Saturday, 5 December 2009

Ravilious in Pictures: Excerpt


Eric Ravilious: Train Landscape (1939, Aberdeen Art Gallery)

In the previous painting we saw a train from the viewpoint of the Westbury Horse; here the perspective is reversed, with the chalk figure framed by the window of a railway compartment. We take on the role of passenger, alone in the corner seat, looking up to see the horse appear on the hillside, as it does when a train approaches Westbury station.

In this instance, though, the eye is quickly drawn back into the empty compartment, to the huge number on the door. Yellow, shaded black, this massive numeral tells us our place. We’re in third class, and the seat cushions, though exquisitely patterned with diamonds and stars, are starting to sag. These and the leather window strap, stretched out of shape by countless hands, tell us that this compartment is real and much used. Keep looking and more details appear, from the tab handles of the roller blinds to the patch of pale sunlight on the woodwork in the top left of the painting. The diagonally striped draught strips on either side of the door are both functional and decorative.

Is it significant that the compartment is third class? Ravilious worked easily alongside the printers at the Curwen Press and occasionally drew industrial workers and farm labourers, but he was equally comfortable among naval officers, or dining at the CafĂ© Royal. Rather than being an homage to the working man, the splendid ‘3’ probably reflects his own economical travelling habits.

Until his appointment as a war artist nobody minded how Ravilious travelled, but in November 1940 the War Artists Advisory Committee found itself with a dilemma. With some artists claiming for first class travel and others for third the WAAC stepped in; Ravilious, with a salary of £325 for six months’ work, should travel third. As an officer holding the King’s Commission, however, Captain Ravilious was not permitted to travel third class. ‘I think,’ wrote a committee member, ‘We must let him go First.’

Ravilious travelled constantly by train, and it is fitting that he added to the canon of railway art this inimitable work. Where Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ brilliantly conveys the violent drama of a transport revolution and Augustus Egg’s ‘Travelling Companions’ the intimate experience of travel, Ravilious focuses on the magical space of the railway compartment itself, a man-made environment in which every detail is designed.

But this story has a twist. Restorers working on ‘Train Landscape’ recently discovered that the Westbury Horse had been glued over something else, and closer examination revealed the Wilmington Giant hidden behind it. It seems that Ravilious made two paintings, both aboard trains on the Eastbourne to Hastings line, but was not happy with either. So his wife Tirzah took the best parts of each and skilfully cut and pasted them together.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by the Mainstone Press. The book features twenty-two of the artist's finest watercolours. There's an order form here.