Master of the Glories of the English Country Garden

At the end of a farmhouse garden, a scrubbed table is set for two. Mismatched chairs have been dragged onto the grass. Tea is warming in the pot and a pat of soft butter is waiting to be spread onto rolls with bone-handled knives. There are milk and sugar for those who want them. And this being an English summer, there is also an umbrella on a tall stand. It won’t do the picnickers much good, but if it does rain, the rolls at least will stay dry.

Eric Ravilious, the painter of this scene, was rarely happier than with rain running down the back of his neck as he sat beneath a dripping tree in a mizzling landscape.

He preferred the bleached greys of a Welsh January to the brashness of a sunny day in June. In winter he was out with his watercolours as soon as it was light, wearing two waistcoats and two greatcoats to keep warm. Some mornings he would sit on the roof of the house with a drawing board balanced on his knees and only come down when the smell of kippers frying for breakfast became irresistible. On the coldest days, according to his wife Tirzah, whom he had met when she was his student at Eastbourne College of Art, the thin paint would freeze to his brush.

Tea at Furlongs, painted late in the summer of 1939, has a damp feel. The grass is sodden. The table and chairs look as though they have been hastily borrowed from the kitchen to make the most of a half-hour of sunshine between showers. It is a quintessentially English scene: afternoon tea on the lawn, a Sussex flintstone wall, fields enclosed by hedgerows, impending rain.

These were Ravilious’s subjects. Tennis in white flannels. Chalk figures on the Downs. Cucumbers growing under glass. Strawberry netting. Dovecotes and gazebos. Railway sidings. Lemonade pitchers. Hansom cabs. Punch and Judy. The lion and the unicorn. The Boat Race. Iron bedsteads and Welsh quilts. Cow parsley. Puddles on tarmac. Soggy seaside holidays.

His favourite writer was P.G. Wodehouse and he was uncommonly fond of tea. This particularly British vision made him hugely popular in his own lifetime.

Born in London in 1903, Ravilious was brought up in Eastbourne where his father ran an antiques shop. He studied at the Eastbourne School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. He began his career as a mural painter decorating tearooms with pink curtains in seaside resorts like Colwyn Bay and at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe — somewhere for doughty grandmothers to shelter with a slice of Battenberg cake when the breakers were lashing the pier.

He illustrated an edition of Shakespeare and pamphlets of walking routes in the Home Counties. Country Life commissioned him for their calendar and asked him to illustrate a children’s book about the British high street with pictures of butchers, bakers and diving-suit makers.

He was so much an ambassador for Britain that he was chosen to design the catalogue covers for the British pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1937 and at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. For many years he was the artist of choice for the Wisden cricket annual.

To mark the coronations of Edward VIII and, after the abdication crisis, of George VI, Wedgwood asked him to design commemorative mugs. Wallis Simpson was the first customer to buy one of the blue, white and yellow Edward mugs from the London stockists.

After a stint living in gravy-coloured bedsits in Kensington as an art student and later in Hammersmith when newly married, Ravilious rented a series of farmhouses on the Sussex Downs and in Essex and Capel-y-ffin in Wales. These landscapes, particularly the Downs, inspired many of his watercolours. The ancient figures of the Wilmington Giant and the White Horse chalked into the Downs appear in several sketches and in Train Landscape (1939) he painted the Westbury Horse from inside an old-fashioned train carriage as it rattled through the hills.

“Train Landscape” (1939)

He delighted in roads lined with tautly strung telephone lines beneath lowering skies, and in outhouses, barns, lean-to sheds and the backs of cottage gardens. In one watercolour painted at Furlongs Farm, the setting for the tea-table scene, three sunflowers in the foreground are on the verge of toppling over in the sleepy heat of late August.

He found beauty in order as well as the ramshackle. Having met a nurseryman with immaculately maintained greenhouses, Ravilious painted a series of watercolours of neat rows of cyclamen planted in terracotta pots, ripening tomatoes and skinny-stemmed geraniums bursting into bloom.

One of the most reproduced of these Sussex paintings of the late 1930s is Wet Afternoon. Thin streaks of rain fleck the countryside as a man in a waxed jacket and hat walks down a narrow country lane in the direction, we hope, of a cup of tea.

“Wet Afternoon” (1939)

In Essex he painted sleepy deckchair afternoons under shady trees and strawberry beds covered by netting to keep the birds off. Here he played cricket — though with rather more enthusiasm for the refreshments than the game: “It was a holiday playing cricket   yesterday, only the game went on a bit too long for my liking and I began to get a little absent-minded in the deep field after tea . . . It all felt just like being back at school, especially the trestle tea with slabs of bread and butter, and that wicked-looking cheap cake.”

He rarely went abroad if he could avoid it. Awarded a travel scholarship to Florence by the RCA in 1924, he went under sufferance. Instead of copying Giottos and Masaccios, he took long walks along the river Arno into the countryside. Later, he would go to France to sketch the port at Le Havre.

