On September 2, 1942, a plane on a search and rescue mission off the coast of Iceland crashed into the sea, killing the pilot and the 39-year-old passenger. The passenger was Eric Ravilious, whose last letter to his wife three days earlier had exalted the deep shadows and leaf-like cracks of the subarctic landscape. He was one of 300 artists hired by the War Artists Advisory Committee to cover World War II and the first to die on active duty.
Back home to their dank Essex farm, where she had been abandoned with their three small children, his wife, Tirzah Garwood, was struggling: she had recently been operated on for breast cancer that would kill her nine years later. The pressures of illness and her home life paid off for his successful career as an artist. But every night, after putting her children to bed, she sat down to write her autobiography of her.
It was addressed directly to his future readers: “I hope you are a descendant of mine,” he wrote, “but I have only three children, and as I write a German airplane has circled around my head photographing the damage done by the raiders of yesterday. , reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival “.
Ravilious’s reputation as an artist of any value has not survived at all. By the time of his death, a large mural, at Morley College in Waterloo, had been brought to oblivion, some of his war paintings had been censored, and dozens more sunk in the sea on their way to an art exhibit. of propaganda in South America. For more than 30 years, most of his surviving works have been forgotten under a bed in a home he and Garwood had once shared with artist Edward Bawden, leaving only the mass-produced legacy of commissioned playful alphabetic mugs. from Wedgwood and a woodcut of top hat players who have graced the cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack for years.
But a new film, Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War, sets the record straight, drawing on an impressive array of backers – from Grayson Perry to Alan Bennett – to defend him as one of the great British artists, whose recordings broke new technical while his watercolors carried Turner’s tradition into the 20th century. The film is a passion project for its author and director, Margy Kinmonth, who began studying it 15 years ago, but was repeatedly rejected by backers who insisted that no one had ever heard of Ravilious.
Kinmonth’s previous film was a 2017 documentary about the artists of the Russian Revolution, but when the pandemic hit, she realized she should have put her eyes closer to home, so she went back to snippets of interviews she had previously recorded with the surviving members of the Creepy Family. “They call art the tumbleweed of television”, she laughs, “but luckily cinema and art go very well together.”
His tenacity paid off. A circle of “friends” stepped in to help with finances, and more than 70 cinemas have already signed up to screen a film, which is both a full account of a passionate but unconventional marriage and a persuasive curatorial tour around a work. whose silent surfaces are never quite what they seem.
Nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who featured Ravilious in his bestselling book The Old Ways, points to how the artist would frame the bucolic watercolors of southern England’s rolling countryside with ropes of barbed wire. “I think Ravilous is an example of the fatal Englishman, along with mountaineer George Mallory and poet Edward Thomas: they didn’t have to go to war or climb Everest, and they all died at 30 living the life they dreamed of as children. It is this old, fatal love for the landscape ”. The result, says Macfarlane, is that “both Thomas and Ravilious are considered rural quaint when in fact they are not: they are modernists.”
A Wiltshire landscape, which is one of the artist’s most famous works, shows a cheeky red van approaching the intersection of a road that juts out into a disturbing future (it was created for Artists Against Fascism). A domestic scene of a deserted outdoor tea table under an umbrella is titled Tea at Furlongs but could be called Munich 1938, Alan Bennett reflects in the film, citing WH Auden’s pre-war poem The Witnesses: “Something Will Fall Like Rain / And they won’t be flowers. Most surprisingly, a letter to Garwood describing his shock at seeing a young aviator drowning during a military exercise is juxtaposed in the film to a painting of biplanes seen through a window swaying benignly over the sea.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei admits he knew nothing about Ravilious until Kinmonth approached him for his History of Bombs installation at the Imperial War Museum. “I was curious about how a war artist worked, so I accepted the invitation to participate in the project,” he says. He was amazed by what he discovered. “His expression of him is very calm and he has such an innocent and almost naive style of painting. I was deeply impressed by the authenticity, attention to detail and humanitarianism expressed in his works on war. He is able to observe and express in an extraordinary way. Although many of his works are watercolors that seem like an understatement, they are deep, rigorous and meticulous. I think Ravilious is one of the best artists in the UK. “
The film begins and ends with the doomed plane bleating a May Day signal that was never heard, before returning to Ravilious’s childhood in the Sussex countryside, where he enjoyed drawing common objects: a brush and a bucket, his father’s collar and tie, while as well as planes flying over the chalk hills. He went on to get a scholarship to the Royal College of Art and was teaching at the Eastbourne School of Art when he met Garwood, the daughter of a colonel who was studying woodcut, and whose parents were snobbishly opposed to their relationship.
The story is semi-dramatized, tasked with voicing Garwood falling in favor of Tamsin Greig, whom Kinmonth approached after seeing her in a play at the Hampstead Theater. Greig was also unfamiliar with Ravilious’s work. “The reason I was drawn to the film is because it is actually a love story between two human beings who share a similar passion, but there is a cost in the collaboration of two artists, which someone has to bear,” she says. . “They are trying to hold together the wild nature of creativity, but they also live within the constraints of social systems.”
In her autobiography, Long Live the Great Bardfield, Garwood is open about the impact on her of two affairs that Eric publicly pursued, starting while she was pregnant with the first of their three children. Her story is painful but never self-pitying. “I like that combination of deep feelings that’s written on a very thin skin,” says Greig. “I find Margy’s narrative very tender and elegiac.”
Part of the story is told by Ravilious and Garwood’s daughter Anne who was a baby in her arms when her father was killed (in her autobiography, Garwood recalled the effort of trying to lift her up to wave goodbye) and just 10 years when her mother also died. As Kinmonth points out, the film wouldn’t have been so layered at all had it not made available the couple’s personal correspondence and all the letters between her father and her two lovers, which she inherited after their deaths.
Despite all the turbulence and injustice of their relationship, there is a balance between Ravilious and Garwood as artists that is made clear in two of their paintings. Both were of third-class rail cars traveling through the countryside. But while Ravilious’s watercolor carriage is empty, giving center stage to the white horse carved into the hill beyond, Garwood’s woodcut is crammed with passengers.
Touchingly, it is up to the couple’s granddaughter, Ella Ravilious, now curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to read Garwood’s passage aloud leaving his book to posterity, if he survived. “If you are not a descendant of mine”, the passage continues, out of the film, “then all I ask of you is to love the country as I do, and when you enter a room, discreetly observe its images and furniture and sympathize with painters and artisans “. This may be the story of a great man, but it is a story told by women.