Friday, 9 July 2010

Familiar Visions: Eric Ravilious & the Sussex Downs

Last weekend I was in Eastbourne, where I attended the opening of 'Familiar Visions' and gave a talk on Eric Ravilious and the Sussex Downs. The show, of watercolours and woodcuts by Eric Ravilious and photographs by his son James, is beautiful. In part it's a celebration of two fascinating areas of England - Downland Sussex and North Devon - and in part an opportunity to view the work of two related artists. James photographed people, whereas Eric tended to leave them out of his paintings. Both, however, share a feeling for light.

Robin Ravilious gave a wonderful, personal talk; she is James's widow and the only person who fully understands the vast archive he left us, and she presented us with a loving, but not sentimental portrait of her late husband.

I talked about Eric's paintings in relation to the places and people he knew. For people who couldn't be there, or would like a reminder, I'm going to post highlights of the talk in a series of posts, with pictures. So here goes...

Though a Londoner by birth Eric Ravilious moved to Eastbourne as a boy, and the hills and valleys of the Downs inspired him tremendously.

He painted this watercolour of Firle Beacon in 1927, a couple of years after graduating from the Royal College of Art. He was looking to the west and outward, from the countryside he knew intimately to a landscape that was less familiar. A strange, archaic land still ruled by two ancient Estates. Below the Beacon, the village of West Firle was – and is - the domain of the Gage family, owners of the Firle Estate, while the land to the north belonged to the 800 year-old Glynde Estate.

The young Ravilious taught part-time at the Art School here in Eastbourne and liked to take his students by bus or bike to Alfriston, Wilmington and other villages nearby. Although becoming known primarily as a wood engraver he professed to students his ambition of reviving the English watercolour tradition, and you can see his vision beginning to form in this painting. The fence, with its missing slats, shows the clarity of his gaze.

But it would be a while before Ravilious entered this country. In 1930 he married his best student, Eastbourne native Tirzah Garwood, and the couple moved away, to London and then Essex. Then, in 1934, Ravilious met an old friend from the RCA, Peggy Angus; she came to stay at Great Bardfield with the Raviliouses and Bawdens, and invited them, in return, to her cottage on the Downs, just to the west of Firle.

I say, her cottage. In fact Furlongs belonged to the Glynde Estate – as it still does - and had been let to a tenant farmer, Dick Freeman. Peggy found the place during an eccentric househunting expedition in which she walked along the ridge of the Downs, descending to explore each house she passed.

The cottage was empty, the door locked and enmeshed in ivy. Peggy asked Mr Freeman to sublet it to her, but he refused, so she set up camp nearby and painted under an umbrella until he relented. She was not a woman who gave in easily. A patriotic Scot and a Communist to boot, she was not afraid to upset those of more conservative leanings like Tirzah’s father, a retired Colonel - he nicknamed her the Red Angus.

But she and Dick Freeman became friends, and to numerous fellow artists, students and guests, Peggy was an inspiring teacher and an entertaining host – a singer of folk songs and maker of elderflower champagne. For Ravilious, coming to Furlongs proved life changing. It was here that he fell in love with Helen Binyon, and it was here that he found the landscape that inspired some of his best work – country that didn’t remind him of other people’s paintings.

In this 1934 watercolour, Furlongs, we see the distinctive flint walls of the cottage, with Beddingham Hill beyond and the wide sky overhead. The hay would feed the horses that were stabled nearby – the ploughman, Mr Barnes, lived in a cottage that occupied the other half of the building, and the girl standing in the garden is his daughter, Lena.

Constructed for the shepherds of the Glynde Estate, the house became a retreat for artists and a base for their explorations. Over the following years visitors included Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Percy Horton, John and Myfanwy Piper, Olive Cook and Edwin Smith, not to mention Eric and Tirzah’s children and their families. Edwin Smith took the picture below in the 50s.

Next time you visit Vanessa Bell’s house to the east of Firle or Virginia Woolf’s house at Rodmell, you might consider this alternative Charleston, or even go past and have a look. If you felt particularly energetic you could make a long circular walk that takes in Charleston, Rodmell, Beddingham and Firle.

Alternatively, you could follow the route Peggy’s visitors took, travelling by train from Lewes to Glynde. The sight of a car coming up the lane was likely to send Peggy and Eric running for the hills, lest Tirzah’s father be at the wheel. Guests more often arrived at Glynde Station and set off through the village on foot, past the Trevor Arms and across the main Eastbourne to Lewes road.

“They continued,” Helen Binyon tells us in her biography of Ravilious, “Along a narrowing tree-lined lane, until they reached an open field, with the swelling slopes of the chalk Downs beyond P, their rounded tops bare against the sky. They turned to the right, along a deeply rutted track, past a little copse, over which towered the wheel of a creaking wind pump; on its vane the mysterious word ‘DANDO’. Ahead and still some way off, they saw the cottage.”

On my most recent visit a torrential rainstorm was in progress and the water running down the lane was ankle deep. I looked out for the wind pump, but alas it is now hidden among the trees. It must once have resembled this one, painted by Ravilious in 1934. In fact it might have been this one, since waterpumps of this kind were rare out in the fields; they tended to supply large houses like Little Dene, which lies just downhill from the now-overgrown copse.

But let’s carry on towards Furlongs, passing the spot where Ravilious painted this haunting evocation of winter; the scene today is much the same, except for the TV masts on the summit – an addition Ravilious might have enjoyed. Now it's on to Part Two...


Anonymous said...
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Rog Frost said...

I have loved these three postings on Eric Ravilious. I never knew Eric, or members of his family, but the happiest days of my childhood in the 1950s were spent at Furlongs where my family camped for an extended period each year. I knew Dick Freeman well, and also his two brothers, sister and nephew (the last died recently) and I also knew Peggy Angus (I knew her as Mrs Richards) and her son Angus. I was intrigued by the fever wagons. Could one of them be the 'stagecoach' my brother and I played on - the position in the photo, with Caburn in the background, looks right.

Thankyou so much for sharing these pages with the world.


Grandma P said...

I am the sister of Rog who commented above.
Yesterday was my birthday treat - a trip to Eastbourne to see the Ravilious exhibition.
It meant a lot to me.
My family used to camp each year on a flat piece of ground half way up Beddingham Hill - just below the road that goes up to the top. Our view was of Furlongs Farm land and across to Mount Caburn. Our first year was 1954 - so a good while after Eric's time.
That flat piece of land is in eveidence in the Winter Downland picture, with the harrow in the foreground.
I didn't really know the artists. I am older than my brother and maybe he was still somewhat attached to mother's coat tails - so when my parents were talking with Peggy he would have been there too. I, as "almost a grown up" would have been roaming and far more interested in Dick Freeman's farm boy. His name was Brian.
I must tell you that even now, if we are reminiscing we talk of the artists as Dick Freeman would have done - in a broad Sussex accent.
Those holidays moulded our childhoods and have continued to mean a lot to us - even though at the time I was determined to ignore most of what my parents were trying to show me.
Thank you for your blog postings. How I wish my parents were still alive to read them.
Best wishes,

James Russell said...

Thanks for these fascinating comments, Paula and Rog. I'm glad the posts brought back some happy memories.

All the best,