At the beginning of the war, he was recruited by Kenneth Clark to the War Artists’ Scheme, and in this new official capacity he painted coastal defences at Newhaven in East Sussex, a loft of carrier-pigeons and an outpost in which sentries dried their boots and made their cups of char.

When he was sent on active service to Norway in 1942, the trip ended in tragedy. His small seaplane went missing off the coast of Iceland on a reconnaissance mission and was never recovered. It was all too common for the planes’ propellers to ice up and judder to a deathly halt.

In the years immediately after his death, the London galleries mounted retrospective exhibitions. Wedgwood continued to produce his Persephone dinner service and reissued his coronation mug in new colours for Elizabeth II in 1953. The tragedy of his death — a bright star lost over the icy wastes — appealed to journalists and art critics. But by the Sixties, the muted, modest subtlety of Ravilious’s work had begun to look dated to modern eyes.

His was an England of Joan Hunter Dunns, Lyons tea shops, hospital corners, unspoilt countryside, damp Bank Holidays and high streets where the ironmonger knew your name. Ravilious’s England was disappearing and his art had come to be seen as parochial, dated, even twee.

This was the age of Bridget Riley’s hallucinogenic Op-Art paintings, David Hockney’s Los Angeles pools and Peter Blake’s Dayglo Sergeant Pepper collage. Ravilious entered a period in the wilderness. His work remained popular with insiders — an exhibition of his submarine lithographs produced during the war sold out at the Royal Arts Society in 1979 — but he dropped from popular notice.

The author A.N. Wilson, whose father Norman Wilson was managing director of Wedgwood and commissioned Ravilious’s first designs for the firm, suggests that the soft, rainy-day greys, blues and greens of the artist weren’t in tune with the Sixties love of bright colours. Nor did his subject matter chime with the new age: “Elegy for lost Britain wasn’t very fashionable in the Sixties and Seventies.”

Nor indeed in the Eighties and Nineties. Though galleries including the Tate have fine collections of his watercolours, there was a wariness about exhibiting them as they are so vulnerable to light. And because he died young, Ravilious’s body of work remained small. Galleries have to work hard to assemble exhibitions of any size. The murals he painted in the early 1930s were destroyed by bombing during the war or by damp.

The final insult came when Wisden demoted Ravilious’s woodcut of two top-hatted gents at the wicket from its main front cover image after 76 years. The editor Tim de Lisle was damning: “It has an undeniable magic, a charm and character all its own, but it is fusty, repetitive and predictable, it arouses no curiosity and has no news value . . . It is half-icon, half-millstone, and with every year that goes by, the balance tips a little further towards the negative.” Ravilious’s woodcut was replaced with a colour photograph of England captain Michael Vaughan. The Times called it an act of “treachery”.

In the last ten years, however, an admirable group of champions have sought to resurrect Ravilious. It began with an exhibition of his work at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The exhibition was curated by Alan Powers, who has since written three books on the artist. The superlative Eric Ravilious: Artist and Designer (Lund Humpries, £35) was published last year. Powers suspects that the renewal in interest in Ravilious is “a lot about nostalgia”.

He adds: “Not the nostalgia evoked by warm beer, it is better compared to sweet but astringent lemonade — served perhaps from the Lemonade Set he designed for Wedgwood, after tennis on a Thirties afternoon.”

The other great standard-bearer for Ravilious has been Tim Mainstone, whose small independent publishing house The Mainstone Press has published seven books on the artist, with accompanying essays by the historian James Russell, including a facsimile of Country Life‘s “High Street”, amounting almost to a complete survey of his works.

Prices for his work defy expectations. One of Ravilious’s George VI coronation mugs was sold by Duke’s Auctioneers in Dorchester this year for the astonishing price of £1,220, more than double the £500 estimate and a remarkable sum for a mass-produced souvenir. Last December I received two birthday cards and three Christmas cards all with Ravilious woodcut illustrations. The Tate has seen a surge in sales of cards by Ravilious and Edward Bawden, his friend and RCA contemporary, in the last two years.

A.N. Wilson believes that his appeal lies in an “extraordinary combination of old-fashion English elegist with a completely modern artist, painting airplanes and warships as well as white horses on the side of hills”.

In the artist’s final days, flying planes off the coast of Norway, he continued to find inspiration from the landscape and the biting, wet conditions. From an RAF outpost in Iceland he wrote a letter to his wife. It arrived a week after his plane went missing. “It is jolly cold here, and windy and rainy too, like January, after the hot sun in Scotland: no place for you at all, though you would like the country, especially the flowers and the seals . . . We flew over that mountain country that looks like craters on the moon and it looked just like those photographs the M. of Information gave me, with shadows very dark and shaped like leaves.”

He sent his love to their three children and reassured her that he was eating well. It had rained earlier, and there was, he complained, no tea to be had anywhere — an Englishman to the very end.

“Observation Post” (1939)

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