Tuesday 12 June 2012

Ravilious: Submarine

Eric Ravilious, Commander... Looking through a Periscope, 1941
I'm hard at work on an exciting project, which is proving as much an adventure of discovery as the 'Ravilious in Pictures' books. For some time now Tim Mainstone and I have been plotting a book about the artist's second major foray into lithography, the set of prints he made in 1940/41 while working as a war artist. Known as the Submarine Series, these are, like the illustrations of shops in 'High Street', auto-lithographs. Ravilious made them himself, rather than handing his artwork over to a master lithographer, and individual prints vary widely across the edition, reflecting his tinkering during the printing process. Each one has the status of an original work of art, rather than a reproduction.

Most of the ten pictures show submariners at work or rest aboard their craft, while others focus on the kind of quirky subjects Ravilious enjoyed: the arcane equipment used by mine disposal experts or a diver preparing for the water.

The full set was on show at the Royal West of England Academy during their recent Ravilious show, and I was interested to learn from observant museum staff that the lithos were the most popular works, particularly among more youthful visitors. They are in some ways quite unlike his landscapes, being bold in colour and focused on people rather than place, but you can see the same economical designer's eye at work. Compare one of these interiors with, say, Barnett Freedman's interpretation of a similar scene, and you can see how much detail Ravilious has stripped away in his quest for clarity.

Barnett Freedman, Interior of a Submarine, watercolour, 1943 (Tate)
He had been rather taken to task when his magnificent paintings of the ill-fated Norwegian expedition of May 1940 were exhibited at the National Gallery, with critics suggesting that he was more interested in the effects of light in the far north than he was in the human drama of war. I think this was his response. In the best war art - like Paul Nash's visions of the Passchendaele battlefield - the artist's technique fits the subject matter so well that the finished picture serves both as a record of what a particular place or experience was LIKE and as a work of art in its own right. Nash's pictures of Flanders were beautiful and at the same time perfectly evocative of 'the phantasmagoria of No Man's Land', as one critic put it; similarly, the lithographs in the Submarine Series are beautifully designed and executed artworks that capture the intensity and human drama of the war beneath the waves.

Eric Ravilious, Diving Controls No.1, 1941
Anyway, the adventure for me - quite apart from discovering strange and wonderful details of the submariner's life - has been in learning about the extraordinary flowering of auto-lithography among British artists in the mid-20th century. The period from about 1930 until well after World War Two saw artists taking up the challenge of making their own lithographic prints, and some of the results are gorgeous. I just bought a copy of George Borrow's eccentric classic 'Lavengro', which was printed at the Curwen Press in Plaistow, Essex, in 1936 and illustrated with colour lithos by Ravilious's good friend Barnett Freedman. What a wonderful book! There's lots to say about Borrow and Freedman, but to start with, have a look at this.

From what I've seen of the preliminary design ideas, 'Ravilious: Submarine' is going to be stunning, illustrated not only with the Submarine Series and preparatory drawings but also with examples - some rarely seen - of lithography from Britain, Russia and France. Having said that, I better get back to work!

'Ravilious: Submarine' will be published by the Mainstone Press in October.

St Bride's Print Library will be hosting an evening devoted to early/mid 20th century lithography on December 5th. I'll be talking about the Submarine Series, while Alan Powers and Joe Pearson - an authority on Noel Carrington and the Puffin Picture Books - will discuss other fascinating aspects of the subject. More info on this to follow...


Anonymous said...

Very excited about this new book on Ravilious. Is it part of the In Pictures series?

James Russell said...

Glad to hear you're excited! 'Ravilious: Submarine' will be similar to the 'In Pictures' books but with a longer introduction and lots of beautiful examples of Russian, French and British lithography from the early 20th century...

Anonymous said...

I am very excited about this, James!! What wonderful work you and Tim do!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Any idea of a publishing date, I've preordered a copy and the date seems to be being constantly put back?

James Russell said...

'Ravilious: Submarine' is printed, bound and ready to order from the publishers, The Mainstone Press. If you've pre-ordered on Amazon it may take them a few days to catch up.