Eric Ravilious stalked the edgelands. He would stake them out beforehand on his bike, plan his trip, often wake before dawn and take himself to where nobody else had cause to be, to the deserted yards of old Sussex buses, empty harbors, derelict boats, unmanned Brecon waterwheels, and he would sit there for hours. He would take his drawings back to his studio and again he would sit there for hours, working them into watercolour paintings, layering wash upon wash, stippling, hatching, scalpeling, applying himself to the paper. There is a silence to his work. A stillness that is almost surreal.
In his excellent catalogue notes to the new Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition of Ravilious watercolours, James Russell describes his subject’s work as “depictions not only of a place, but of a place in which something is about to happen, or has just occurred.” We see rooms without their lodgers, fields whose farming equipment lies deserted, an enormous ships propeller waiting to be hauled away to sea. But this is not Ruin and Rust, the introspective human tragedy of entropy – what Ravilious gives us is something altogether more harrowing. These are the scenes without human endeavour as their fulcrum, the world that exists with or without us.
The signature of man is everywhere in Ravilious’ work, architecture, engineering, cartography, yet humans themselves are so rarely seen. When they are, they are stripped of their characteristics, their idiosyncrasies, and become instead elements of the landscape, as faceless as the geese in Ravilious’ Brecon scene. The one painting in the whole exhibition to have figures central to its scene is from a rooftop window, looking over streets filled with fireworks. November 5th (1933) looks from above its neighbour’s terraced gardens, watching a pagan revelry unfold, as young men tear up the streets, pretty girls lay fronds on the bonfire, and a group of animal-headed dancers ceilidh to a guitar, played from the top of the garden wall. A Catherine wheel whirls above these pagans like a Van Gogh sun, and the sky flashes with exploding missiles. But for all its action and chaos, it is a quiet scene and strangely still. And when we look closer, we see that all the figures are rendered entirely in light and shade; they are ghosts as ephemeral as the explosions of light in the sky – they will dazzle and fade. This is transience expressed through translucence.
And as Ravilious was reaching his maturity as an artist, so the world was preparing for war, the war that would ultimately lead him to his arctic masterpieces, and shortly after, his death. When we see the empty streets, empty fields, long deserted paths, there is a pang for a country left behind by its populace. In 1938, when he paints a character walking down a country lane, it is homely and pastoral, gentle and idyllic. But with the date in the corner, (Hitler’s Anschluss has already taken place in Vienna, the new Reich has been created, Europe is tense with the anticipation of catastrophe) there is a sense that there may not be too many more opportunities for such a carefree existence, that once the figure has turned the corner, and it is 1939, the road will be empty.
When you sit down to sketch, time passes before you. Dog-walkers come and go, planes drone overhead, the tractor in a distant field completes its work, drives through the gate and disappears. Squirrels might scuffle three feet before you, deer might pass, you have been sat there so long that you are no longer simply observing the landscape, you are embedded within it. When Ravilious paints one of his most famous works, Train Landscape (1939) in which we glimpse a chalk horse carved into the Wiltshire hills, he is showing us where he sits, where he watches time pass. His picture is a window to a perspective from where time passes on a much grander, gentler scale. This is the prism of Ravilious, this is the world he sees and wants to share with us: that of the land itself.
He is drawn the to hills, to the sea, to the mountain, to places where the comings and goings of man are incidents on the fringe of a wider picture. His scenes of the Scottish coast show the waves and the rocks unaffected by the lines of silhouetted warships on the horizon. His second view of the Westbury horse, this time from an adjoining hill, shows time, linear again, chuffing past in the form of a steam train. The horse, itself a symbol of motion, stays still as the hill it is inscribed upon, a much more solid notion of time.
Time passing, time spent, time in an instant, time forever. The enduring success of Eric Ravilious’ art is his ability to fix various passages of time onto single sheets of cartridge paper. The success of this exhibition it its refusal to display his work in a linear form. We are given his works thematically, and not chronologically, which allows us to assess not the artist’s development over time, but his obsession with it.
It is when the exhibition takes us inside, to Ravilious’ interiors, that we start to think of the passage of time in its more personal context. No longer with the land, we are presented with empty beds, empty rooms, empty chairs. RNAS Sick Bay (1941) shows us an empty bed and empty chair, and through the windows, the seaplanes taking off on a mission to fill them. The Operations Room (1942) is empty, with a door open to the airfield outside. A vast map is left on the table, the ‘’best laid plans of mice and men” and there is even an arrow pointing to the skies to emphasise where they are bound. The question as to whether they will return, like the door, remains open.
Ravilious referred to his watercolours as drawings. He rarely planned his pictures on separate sketchpads, preferring to draw and paint directly onto the original. The paper that was outside with him at dawn was the one he was still working on weeks later. As such, his drawings are themselves records of time passing. He layers his paint with light strokes, brushing nearly dry colour over the textured paper, so that it leaves a charcoal, mottled trail, with the tones beneath visible. The incremental effect, and the patience it required, came no doubt from his early success as a woodcutter, where he would spend hours with homemade scorpers, cutting into the boxwood a variety of marks that came together to form a buzzing texture. Each painting is an accumulation of these strokes and stipples, the intense concentration of process, time drawn out on paper. As such, they operate as mandalas of the meditative process of drawing, strokes of time and brush that resonate with their subject matter: they hold your gaze, they store his.
The final room gives us the edgeland artist again, this time pushed further from the hub of home than ever before. He is in the frozen North, watching ships burn and sink into the icy waters. Planes overhead, ship convoys on the horizon, the mountains in the distance, oblivious to personal tragedy of the vessels. And with Midnight Sun (1940) he give us an eerie scene that encapsulates the exhibition: a sun that blazes through the night, a world whose magic exists whether we are there to see it or not.