Thursday, 17 May 2018

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship. English Artist Designers 1922-1942. Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, Warwickshire (17 March-10 June 2018)

Top:  The Westbury Horse, Eric Ravilious (1939)
Bottom: Barrage Balloons at Sea, Eric Ravilious (1940)

Despite being widely considered as one of the best British watercolourists of the 20th century and the most significant wood engraver of his generation, I suspect that the name Eric Ravilious is still not widely known outside of the UK, or for that fact, within it either.  I have to confess that my knowledge about him and his peers was very limited, so I was much looking forward to finding out more in this exhibition.  Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) was an English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver, most known for his watercolours of the South Downs and other English landscapes which had a modernist sensibility.  He grew up in East Sussex and studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where between 1924-1925 he was taught by renowned British surrealist painter and First World War artist, Paul Nash, who had a profound influence on his work.  Ravilious also served as a war artist in the Second World War and died when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland in 1942.

Top:  Sussex Church, Eric Ravilious (1924)
Bottom: Island, Eric Ravilious (1935)

This charming exhibition shines a light on a fascinating (and somewhat overlooked) period in 20th century British art and considers the professional and personal relationships of Ravilious and his group of artist-designer friends (which included Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden and Douglas Percy Bliss), from their first meeting at the Royal College of Art in 1922, through to the outbreak of the Second World War.  It examines their relationship with modernism and how they revitalised British design in the 1930s.

Top: Spring, Tirzah Garwood (1926)
Bottom: Summer, Tirzah Garwood (1927)

“Ravilious & Co” also casts a new light on the creativity of the women within the friendship group and includes newly discovered work by Ravilious’ wife, Tirzah Garwood, along with watercolours, engravings and illustrations by Helen Binyon, the artist’s mistress and confidente.  It also includes never before exhibited early wood engravings by Enid Marx (who went on to design iconic textiles for the London Transport Board and who was the first female engraver to be designated as a Royal Designer for Industry), as well as a range of fabric, textile and wallpaper designs by Diana Low and Peggy Angus, two other important contributors within the group.

Top: Barcombe Mill Interior, Tirzah Garwood (1927)
Bottom: Helen Binyon and Eric Ravilious at Furlongs, Peggy Angus (c. 1940)

I am a huge fan of woodcut printing, so just to see such exquisite examples by Ravilious, Garwood and Marx was a treat by itself.  But to learn more about this period of British art was also very enlightening.  Despite the impact these artists had on British design, within art history narratives they are almost a lost artistic generation, sandwiched in history as they were between their Bloomsbury and Vorticist predecessors and then figurative painters such as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, who dominated the art scene following the Second World War.  It is perhaps for two reasons that this has happened.  In mainly capturing everyday scenes and details from English life, the work of Ravilious and his peers could be seen as too genteel and provincial compared to their more avant-garde modernist predecessors and emotionally devoid when compared to Auerbach & Co.  I suspect though that it was the very successes that they achieved in design and that they earnt their living through commercial endeavours rather than by private commissions and exhibiting in galleries, which has ultimately relegated them within art history hierarchies.

Top and Middle: Design for upholstery for London Transport, Enid Marx (c. 1940)
Bottom: 'Travel' pattern for Wedgwood dinner service, Eric Ravilious (c. 1938)

“Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship.  English Artist Designers 1922-1942” considers these possibilities with a comprehensive and absorbing display of work by a group of artists whose practice was indeed formed by modernism, but who chose a discipline which ultimately embraced the decorative over the avant-garde.

Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious painting a mural at the 
Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1930)