer is a good substitute: in reviewer Andrew Lambirth’s words, it’s ‘a pleasure to read, besides being packed with unexpected insights and detailed analysis’.
Lucy Myers, Managing Director
Eric Ravilious: Artist and Designer by Alan Powers. 2013. Hardback. 216 pages. 163 colour and 52 b&w illustrations. £35 / $70.