|'No. 29 Bus' by Eric Ravilious (1934)|
Asked in later years for a biographical sketch, Ravilious noted his ‘tendency to paint in sequences (groups of broken down tractors and old cars and buses in fields, the discarded machinery of Essex)’. Here, an antique double-decker faces the sunlit, open countryside, as if about to drive away, yet it is only the shell or skeleton of a bus, standing not on wheels but on four barrels. With its tapering, top-heavy wooden body it could be an eccentric river boat, awaiting a rising tide. The number ‘29’ has been painted on a folded piece of canvas or cardboard and wedged behind the staircase, perhaps as an aid to identification for potential buyers.
This is probably a view looking away from the ‘repair yard for steam engines’ that Tirzah later recalled, where Ravilious also discovered the subjects for ‘Talbot-Darracq’ and ‘Tractor’. Engineer and blacksmith John Thomas Chapman began repairing steam engines and other agricultural machinery in 1870 at a yard on Bell Lane, [in Great Bardfield, Essex] and the business was still going in the 1930s; the bungalows of Durham Close now occupy the site.
Tirzah noted that some of the engines were in working order, ‘Though the bindweed was climbing over them and there was a hen’s nest in one. The door of the shed where they repaired wheels was splashed with a variety of paints and inside were some lovely red wheels.
‘Eric was very excited with the yard,’ she remarked, ‘And set to work drawing the engines and the car, afterwards tinting in watercolour his very careful drawings.’
But why is this bus here, in a country junkyard? It looks like a city vehicle, a double-decker with the distinctive curved stairway of the B-type London buses built by the London General Omnibus Company in Walthamstow before and during World War I. Hundreds of these vehicles were used as ambulances and troop transports on the Western Front, their bodywork painted khaki and windows replaced by wooden panels. After the war some returned to service in the capital, but were quickly replaced by newer models and dispatched to the provinces, until the passage of time caught up with them even in rural districts. Eventually it became quite common to see a B-type bus dismantled in this way, its cab and chassis perhaps put to use in haulage while the body waits to be transformed into a henhouse, shed or, possibly, somebody’s home.
Following the move to Castle Hedingham Ravilious soon found a new junkyard, where he made the wood engraving of ‘The Hansom Cab and the Pigeons’(1935): ‘An area wholly mud given up to every sort of junk, beds and bicycles and cartwheels with ducks and hens and black-faced enormous sheep to liven the scene…’
‘These brutes,’ he added, ‘Run about the place jumping pans and corrugated iron with a beautiful agility and a great deal of clatter.’
This is an extract from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', available to order now from The Mainstone Press. You can see B-type buses in slightly better condition at the Imperial War Museum - look out for Old Bill - and at the London Transport Museum.