Eric Ravilious: the scale of the land

Eric Ravilious. Chalk Downs, 1940. watercolour. 23 x 14 in. (56 x 47 cm)Eric Ravilious was a British war artist who died in 1944 when the RAF reconnaissance plane he was on disappeared off Iceland.  He did a number of things before the war: murals, woodcuts, graphic design, drawing and painting in the pale, flat sketchy way that a number of artists who had studied at the Slade used in the 1930s and 40s.  Supreme draughtsmanship, coupled in Ravilious's case with a deep love of the Sussex landscape which was at the time under threat from development, informs the painting above. 

It is small, and the brushmarks are those of a watercolour brush, used quite dry, and in places stippled.  It was a way of working that was fast and portable.  For Ravilious, nature is not wilderness, it is the impacted landscape of earth worked for millennia under many belief systems for agricultural use.  The fence line is important: it delineates territory, the road cuts the growing surface of the land the same way as the huge chalk hill carvings such as the Westbury horse, or the Cerne Abbas giant.

The chalk drawings are neolithic, perhaps druidic.  They are made by removing the thin layer of turf to reveal the limestone below.  They will disappear if not kept clear, which they have been for 3000 years.  It is this immense continuity that Ravilious sees in his landscapes, combined with the modernity of the age in which he lived.  A steam train chugs across the plain beneath the Westbury horse.

The Imperial War Museum held a centenary Ravilious (1903-1944) exhibition in 2004.  A most beautiful book was published to accompany it: Imperial War Museum. Eric Ravilious. Imagined Realities. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.  Their website gives an overview.

Eric Ravilious. The Westbury Horse, 1939. © Estate of Eric Ravilious 2004