Saturday, 10 July 2010

Ravilious & the Sussex Downs, part 3

Ravilious may have been sitting at his worktable when he painted the view north towards Mount Caburn. Here is the hard-working Mr Barnes again, in rather better weather, with a team of horses and that familiar roller. Another team pulls a harrow, while the solitary and almost imperceptible figure in the distance is sowing seed. This may seem a nostalgic picture, but in 1935 half a million Shire horses still worked on English farms; only after World War II did ploughman become tractor driver.

Mr and Mrs Barnes lived next door to Furlongs and, like the postman who handed letters in through the open window, and Mrs Soames the laundress, they were an integral part of everyday life. When alone at the cottage, Ravilious sometimes relied for sustenance on ‘scraps that fall from the Barnes’ table, gooseberry pie and whatnot’, but relations were not always good.

In April 1935, while he was working on this painting, there was a frightful row. Some sheets, a saw and other items had gone missing from the cottage and Ravilious was asked by Peggy to deliver a note to Mr Barnes on the subject. Mrs Barnes stormed in, protesting her innocence – yet somehow managing to produce the missing saw – and then threw a fit and collapsed. Ravilious carried her to the sofa.

A rather different painting from this productive period is ‘The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes’. In startling contrast to the wide open spaces of ‘The Waterwheel’ or ‘Downs in Winter’ this greenhouse, which seems to be roofed with nothing more substantial than tomato plants, pulls us into an intense, slightly threatening world.

Tim Mainstone was particularly intrigued by this greenhouse – one of a series painted by Ravilious - and we set about trying to find it. Helen Binyon teased us with a reference to Firle and an old nurseryman who had, as a boy, been up the Amazon on a plant-hunting expedition. Tirzah Ravilious gave him a name: Mr Humphreys. Armed with this scant information, we went into the village and started poking around. At the Firle Stores we were directed down the lane, past a disused boiler house and into a walled garden, where a scene of considerable devastation met our eyes.

The garden had been built in the nineteenth century to supply Firle Place with vegetables, fruit and flowers. The walls had been covered in espaliered fruit trees, while the hothouses included a mushroom house and an unusual strawberry house in which plants were grown in the warm air close to the roof and were lowered by pulley for picking.

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But in 1944 a Spitfire brought down a doodlebug nearby and the resulting explosion shattered every pane of glass in the village; the walled garden never fully recovered.

In fact only one greenhouse has survived in any way intact, and as current nurseryman Jim Piper opened the door to show us, we realised that this was the very house that Ravilious had painted. And Jim still grows tomatoes, which you can buy from a stall outside.

So far we haven’t strayed more than a mile from Furlongs, but we’re going slightly further afield now, to visit a local landmark. P Known variously as the Wilmington Giant or Long Man of Wilmington this chalk figure seems to have intrigued Ravilious. P He portrayed it in two of the wood engravings he made for the Lanston Monotype Almanack of 1929 – this is Taurus - and also in the celebrated Morley College murals.

First recorded in 1710, this is one of the world’s largest representations of the human figure. But is this supposed to be Baldr, the Norse sun god, pushing aside the gates of darkness? Or a pilgrim, advertising the Priory below? Ravilious had his own, rather exotic interpretation, comparing the figure to a painting of Virgo by Bartolo di Fredi, the 14th century Italian painter, and suggesting that the giant was really a giantess. He might have enjoyed a recent TV stunt, in which eighty women, dressed in white, lay down in formation to turn the Long Man into the Long Woman.

In the summer of 1939, while staying at Furlongs for the last time, Ravilious made this watercolour, in which the antique figure is framed by the fence posts and barbed wire of the modern countryside.

He planned to paint more chalk figures in September but the war intervened and he ended up making a whistlestop tour of Downland hill figures just before Christmas. These were to form the basis of a book, called ‘Downland Man’ or ‘White Horse Hill’. Ravilious was working on a dummy at the time of his disappearance, but it has never been found.

I don’t want to end on a gloomy note, however. Even as a war artist Ravilious saw light and beauty in the world, and much of his work was devoted to life’s pleasures. Tea, for instance was a subject he addressed in a variety of ways. His wood engraving of a garden tea table advertised Green Line Coaches in 1936, and a year later he designed a service for Wedgwood entitled ‘Afternoon Tea’.

Then, in August 1939, he painted ‘Tea at Furlongs’ – which I like to think of as a celebration of the life and companionship he had enjoyed at Peggy’s cottage. So vivid are the details – from bone-handled knives and mismatched chairs to that incongruous umbrella – that one can easily imagine two people sitting down at this table, bathed in the pale light of the Downs.

When Ravilious painted this scene both Tirzah and Peggy were pregnant. James Ravilious was born in Eastbourne on 22 August. As for Peggy, she went into labour one night when the only other adult in the house was Ravilious – probably not her first choice of midwife.

Fortunately a woman friend was camping nearby, so he was dispatched by bike to wake her and then to call a doctor from the nearest phone box. He rode off down the rutted lane to Glynde and made the call, but the doctor remembered the lack of electricity or running water at the cottage and refused to come out. So Ravilious went to the Trevor Arms and threw stones at the landlord’s window until he woke up. Though not particularly happy at having his slumbers interrupted, Mr Lusted shoved his trousers on over his pyjamas and jumped into his car. So Peggy was conveyed to Lewes, where her baby was safely born.

“How we laughed on that journey,” Peggy Angus remembered later. “An adventure to tell around the fire.”


John said...


I really enjoyed this article and liked the style of the pictures.

Have you thought about putting the bits of your articles that relate to places on "There and Where"?

Unknown said...

Great stuff! Did you take any photographs?

Anonymous said...

Such a delightful read ! I want to go to Furlongs this very minute! I would love to think that the house is still just as it was in Peggy's time and that it is open to the public,but I cannot find any evidence of that.