Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Rav at the Fry, and Betjeman's 'Essex'

It was wonderful to read the other day that the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden, Essex, has bought two watercolours by Eric Ravilious, namely  'Caravans' (1936) and 'Geraniums and Carnations' (1938).

The former is a personal favourite, and you might like to read the post here and comments here for a bit of background info. There's also an essay about the painting in 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'.

I think the Fry is being very astute in building up its Ravilious collection. His reputation has grown considerably since Alan Powers curated the 2003 retrospective at the Imperial War Museum, but with interest in interwar British art and culture increasing steadily you can expect to hear a lot more about the Boy over the next few years. Towner Gallery in Eastbourne has an impressive hoard of Ravs but are yet to devote a permanent exhibition space to him.

Betjeman waits for a train
So perhaps the artist's chosen home will become an important centre for his work. I'm currently editing the text for the third volume in the 'Ravilious in Pictures' trilogy, which will be launched in conjunction with the Fry's 'Ravilious in Essex' show (starts 24 April). The book focuses on watercolours painted in Essex, plus the odd one from Suffolk, and, through them, explores the artist's life in the north-west of the county.

As he did in the Sussex Downs, Ravilious found extraordinary subjects in everyday Essex. He had an eye for the archaic and the picturesque, from flour mills to steam engines; the world he conjured resembles the Edwardian 'Essex' John Betjeman found in a picture book and wrote about:

“The vagrant visitor erstwhile,”
My colour-plate book says to me,
“Could wend by hedgerow-side and stile,
From Benfleet down to Leigh-on-Sea.”

And as I turn the colour-plates
Edwardian Essex opens wide,
Mirrored in ponds and seen through gates,
Sweet uneventful countryside.

Like streams the little by-roads run
Through oats and barley round a hill
To where blue willows catch the sun
By some white weather-boarded mill.

We travel to the coast and back to the region close to London, then to the county Ravilious knew:

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty fifteenth-century towers.

I see the little branch line go
By white farms roofed in red and brown,
The old Great Eastern winding slow
To some forgotten country town.
St James St, Castle Hedingham - note blue plaque marking Bank House

I can't believe that Betjeman and Ravilious never met, although I don't recall Rav mentioning an encounter in his letters. Both men were fascinated by the peculiarities of place but, whereas Betjeman's 'Collected Poems' includes an index of places, Ravilious generally leaves us to work out his locations for ourselves. Happily we've established where most of his Essex watercolours were painted, and identified a number of people shown in the paintings too. Better still, almost all of the paintings will be on show at the Fry, so you'll be able to see them for yourself...

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