Seventy-five years ago, in the middle of the war while serving as an official war artist, the painter Eric Ravilious died accompanying an RAF recovery mission that was looking for two seaplanes that had gone missing off Iceland. His own plane never returned and no traces of it were ever found. At the time of his death Ravilious had just established himself as the most innovative watercolourist then at work and an artist with a distinctive and uncommonly broad range of talents.
He produced not only paintings that brought a dry brush and a modernist sense of form to the rural scenes they depicted but also woodcuts, typography, ceramics, murals, book illustrations and furniture designs. Over the past 20 years or so, Ravilious’s role in both the fine and the applied arts of the mid-century has come to be widely recognised and, alongside his friend and colleague Edward Bawden, he is lauded as the man who captured a quintessential — and now lost — sense of Englishness.
What hasn’t been widely recognised, however, is that Ravilious was at the heart of a group of talented friends who amount to a hitherto unrecognised school. As well as Ravilious and the gifted Bawden, the circle includes, among others, the designer Enid Marx (best known for her fabric designs used for decades for the seating on Tube trains), the painter Percy Horton, the lithographer Barnett Freedman, and the designer-illustrators Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious’s wife) and Helen Binyon (his mistress).
The friends met in 1924 at the Royal College of Art where they were mentored by two influential figures, William Rothenstein — the portraitist father of John, the Tate’s longest serving-director before Nicholas Serota — and the distinguished war artist Paul Nash. Both men recognised what Nash was to call “an outbreak of talent”. Of course, some were more talented than others, something Marx clearly understood: “I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so and very often many become known as entities, but only the Rembrandts or the Bewicks or the tops remain as identifiable. The lesser pebbles become sand.”
Those lesser pebbles are now receiving due recognition at a ground-breaking exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Ravilious’s home town of Eastbourne. Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship is the first concerted show to look at the 1924 cohort as a group and while the individuals didn’t always work together (although Ravilious would go on regular painting trips with John Nash and Bawden) they did encourage, advise and support one another — and sometimes sleep with one another too — so that the work they produced in their various fields has a communal style.
“The Boy—Eric Ravilious in his studio at Redcliffe Road” by Edward Bawden, c.1929 (©Estate of Edward Bawden)
The exhibition has more than 400 items, from painting and prints to wallpapers and ceramics. Indeed, the applied arts were vital to the group, not just as a worthy if neglected branch of the arts but as a means to making money. None of the group came from wealthy backgrounds: quite the opposite — Ravilious, for example, was the son of a bankrupt while Freedman’s East End Jewish family was too poor to send him to school. Painting was a precarious way of earning a living so commercial design offered a more reliable income stream.
Freedman and Bawden found regular work with large companies and corporations, producing advertising designs for the likes of the BBC, London Transport, Shell, and Fortnum & Mason (Freedman also designed the 1935 Silver Jubilee postage stamp); Ravilious created a series of decorative designs for Wedgwood to go on pieces originally designed by Josiah Wedgwood; Binyon and Garwood produced book illustrations. The group was instrumental in leading a renaissance in “artists’ books” — high-quality editions for small presses such as the Curwen Press and the Golden Cockerel Press — as well as more popular editions for the likes of Faber & Faber.
All this material could seem safely nostalgic: after all, Ravilious specialised in the woodcut, that most ancient medium, but the group brought to their work a modernist aesthetic — formal patterns, a limited palette, a underlying structure — that made their productions obviously contemporary even when they harked back to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. If the Bloomsbury group, their Sussex neighbours, trumpeted continental modernism the Ravilious circle found a way to ally it to native traditions. One of the group, Douglas Percy Bliss, said of Ravilious that “the woodenly serious was not his province” and the same was true of the rest of his circle too. Bliss put his finger on another characteristic element when he noted that Ravilious “never sits down to draw the view that ninety-nine out of a hundred watercolourists cannot resist”.
The exhibition’s cut-off point is Ravilious’s death in 1942. The other friends all survived the war and carried on working prolifically, Freedman dying in 1958, Bawden not until 1989. The mark that they had made in the 1920s and 1930s was indelible. Although the watercolours of Ravilious and Bawden have come to take their place among the high points of British 20th-century art this show suggests that the real achievement of the group was, as Osbert Lancaster said, to bring back “into the popular art of this country a robustness, a wit and a sense of style that, many thought, had vanished in the fifties of the last century”.
Left: “Seated Figure” by Henry Moore, 1921 (© The Henry Moore Foundation 2017); right: “Three-Quarter Figure”, 1928, by Henry Moore (photo by Michel Muller, © The Henry Moore Foundation 2017)
An older contemporary of the Ravilious circle at the RCA was Henry Moore, who, having served as the youngest soldier in the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles during the war and having been gassed, won a sculpture scholarship there in 1921. Moore and Ravilious were both RCA Travelling Scholars in Florence in 1925. This trip introduced Moore to early Italian wall-painting and sculpture, a revelation that went on to influence his development.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Henry Moore Foundation, an exhibition charting Moore’s genesis as an artist, Becoming Henry Moore, is being presented at both the foundation’s venues, in Leeds and at his house at Perry Green in Hertfordshire. They cover the period 1914 to 1930 and show how, from schoolboy to art student to fully-fledged artist, Moore developed his own style from looking at older Western art, at African, Aztec and Cycladic art, and at the work of his contemporaries at home and abroad.
The period saw both a rejection of the Renaissance tradition and his adoption of direct carving which eschewed a silky finish and gave precedence to randomness and the marks of the carver’s chisel. Moore was particularly interested in the primitivism evidenced by the work of foreign contemporaries such as Jacob Epstein, Constantin Brancusi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Picasso.
Moore’s first public commission mirrored the trajectory of the Ravilious group, when in 1928-29 he carved West Wind, a relief for the walls of London Underground’s headquarters at St James’s Park Tube station. It was a rare brush with commerce, however, and thereafter his work took a different direction, towards Surrealism and monumentality and the sort of international renown Ravilious and Co never managed to win. This intriguing exhibition, the faltering and then increasingly secure steps of a major artist in the making, leaves Moore on the brink.