Monday, 2 May 2011

Tirzah Garwood, Eric Ravilious, Tirzah Ravilious

Tirzah Ravilious, The Old Soldier, 1940
It's been an exciting weekend for fans of Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Ravilious (nee Garwood), with a double-page spread on the former in the Review section of Saturday's Guardian followed by a display of the latter's work on the Antiques Roadshow (17-18 mins in). I hope people will be encouraged by all this publicity to visit the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, where you can see work by both artists.

If Eric was neglected by the art world in the decades after his death, Tirzah was doubly so, and she remains a little-known figure. Accounts of her husband's life tend to portray her as 'the wife', faithful in spite of his infidelities, and rather dull - the sensible woman who prefered not to swim naked in the River Pant with her husband and various Bardfield visitors. For excitement (we imagine, from this reading) he ran off to the Sussex Downs with Helen Binyon, and at her side produced some of his most memorable watercolours.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939
This interpretation does Tirzah a great disservice, since she was not only a woman of great courage and resolve - in 1942 she underwent an emergency mastectomy for breast cancer only months before her husband's death left her almost penniless and with three young children - but also a tremendous personality. Skinny-dipping may not have been her thing but she embraced all the uncertainties and trials of the artistic life, accepting financial insecurity and accommodation that was at times unfit for habitation. A generous friend, she could when necessary write a scalding letter.

Having embarked on her own career as a wood engraver in the late 1920s she gave this up to raise her children, at the same time supporting Eric in his work. The extent of her influence may never be known but in one important instance - the well-known painting 'Train Landscape' - she worked on the picture itself, pasting a white horse over the Wilmington Giant. Earlier she had been, in the most straightforward sense, her husband's muse, and her figure appeared repeatedly in the murals he painted at Morley College... They shared many interests - in mechanical toys and old-fashioned shops, and in the landscape of the Sussex Downs.

Tirzah Ravilious, landscape, 1944
I've been lucky enough to see quite a few of Tirzah's oil paintings and 3D collages of houses and shops, but I'd never seen the painting of the South Downs shown on the Roadshow until last night. I was immediately reminded of the fact that Eric tried to paint in oils but didn't get on with the medium. Tirzah evidently did, producing this witty landscape (apologies for poor repro) with its downland hills and toy train - a cousin to the train in Eric's painting 'The Westbury Horse'.

I enjoyed the presenter's remark that she had 'taken her husband's view of landscape' and altered it, evidently unaware that this was both condescending and inaccurate. Tirzah had already demonstrated in her wood engravings (which she made under her maiden name), that she was her own woman, following creative impulses that were quite different from her husband's and using her own techniques too. This oil painting - I haven't found out yet what it's called - is all her own, but alludes in its subject matter to her late husband's fascination for trains in landscape.

Anne Ullmann, the couple's daughter, has been unstinting in her efforts to win proper recognition for their work, and she has been working for some time on an edition of her mother's diaries. Judging by the extracts published in the Fleece Press editions of Eric's letters, they should make entertaining and occasionally eye-opening reading. In the meantime, I recommend Olive Cook's excellent essay on Tirzah's life and work, and this survey of her wood engravings.


  1. That was a classic Roadshow moment, and I'm glad you had the quick wit to take a snap of the South Downs landscape with toy train while it was on the screen. I agree it was a shame Tirzah's work was discussed more in relation to Eric's rather than in its own right.

  2. I tried to comment on this post a couple of days ago, but I guess Blogger's spontaneous combustion consumed that comment and another on a previous post. Anyway, I just wanted to say how pleased I was you had the quickness of wit to photograph that painting of the South Downs with the toy train while it was shown. It was a shame that the presenter concentrated on Tirzah's art in relation to Eric's, rather than assessing it on its own terms, but I suppose that is what you would expect.

  3. Hi Neil, Thanks for this - yes, the Blogger-quake must have consumed your comment! It would have been interesting to have a comment from the presenter re: Eric's struggles with oil paint.

    By the way, I'm doing an illustrated talk on Rav for the Yellow-Lighted Book Festival in Nailsworth, in June. It would be great to see you there...