Friday, 22 April 2011

'Ravilious in Essex' at the Fry

Eric Ravilious, 'Village Street', 1936
If you're motoring along the M11 this summer take a detour to Saffron Walden to visit the wonderful Fry Art Gallery, which is holding one the most impressive shows in its twenty-five year history, 'Ravilious in Essex'. You can continue the detour if you feel like it by driving into the lanes of north-west Essex, on a tour of Ravilious country.

Tim Mainstone at the Fry
The Fry is small, elegant and - one would imagine - just the sort of place where Rav would have enjoyed seeing his work. Of the two main rooms, the larger is devoted to the permanent collection, which now includes the fabulous 'Caravans', while the walls of the smaller room are lined with watercolours of Essex subjects painted by Ravilious.

Eric Ravilious, 'Ironbridge at Ewenbridge', 1941/2
You will find no better opportunity to survey his development as a watercolourist, with paintings from his time in Great Bardfield ('Attic Bedroom' and 'Two Women in a Garden'), Castle Hedingham ('Hull's Mill' and 'Village Street' and Ironbridge. In 'Ironbridge at Ewenbridge', which he painted in 1941/2, Ravilious takes a relatively humdrum, if eccentric, subject and makes it an object of wonder. I'd travel to Essex just to see this picture.

Yet the watercolours are only one part of the experience. Back in the main room are display cases filled with the artist's wood engravings, including book covers and other materials that haven't seen the light of day in a half-century. Best of all are the blocks themselves, ink-black still and showing the sureness of touch that Ravilious displayed whatever the medium... Explore the gallery further and you can compare his designs for Wedgwood with the engravings and watercolours.

Falcon Square, Castle Hedingham

Entry to this delightful exhibition is free, but do consult the Fry's website for their opening hours before visiting.

Bank House
If you fancy making a day of it, the villages of Great Bardfield and Castle Hedingham are not far away. I don't think I've ever seen so many fantastic old houses, in such good condition, as you'll find in the villages of north-west Essex, places like Finchingfield and Wethersfield. A walk around Castle Hedingham offers a free lesson in several hundred years of vernacular architecture, with many fine examples of decorative brickwork and plasterwork.

War Memorial, St Nicholas
Bank House has a blue plaque to commemorate the Ravilious family's time there, but the war memorial in St Nicholas' churchyard nearby bears more eloquent testimony. The Bell has a wonderful interior (not that much changed, I suspect, since the 1930s), and good beer. I can't vouch for the food but no doubt it's good too.

Hull's Mill 2011
I definitely can vouch for the loop walk out to Hull's Mill and back, which goes along the bank of the river one way and through ancient woods the other. I've been to quite a few of the locations Ravilious painted and the mill is the place that has struck me the most strongly, I think because of the distinctive sound of rushing water.

He evidently perched on a stool close to the ford to paint the mill, and this close the sound of the water thrumming over the weir is loud but soothing, a kind of white noise.

Eric Ravilious, 'Hull's Mill', 1935

Some interesting Ravilious locations here. When you visit the Fry, look out for 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life.'

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