Few British books are as well-loved as Gilbert White’s Natural History of
Selborne. As a teacher in the mid-1920s Ravilious had urged his students to
read it, and he was delighted by this commission. The title page probably shows
White and Thomas Pennant, otherwise the illustrations are all carefully rooted
in the text. Below we see a boy stealing a
honey-buzzard egg from ‘a tall slender beech’ and ‘considerable falls of snow,
which lay deep and uniform on the ground without any drifting, wrapping
up the more humble vegetation in perfect security’. The illustration above
accompanies the words, ‘A good ornithologist should be able to distinguish
birds by their air as well as by their colours and shape; on the ground as well as
on the wing, and in the bush as well as in the hand.’ It shows, particularly in the
barn owl depicted against the stars, how deeply Ravilious absorbed the vision
of his great forerunner, Thomas Bewick.
This is an edited extract from 'Ravilious: Wood Engravings', which will be published by The Mainstone Press at the beginning of November. The book will be launched on November 7th at Pallant House Gallery, where I will give an illustrated talk on Rav's fascinating career as a wood engraver...