Friday, 2 March 2012

Eric Ravilious & Tirzah Garwood: One Couple, Two Exhibitions

Tirzah and Eric Ravilious painting a mural at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe
Artist couples are fascinating. Like the rest of us they have a public life and a private life, only the hidden world of an artist couple or family is often revealed - if only in tantalising glimpses - in correspondence, diaries and in artworks themselves. In some cases the relationship has proved inspirational to both halves of the couple, but often one artist's work tends to pushed into the background as the career of the other takes off.

Still going strong in 2012
The history of 20th century British art is rich in artist couples. There are those who, like Gilbert and George, have pooled their identities to form an artistic double act and others, among them Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan, who succeeded in maintaining parallel careers. This was true too of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, a couple whose artistic relationship long outlived their marriage; they were still busily writing to each other about painting decades after splitting up, although you wouldn't know it to judge from the books about Ben.

I was at the Central Library in Bristol the other day - it has a wonderful art history collection - and on asking about Ben Nicholson in the Reference section was presented with a trolleyful of books, each one progressively bigger and glossier and less comprehensible. His first wife merited a solitary book. 

Personally, I think Winifred's best work is beautiful. I also think the importance of intimate relationships is underplayed in conventional art history, which tends to consider artists in terms of similar artists and via the art historical theories of the day. An artist is only 'important' if they fit within the narrative - but you don't need me to tell you that...

Winifred Nicholson, Bonnie Scotland, 1951 (Tullie House)

Eric Ravilious was virtually invisible ten years ago and is now a central figure in the alternative story of 20th century British art that Alexandra Harris has championed in her 2010 book 'Romantic Moderns'. The exhibition of his watercolours which opens at the RWA in Bristol next week will be the third show in consecutive years, each one given little attention in the national press but attracting unprecedented numbers of visitors nonetheless.

Tirzah Garwood, The Train Journey, 1929-30

His work also features in a second exhibition opening this month, at the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, but he is not the main subject. 'Long Live Great Bardfield!' is a show about Rav's wife, Tirzah, and the creative force behind it is Anne Ullmann, their daughter and the author/editor of several stunning books about them. Over the past few years she's been editing her mother's autobiography, 'Long Live Great Bardfield, & Love to You All', which is about to be published by the Fleece Press.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939 (Aberdeen Art Gallery)
I've written before about Tirzah, who learned wood engraving from Eric and as Tirzah Garwood became an outstanding printmaker in her own right. She gave this career up to concentrate on raising her children, but didn't give up art per se. Throughout her married life she made marbled papers, which at different times she sold through London boutiques, and she also assisted Eric, publicly when he was commissioned to paint murals at the Midland Hotel, Morecambe, and privately in ways we will probably never fully appreciate. Her contribution to the painting 'Train Landscape' (1939) is one of my favourite instances.

Tirzah Garwood, Orchid Hunters in Brazil, 1950 - there's a story to this...
After Eric's death she took up oil painting and also made a series of unusual relief pictures of shops. This work is rarely shown, except at the Fry, and the appearance of two examples on the Antiques Road Show last year caused some consternation to their resident expert. Now we have the opportunity to look at Tirzah's work properly and also to read what she thought about married life with Eric. Famous for her fiery letters, I suspect that she had a thing or two to say...

'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern / Being British' is at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, from Saturday March 10th.

'Long Live Great Bardfield!' opens at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, on March 31st.

Wood engravings by Eric Ravilious are included in an exhibition of work from the archive of the Society of Wood Engravers, showing until March 23rd at Manchester Metropolitan University.

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' will be launched at the RWA on March 10th, 12-2pm


  1. I wonder if the mural is still there?

    When I visited the exhibition in Manchester at MMU I noticed that they had hosted a previous exhibition in 2004 on Ravilious with a rather nice catalogue. Also, The Schmoller Collection of Decorated Papers has Ravilious designs.

    Before I go I must tell you, I managed to buy a Ravilious garden design mug from the Wedgwood Museum, it seems they had a few left in stock!

    1. Anonymous06 June, 2012

      The mural has gone. It was painted before the plaster was fully dry, deterioration set in fairly soon. The Midlan Hotel is well worth a visit, it is a supurb restoration of a Deco building.

  2. Love The Train Journey! Tirzah really was a great wood engraver. But the brutal truth is that unless artists in those days had Bloomsbury-type money to support them, the women always took the back seat. It's also true that the women didn't push themselves forward (or in some cases, such as Carrington, push themselves). Winifred Nicholson was just as involved with Mondrian as Ben was, even closer to Christopher Wood, and just as important an artist as Ben Nicholson or Barbara Hepworth - but she just didn't care about money, applause, and fame. She cared about making the art, not selling it. In the long term, these inequalities will even out. As Augustus John predicted, his sister Gwen is now regarded as the greater artist. The same will happen with Ben and Winifred. Not with Eric and Tirzah - he was the complete deal, she was just becoming the great artist she could have been when she retreated from the fray - but what beauty she created in the last few years of the 1920s.

  3. thanks for your comments!

    Acornmoon: The mural isn't there, I'm afraid - the walls were damp and it deteriorated after only a few years (read all about it in the new book!). Well done snagging one of those mugs - I love the garden design. I'm going to look out for that MMU catalogue...

    Neil: Fascinating points... I think WN is due for a rediscovery - if nothing else her letters and other writing should be much easier to get hold of (the main book currently on sale for eye-watering prices). You might add that Winifred did have Bloomsbury-type money, which enabled her to raise children, travel and paint prodigiously...

    I get the feeling that the women who did push themselves - like Hepworth - were not liked for it. Didn't Ben Nicholson complain that she was obsessed with her work?

  4. Oh, you're right - the women who refused to be sidelined were regarded as pushy and aggressive - you can see how it would be much easier to be Carrington than Hepworth. Why they don't reprint that Unknown Colour book of Winifred Nicholson's is an unknown conundrum.

  5. Such an interesting post. Being a local, I was also pleased to see a picture of the White Horse at Westbury.

  6. Thanks Bella - I love the white horse!

  7. And then there's Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power. Not to mention Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. What an interesting and fruitful theme!

  8. Fiona Murray05 September, 2017

    Thank you for such an interesting blog. I saw the recent exhibition in Eastbourne and loved Tirzah Garwood's work and the gorgeous illustrations of everyday life. Do you know if prints of 'The Train Journey' engraving are on sale anywhere?

  9. I have just read a very detailed and interesting book called 'Ravilious and Co - The Pattern of Friendship. We used to have a print of 'The Train Journey' at the school where I used to work, but unfortunately I think it got thrown in a skip before I could get my hands on it. There is a print shop in Devizes that sell his prints.