‘He died in his thirties and lived the life he dreamed of’: artist Eric Ravilious

On September 2, 1942, a plane on a search and rescue mission off the coast of Iceland crashed into the sea, killing the pilot and 39-year-old passenger. The passenger was Eric Ravilious, whose last letter to his wife, three days earlier, had praised the deep shadows and leaf-like fissures of the subarctic landscape. He was one of 300 artists hired by the War Artists Advisory Committee to report on World War II, and he was the first to die on active duty.

Back home to their damp farm in Essex where she was stranded with their three young children, his wife, Tirzah Garwood, had a hard time: she had recently had surgery for the breast cancer from which she would die nine years later. The pressures of illness and domestic life had killed her own successful career as a recording artist. But every night, after putting her kids to bed, she sat down to type out her autobiography.

It was addressed directly to her future readers: “I hope you may be one of my descendants,” she wrote, “but I have only three children, and as I write this, a German plane is circling my head, taking pictures of the damage that yesterday’s robbers did, which reminds me that there is no certainty that we will survive.”

Tirzah Garwood with her husband Eric Ravilious in the 1930s
Artistic union … Tirzah Garwood with her husband Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. Photo: ESRO/The Keep

Ravilious’s reputation as an artist of some value almost did not survive. By the time of his death, a large mural in Waterloo’s Morley College had fallen into oblivion, some of his war paintings had been censored and dozens more sunk at sea en route to an exhibition on propaganda art in South America. For more than 30 years, most of his surviving works lay forgotten under a bed in a house he and Garwood had once shared with the artist Edward Bawden, leaving only the mass-produced legacy of playful alphabet mugs commissioned by Wedgwood and a woodcut by men’s top hat players who graced the cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack for years.

But a new movie Eric Ravilious: Attracted to War, sets the record straight, drawing on an impressive array of proponents — from Grayson Perry to Alan Bennett — to advocate for him as one of Britain’s great artists, whose engravings broke new technical grounds while his watercolors trace the tradition of Turner in the 20th century . The film is a passion project for the author and director, Margy Kinmonthwho began researching it 15 years ago, but was repeatedly beaten back by financiers who insisted no one had ever heard of Ravilious.

Kinmonth’s previous film was a 2017 documentary about the artists of the Russian Revolution, but when the pandemic hit, she realized she needed to set her sights closer to home, so she returned to the snippets of interviews she already had. recorded with surviving members of the Ravile family. “They call art the tumbleweed of television,” she laughs, “but fortunately cinema and art go very well together.”

Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig
Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig, who voices Tirzah Garwood for the film. Photo: foxtrotfilms.com

Her perseverance paid off. A circle of “friends” joined in to help with the finances, and more than 70 cinemas have already signed up to show a film, which is both a full account of a passionate but unconventional wedding and a compelling tour of the city. curated an oeuvre whose silent surfaces are never quite what they seem.

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who included Ravilious in his bestseller The old ways, points to the way the artist would frame rural watercolors of the rolling southern English countryside with strands of barbed wire. “I think Ravilous is an example of the fatal Englishman, along with the mountaineer.” George Mallory and the poet Edward Thomas: They didn’t have to go to war or climb Everest, and they all died in their thirties, living the life they’d dreamed of as children. It is this old, fatal love for the landscape.” The result, Macfarlane says, is that “both Thomas and Ravilious are seen as queer peasants, when in fact they are not: they are modernists”.

Chalkpaths, by Eric Ravilious
A Rural Landscape – With Barbed Wire… Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious. Photo: foxtrotfilms.com

A Wiltshire landscape that is one of the artist’s most famous works a cheerful red van approaching the intersection of a road stretching into an ominous future (it was made for Artists Against Fascism). A domestic scene of an abandoned tea table outside under an umbrella is titled Tea at Furlongs but could be called Munich 1938, Alan Bennett reflects in the film, quoting WH Auden’s pre-war poem The Witnesses: “Something goes to fall like rain / And it won’t be flowers.” Most notably, a letter to Garwood describing his shock at witnessing the drowning of a young aviator during a military exercise is interspersed in the film with a painting of biplanes seen through a window that benignly faces the sea. bobs.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei admits he knew nothing about Ravilious until Kinmonth approached him about his installation History of bombs at the Imperial War Museum. “I was curious about how a war artist worked, so I accepted the invitation to participate in the project,” he says. He was amazed at what he discovered. “His expression is very calm and he has such an innocent and almost naive painting style. I was deeply moved by the authenticity, attention to detail and humanism that were reflected in his artworks about war. He is able to paint in an extraordinary way. to observe and express. While many of his works are watercolors which may seem like an understatement, they are profound, rigorous and meticulous. I think Ravilious is one of the best artists in the UK.”

The film begins and ends with the doomed plane beating an unheard mayday signal, before returning to Ravilious’s childhood in rural Sussex, where he took pleasure in sketching everyday objects – a brush and bucket, the collar and his father’s tie, as well as the planes that fly over the chalk hills. He then got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and taught at the Eastbourne School of Art when he met Garwood, a Colonel’s daughter who studied wood engraving and whose parents were snobbish against their relationship.

The story is semi-dramatized, with the task of getting Garwood to act out Tamsin Greig, who approached Kinmonth after seeing her in a play at the Hampstead theatre. Greig was also unfamiliar with Ravilious’s work. “The reason I was drawn to the film is because it’s basically a love story between two people who share the same passion, but there is a cost to the partnership of two artists, which someone has to bear,” she says. “They try to keep the wildness of creativity together, but also live within the confines of societal systems.”

Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious
Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious. Photo: Fry Art Gallery/foxtrotfilms.com

In her autobiography, Long live Great Bardfield, Garwood is open about the impact on her of two cases Eric publicly pursued, starting while pregnant with the first of their three children. Her story is painful, but never self-pitying. “I like that combination of deep feeling written on a very thin epidermis,” Greig says. “I find Margy’s stories very tender and elegiac.”

Part of the story is told by Ravilious and Garwood’s daughter, Anne, who was a baby in arms when her father was murdered (in her autobiography, Garwood recalled attempting to lift her to say a final goodbye ) and only 10 when her mother also died. As Kinmonth points out, the film wouldn’t have been so layered if she hadn’t made available the couple’s personal correspondence and all the letters between her father and his two lovers, which she inherited after their deaths.

Despite all the turbulence and injustice of their relationship, there is a balance between Ravilious and Garwood as artists that is made apparent in two of their photos. Both were third-class railcars traveling through the countryside. But while Ravilious’s watercolor carriage is empty and the centerpiece is the white horse carved into the hill behind, Garwood’s woodcut is full of passengers.

It is distressing that the couple’s granddaughter, Ella Ravilious, now curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, has to read Garwood’s passage that her book leaves to posterity, should it have survived. “If you are not one of my descendants,” the passage continues, outside the film, “all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you enter a room, discreetly display the photos and the furniture , and sympathize with painters and craftsmen.” This may be the story of a great man, but it is a story told by women.

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