'A Ravilious does not jump off the wall to greet you. But pause a moment to reflect - resist the impulse to rush from one picture to the next - and you may find the way you see the world, in all its everday glory, subtly and irrevocably changed.... James Russell
It was Mothering Sunday and the plan was to meet up with the Kayaker, now working in Bristol, and head to the Royal West of England Academy for the Eric Ravilious exhibition which had been pencilled in my diary as must see for weeks. On the way into the city, the Clifton Suspension Bridge against leaden skies always makes quite a sight.
The RWA is something to see in its own right too if only for the intriguing statue outside, and as we approached the main entrance we kept coming across these strange coins on the ground...
Except not ones you could exactly pick up and spit on for luck...
In fact you were more likely to trip over them if you didn't watch your step because they were scattered everywhere, old fashioned money and the significance was lost on me. Even when I saw this statue, it still didn't dawn...
Then, as we went up the staircase towards the main gallery suddenly the penny dropped..
En route to Eric Ravilious we meandered through the exhibition celebrating the Penguin books archive, so by the time we arrived at Eric, what with the coins and quick run through the book covers that seemed to span my life to date, I was nicely in tune for some quintessential English artwork.
Except to label Eric Ravilious 'quintessential' is somehow to diminish and categorize an artist whose work somehow defies all that in my mind, demanding to be seen and interpreted differently.
Entitled Going Modern / Being British the exhibition of paintings by Eric Ravilious (1903 - 42) was a revelation. The work of a once marginalised artist as he attempted to paint modernity, whilst retaining the essence of English life, and how wonderful it was to just sit and stare and 'be' in a room full of this.
Enough to make Bookhound snaffle my notebook and capture the moment as the Kayaker and I sat and stared...
Our visit was ably fortified by an infusion of coffee and cake first, and a read of an article by James Russell on Eric Ravilious in the RWA magazine. You may have seen James Russell's books, I know they are looking very temptingly at me in just about every bookshop I go in at the moment.
And if you too are stymied by the cost and like me have them on your Christmas list, then you could do no better than head to James Russell's blog here for a regular fix in the meantime.
I have also just finished reading The England of Eric Ravilious by Freda Constable and was struck by her observation that his working life was spent between the two world wars - Eliot's 'twenty years largely wasted', and at a time when the mood of the era contained both extremes of gaiety and its accompanying melancholy. And in retrospect I see too something I had noticed but not fully realised... the way that Eric Ravilious often pitches his paintings above ground and normal eye level, but not 'so divorced from it as to be flying over the landscape.'
As James Russell points out, Eric Ravilious was always looking for 'a good place' and I can see that his choices, often unshowy and ordinary, become something else at his hand. I hadn't realised quite what an impact the arrival of the car had made on the art world in particular either. Suddenly previously inaccessible locations, perhaps no train route nearby, became explorable and paintable, and topographical painting in watercolours became the fashion once again. With no need to follow a timetable the freedom of movement seems to have translated into a strangely contradictory sense of control but with freedom of expression too, and we all spent an age looking at each picture closely and several times over.
In many ways that freedom a victim of its own popularity perhaps, because the nations artists pretty soon had the country covered, thus finding new and even more unusual locations became essential. But Ravilious by all accounts was not a showy man, definitely one who ploughed his own furrow, refused to join groups or movements or really publicise himself, and though his subjects may have been timeless and old-fashioned, as James Russell elaborates, Eric Ravilious's approach most certainly was not.
Committed to the war effort as a war artist, and tragically a passenger on a plane lost without trace in 1942, Eric Ravilious's war paintings were fascinating. The distinctive style translated into something so time-relevant and of the moment when he painted them in those early years of the war, and capturing a unique essence of the conflict. Bookhound was that child of the 1950s whose bedroom ceiling was draped with airfix models of Lancasters and Spitfires, so he was as happy as larry in the war painting corner.
I can't remember if we saw this one, and I shall probably be hung, drawn and quartered for putting it here, but how could I not. We are returning to Orkney with the Tinker this summer and Scapa Flow will be on our list of places to visit, because how many times did the Tinker do this during the war too... so a little glimpse of what he may have seen for the rest of us as well.
Leaving Scapa Flow 44.4 x 57.2cms c. 1940. Bradford Art Galleries and Museums
Going Modern / Being British - Eric Ravilious is open at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol until April 29th 2012.