Friday, 3 May 2013

Eric Ravilious: Chalk Paths

Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths, 1935 (private collection)

Between the wars the Downs became synonymous with freedom. Then, as now, the chalk hills fascinated people whose homes lay in lowland towns and cities, and they came in increasing numbers by rail, or by car, or by Green Line Coach from London, to experience the wide skies and breezes. As early as 1903 Edward Thomas had written enticingly of the Sussex Downs in The South Country, describing his escape from London by train to ‘this pure kingdom of grass and sky’. To Thomas, the chalk paths were filled with mystery and promise.

‘The long white roads are a temptation’, he wrote. ‘What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.

Eric Ravilious once remarked that he never knew the date at Furlongs, and he was not alone in relishing the freedom of life there. Here he conveys the airy, open quality of the landscape, and the lure of the white road, although this vision of freedom seems circumscribed by the taut black barbed-wire fence that separates us from the path. We may be unwise to look for a meaning in this fence, but its presence adds to the painting a certain quality of unease.

Subjects like this seemed plentiful in the country around Furlongs, a landscape that fascinated and inspired Ravilious like no other. Experiencing it, he told Peggy Angus, changed his whole outlook and his way of painting, ‘I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious.’
He got up early, often at dawn, and set off carrying his drawing board in a large brown canvas satchel made for him by Tirzah. A tall figure, with a brown round-brimmed hat pulled firmly down on his head, he would stride off across the Downs, stopping to work either standing, at a light sketching easel, or else seated with the board across his knees. Returning to Furlongs at midday, he ate mutton or eggs for lunch and rested for a while before going back to work more on the painting he had begun earlier; he had an uncanny ability to retain his intense first impression of a subject, however the light or weather might change.

Often, pressure of time or vagaries in the weather meant Ravilious had to finish drawings in his caravan-studio - or even back in Essex - from notes pencilled onto the paper. But this seemed if anything to enhance his vision, in which a topographer’s eye was combined with an uncanny sense of the visual possibilities in a landscape. The creative power of memory allowed him to get beyond geographical details and, as he does here, capture the spirit of a place.

This is an extract from my book 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', which is published by The Mainstone Press.


tamarfeast said...

Lovely. I have the book, but it's nice to be reminded of my favourite Ravilious.

James Russell said...

Thanks - after the response to the picture on the Facebook page I couldn't resist posting the commentary. It was such a pleasure to write, I want EVERYONE to read it!

Anonymous said...

A favourite Ravilious, thanks for posting.

James, do you know if this is a real landscape or one of the imagination? If real, where was he standing?

James Russell said...

Thanks - it's on Beddingham Hill, nr Lewes, with some artistic licence

MartinR said...

Hi James many thanks I have the book.
I have both this and Paul Nash Wood on the Downs on my walls and have spent many hours looking at them both. Chalk Paths is, I believe the finest representation of the Downs near where I live.
I have walked, run and cycled the area for years both in the day and at night and know the area very well.
What is extraordinary about this work is that it is so unrealistic and at the same time so evocative.
Sometimes it seems surreal it is so strange. There are no paths so steep or downs so high.
I always wondered if it was based on any real view. I will have to revisit Beddingham hill to look.
Given Ravilious habits I assumed it was within walking distance of Furlongs and my best guess was the path up to Mount Harry from Offham . There is a cut out old rail track from the chalk pits there which seems also to be indicated in the painting.
I understand it is in a private collection and I do not know if it is ever available to the public. If you know I would be most grateful .
It's never been shown in the various Ravilious exhibitions I've attended at the Towner and elsewhere and they don't know either.
I did wonder if R was making reference to Ns work in this as the wierd Downs representation and paths are quite similar.
I've recently been to have a look at the Ley/Lay which has just been extensively modernised but not rebuilt and looking at the painting it is the case that R decided to take some licence with the original dimensions too.
So many thanks for posting this and any other information on the picture would be most welcome. It sits in my line of sight every day and I never fail to gain something from looking at it.

James Russell said...

Thanks Martin - look out for news about Ravilious next year...

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