Friday, 2 September 2011

Eric Ravilious at the Belle Tout Lighthouse

Eric Ravilious, Beachy Head, 1939
Listeners to this Saturday's 'Excess Baggage' are in for a treat as presenter Sandi Toksvig takes a bus from Brighton to Eastbourne, pausing near the end of her journey at the Belle Tout Lighthouse. In 1999 the retired lighthouse made the news when its owners had it moved 17 metres inland, away from the edge of the crumbling chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, but this isn't why Radio 4's travel show is visiting. Last year the 1832 building, which was decommissioned in 1902 and spent much of the 20th century as a private house, opened as a hotel, offering the unusual experience of a 360 degree view from the lantern room.

Belle Tout circa 1900
It is always good to hear that an interesting old building has been given a public role, but for Ravilious fans the news brings an added frisson of excitement. In 1939, as he prepared for his last major show as a civilian, Ravilious explored the region around Eastbourne (his childhood home, where his parents still lived) with renewed curiosity. His watercolours of Cuckmere Haven and the Wilmington Giant are what springs to mind whenever I hear the phrase 'romantic modern', since they take old provincial subjects - the kind of scenes an 18th century antiquary might have drawn - and make them new.

During this busy period the artist spent several days on Beachy Head, unknowingly rehearsing his wartime role as a painter of coastal defences. In 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' we featured one of the pictures he made from his vantage point on the cliffs, and I imagine that the view at night from the lantern room of the new hotel is similar.

Belle Tout Hotel, lantern room (Rob Wassell
But he didn't only work outside on the clifftop. Although known as a landscape painter, Ravilious produced a good proportion of his work indoors, and he had an eye for an interesting interior that few artists have rivalled. He worked in several greenhouses and in a butcher's shop, in an RNAS sickbay and a farmhouse bedroom. In his quiet, good-humoured way he easily persuaded the owners or occupiers of building to let him set up his easel, and so it was that he escaped the fierce breezes of Beachy Head for the calm of the Belle Tout lantern room.

'Just now I am busy on the hills painting,' he wrote to his friend Diana Tuely, 'in the greatest comfort with my jacket off, and seated in a magnificent Chinese chair. That is to say I am perched in the top of the Belle Tout lighthouse (I wish you could see this) in the lantern drawing the immense expanse below with a gale blowing outside'.

I am very much hoping that the painting he made from this vantage point will be included in the fourth volume of our Ravilious series. 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is due to be published by the Mainstone Press in November, featuring watercolours painted by the artist on his travels around Britain and northern France. There are some gorgeous pictures in this new volume, from fabulous interiors to harbour scenes and Welsh landscapes, and some wonderful stories to be told...

Full details of the book will be released soon, and I will post a picture of 'Belle Tout' once all arrangements are in place.


  1. I pre-ordered this from Amazon last night and can't wait to read it. Delighted to see a fourth (and final?) book in the series. Do you have an official release date yet?

  2. Hello James - Yes, the fourth volume in Ravilious in Pictures is on its way. In fact I handed in the text a couple of days ago. Publication should be towards the end of February/beginning of March next year. I'll post an announcement and cover pic in due course. All the best, and thanks for your enthusiasm! James