|Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths, 1935 (private collection)|
Between the wars the Downs became synonymous with freedom. Then, as now, the chalk hills fascinated people whose homes lay in lowland towns and cities, and they came in increasing numbers by rail, or by car, or by Green Line Coach from London, to experience the wide skies and breezes. As early as 1903 Edward Thomas had written enticingly of the Sussex Downs in The South Country, describing his escape from London by train to ‘this pure kingdom of grass and sky’. To Thomas, the chalk paths were filled with mystery and promise.
‘The long white roads are a temptation’, he wrote. ‘What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.
Eric Ravilious once remarked that he never knew the date at Furlongs, and he was not alone in relishing the freedom of life there. Here he conveys the airy, open quality of the landscape, and the lure of the white road, although this vision of freedom seems circumscribed by the taut black barbed-wire fence that separates us from the path. We may be unwise to look for a meaning in this fence, but its presence adds to the painting a certain quality of unease.
Subjects like this seemed plentiful in the country around Furlongs, a landscape that fascinated and inspired Ravilious like no other. Experiencing it, he told Peggy Angus, changed his whole outlook and his way of painting, ‘I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious.’
He got up early, often at dawn, and set off carrying his drawing board in a large brown canvas satchel made for him by Tirzah. A tall figure, with a brown round-brimmed hat pulled firmly down on his head, he would stride off across the Downs, stopping to work either standing, at a light sketching easel, or else seated with the board across his knees. Returning to Furlongs at midday, he ate mutton or eggs for lunch and rested for a while before going back to work more on the painting he had begun earlier; he had an uncanny ability to retain his intense first impression of a subject, however the light or weather might change.
Often, pressure of time or vagaries in the weather meant Ravilious had to finish drawings in his caravan-studio - or even back in Essex - from notes pencilled onto the paper. But this seemed if anything to enhance his vision, in which a topographer’s eye was combined with an uncanny sense of the visual possibilities in a landscape. The creative power of memory allowed him to get beyond geographical details and, as he does here, capture the spirit of a place.
This is an extract from my book 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', which is published by The Mainstone Press.