Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Eric Ravilious: The Case of the White Horse Dummy

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939
When I was researching 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', several years ago now, I kept hearing about a lost relic - the mock-up or dummy of a book that the artist was planning. The story ended up in the essay accompanying 'The Westbury Horse':

After making a successful start with the Wilmington Giant he had decided to paint more figures in September 1939, but war intervened. Joining the Observer Corps, Ravilious stayed in Essex until early December, when he abruptly swapped shifts with a fellow Observer and rushed off. He had been promised a job drawing chalk figures for a book, he told Diana Tuely, and in a tremendous burst of energy drew the white horses of Uffington and Westbury, the Cerne Abbas Giant and George III on horseback outside Weymouth.

On his return, he was invited to be a war artist... The book of horses and giants was not forgotten, however, and in January 1941 he sent a dummy to Noel Carrington, who was then editing the Picture Puffin series of children’s books for Penguin. Carrington responded enthusiastically, suggesting that the book might include drawings not only of chalk figures, earthworks and castles, but also of implements excavated from prehistoric sites. ‘Downland Man’ or ‘Whitehorse Hill’ might be the title, with accompanying text by H.J. Massingham; artist and author had collaborated not long before, when Ravilious illustrated Massingham’s new edition of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White.

With Tirzah about to have a third child, Anne, Ravilious decided not to proceed, but he continued to work on the book and, according to Carrington, took the dummy with him on his posting to Iceland in August 1942, intending to finish it. He may have taken it with him when he volunteered to join the hunt for a missing plane, because it disappeared thereafter, and has never, despite the efforts of researchers, been found.

Eric Ravilious, White Horse dummy, 1941, cover
As I understand it, one or two of the more diehard Rav fans visited Iceland and endeavoured to track down the missing dummy, and their failure to find it encouraged this legend that he had, for some reason, taken it with him on that last flight. A more likely explanation was that the flimsy paper book had simply got lost, but the its creator's disappearance has a powerful hold on the imagination. His obsession with the North (a region associated with death in Mediterranean mythologies) and with flight suggest an artist driven by his own aesthetic desires to his doom. Whatever we may think of this, Rav's mysterious disappearance fascinates people of a romantic disposition.

Within the context of this story, the missing dummy had a grail-like status, so it was rather astonishing when the little book turned up last year, not in an ancient army-issue satchel but in a box uncovered in London during an office clean-up - one that must have been long overdue. Now the legendary dummy is up for auction, with a guide price of £2000 - £3000. I have no idea whether this represents value for money, but I suspect that this lot will fetch a decent price.

True, the dummy is sketchy in the extreme, with a few black and white photos of the chalk figures accompanied by rudimentary page layouts and a few pencilled notes, but the cover, based on 'Train Landscape', is nicely done. Besides, the buyer will probably not be interested in these details. Work by Ravilious is scarce, and this dummy, whatever its merits, is unique. It's the Last Book, a true relic.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' is in production and will be published in late February by The Mainstone Press.


  1. Oh goodness, one can only imagine how lovely this book would have been! The train landscape has been one of my favourite paintings since I was a teenager, but I didn't take much notice of who it was by until a few years ago when I started really getting into this area of British art. I also think it's a very small amount to pay (from the estimate) for such a treasure, and hope it reaches a lot more.

  2. What a fascinating story, it would be lovely to see the book. Maybe a library will bid?

  3. Gretel - yes, it would have been a gorgeous book (tho constrained by wartime economy)

    acornmoon - will a library bid? The Records Office in Lewes has a wonderful archive of letters, postcards, etc, relating to Ravilious, but I doubt they paid the kind of price people expect today. My money's on a private buyer.

    Thanks for your comments - the auction's on 10 Jan, so let's see what happens!

  4. What a great story. How much did it fetch??

  5. Thanks Malc - the book sold for about £4000 I believe. Which is either a huge amount of money, or a comparative steal - only time will tell!

  6. One of the ones that got away! It's exercising my mind rather a lot, imagining what it would have emerged as, that intriguing might-have-been-book. And the 'grail' itself, though revealed now as a flimsy thing, at least is a tangible link to what he was planning.

    I hold such affection for Ravilious and Bawden, artists whose capacity to imagine was more than matched by the craftsmanship and skills they brought to making. These are virtues that went lamentably out of fashion for the longest time, but I now see emerging in a younger generation of painters and printmakers examining without prejudice the British artists of the twentieth century, and finding much in them to be admired. Good too to see Vaughn being reappraised. Timely.

    I love your Ravilious series of books. I'm one behind with them, but I'll be onto that shortly!

  7. Thanks Clive - you're quite right about the younger generation exploring the work of Ravilious, Bawden and others. I think it's part of a wider surge of interest in 20th century art and design, particularly the British interwar artists who were so completely neglected for so long.

    Glad you like the books - and thanks for your kind words.