The Quiet Sketcher

The long-overdue Ravilious revival

It is cheering to be right; it happens so rarely. A year ago, I wrote in this magazine that the artist Eric Ravilious was due — was long overdue — a revival. After decades of being thought unfashionable, a bit Little England, a bit twee and tea-for-two-and-two-for-tea, he was ready for a second outing in the Sussex sun.

And so it has proved. A thoughtful retrospective of his work has opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and a second exhibition, From Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry, is at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden.

The narrow exhibition rooms at Dulwich, arranged in train-carriage sequence, are just right for Ravilious. One of his most famous watercolours, exhibited here, is of the view from inside a plushly upholstered railway carriage as it rattles across the South Downs. It is pleasing, too, to stand in the first room and look down the long corridor of galleries and think of the exaggerated perspective of Ravilious’s greenhouse paintings of the 1930s. It was the greenhouses I had particularly come to see. Last year, breaking the rule of never reading online comments, I was delighted to find beneath my piece on the Standpoint website a note from Christine Platford, a researcher and writer from Herefordshire.

“The greenhouses with cucumbers & cyclamen belonged to my Dad, Bill Webber, a nurseryman tenant of the Firle estate in East Sussex,” she wrote. “The details of that greenhouse interior are exactly as I remember them.”

She continued: “As well as enjoying conversations with Ravilious, he regularly took orders of hothouse fruit and tomatoes to Charleston Manor [home of Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell and Duncan Grant, and meeting place for other members of the Bloomsbury Set], & subsequently campaigned with Quentin Bell [Vanessa’s son] on his quixotic attempt to become a Labour MP in East Sussex in the 1945 general election.” Curiosity piqued, I arranged to speak to Christine. Her father had told her about his visits from Ravilious. “Oh yes, that’s the man who came to draw our greenhouses at Firle.”

The artist — who would later fly in RAF Tiger Moths as an official war artist — had been fascinated by the mechanics of the greenhouses: the perforated heating grills on the floor, the panelled doors that could be opened or closed for temperature control, the technique for operating the windows in the roof.

“He used to turn up, be very quiet, sit sketching, but keep out of everyone’s way,” Christine’s father had told her. “He was a sympathetic presence.”

Many of Ravilious’s compositions have a curious, deserted character — a feeling that someone may only just have left, abandoning a cup of tea, a table of maps or a bed neatly made-up with a patterned quilt. Stand in front of the two watercolours at Dulwich — Cyclamen and Tomatoes and Geraniums and Carnations — and you can imagine Bill Webber, having just left by the greenhouse door, trying not to clatter his wheelbarrow and watering can or disturb his intently sketching visitor.

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