Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Devizes Festival Preview: Eric Ravilious & The White Horses of Wiltshire

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1939 (DACS/artist's estate)

On June 28th I'll be at Devizes Town Hall, giving an illustrated talk on Eric Ravilious and the White Horses of Wiltshire as part of the Devizes Festival. After very enjoyable events at the RWA Bristol, Much Ado Books in Alfriston and Greenside School in west London I'm looking forward to it, especially as I'm planning to ride my bike at least part of the way from Bristol.

Apart from the wonderful enthusiasm for Ravilious's work I find in all these different places, the thing I enjoy most is meeting people with a connection to the world I've studied through books and correspondence. The number of people, for instance, who were taught by or are related to Peggy Angus (artist, teacher, tenant of Furlongs in Sussex) is astonishing, and everyone has something fascinating to add to the picture.

Ravilious disappeared on active service 70 years ago this coming September, and his world grows ever more remote. There are few people left these days who remember him personally, although artist David Hepher shared some tantalizing childhood memories at the Fry Gallery last year.

People grow old and die; letters and sketches and so on are scattered and lost. But whereas this process is irreversible for us mortals, the things which surround us can return from the dead - or appear to. Which brings us to my reason for coming to Devizes in June...

Eric Ravilious, White Horse Dummy, c1940
Earlier this year a remarkable artifact came up for auction: the dummy of a book of white horses and other chalk figures which was put together by Ravilious in 1940. He had already made the drawings he needed, and he prepared the dummy for Noel Carrington, editor of the new Puffin Picture Books series for children. Carrington was all set to go ahead with the project but due to time constraints Ravilious was forced to postpone.

For years it was believed that the artist had taken this dummy to Iceland with him, and perhaps had it with him when he disappeared. Then it turned up in London, and I assumed someone had found it as people do sometimes when they go through boxes of old papers. But even this was wrong. The dummy wasn't lost. Rather it was in the possession of artist Roland Collins, who had been given it by Noel Carrington when they were neighbours in Percy Street, Bloomsbury during and after the war.

I wrote a post on the dummy in January, just before the little book came up for auction. I hoped that a museum would buy it rather than a private collector, and in the end the bidding was won by the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes. There's something particularly satisfying about this, given the proximity of the white horses at Westbury and Uffington, both of which Ravilious drew, and it gives me a chance to revisit the landscapes I explored in 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs'.

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939 (DACS/artist's estate)
Curious to think that when Ravilious sketched the white horses in December 1939 they were about to be turfed over, to prevent them being used as navigational aids by enemy aircraft. It was by no means certain that they would be uncovered again.

I'm at the Town Hall, Devizes at 8pm, 28th June. The Devizes Festival runs from 13 June to 1 July and there are all kinds of strange and wonderful events to choose from: details are here.

Future talks:

Alan Powers and I will be talking about Eric Ravilious for the Friends of the Towner in Eastbourne on September 2.

I'll be discussing Ravilious and Paul Nash at the Rye Arts Festival later in September.

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