|Eric Ravilious, Belle Tout Lighthouse, 1939, private collection (DACS/artist's estate)|
Belle Tout Lighthouse, 1939
We may notice the view first, those green grassy clifftops and the sea sparkling below, but almost immediately our attention is drawn back to the window itself, with its bold white bars alternately lit or cast into shadow by the bright sunlight. Above it the ceiling seems to be curved like a dome and beautifully decorated: a most unusual ceiling for a most unusual room. Having painted several watercolours of lighthouses, Ravilious had now found one he could sketch from the inside.
As a boy growing up in nearby Eastbourne, Ravilious no doubt visited Beachy Head and its lighthouses, Belle Tout perched on top of the cliffs and its replacement in the sea below; you can see it in the upper left of the painting. When he was born the newer lighthouse had only been operating for a year and its construction, in perilous conditions and in full public view, was the stuff of legend. Belle Tout, meanwhile, became a private house and was eventually bought, in 1923, by Sir James Purves-Stewart, an eminent neurologist.
Sir James was not averse to visitors, and once played host to George V. The king, he wrote in his autobiography The Sands of Time, ‘took a keen sailor's interest in the various gadgets that had been fitted up. When we came to the foot of the spiral staircase leading to the lantern room, Queen Mary was already aloft, enjoying the stunning view. She called down to him, “George, don't come up here, it's far too steep for you.” To which his majesty replied, “Dammit, I'm coming.”’
One can imagine the eminent doctor - or his wife, perhaps - noticing Ravilious sitting with his sketchbook on the clifftop and inviting him in. The artist had spent many hours already on the cliffs in the howling wind, producing the splendid night scene included in Sussex and the Downs, and was delighted to find himself inside the lantern, ‘in the greatest comfort with my jacket off’.
Not that living in a lighthouse was without its dangers. Sir James had been warned early on that erosion of the soft chalk cliffs would one day imperil his new home, but a respected geologist opined that the building would be safe for six centuries. This proved optimistic, and by the mid-1990s a series of major rock falls had brought Belle Tout almost to the edge of the precipice. Rather than despair, however, owners Mark and Louise Roberts sought expert advice and learned that the lighthouse could be raised by hydraulic jacks, lowered onto skates and thus moved to safety. Preparations began, only to be halted by the discovery of two unexploded bombs on the beach, but in March 1999 the extraordinary move began. Today you can see the view from the lantern yourself; following a change of ownership Belle Tout Lighthouse opened as a hotel in March 2010, and the former lantern has become a sitting room – with a view.
This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which is available now from The Mainstone Press.
The book will be launched officially on Saturday 10th March, 12-2pm, at The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol