Sunday, 1 June 2014

Eric Ravilious: Wiltshire Landscape

Wiltshire Landscape (1937)

The open road held 1930s Britain in thrall. Though Ravilious never learned to drive, his contemporaries were taking to the road in ever-increasing numbers, encouraged by advertisements and guidebooks that portrayed an idealised vision of the countryside. The Shell Guides, sponsored by the oil company and edited by John Betjeman, were aimed specifically at the new breed of car-driving metropolitan tourist, with highlights including Betjeman’s Devon (1935), Paul Nash’s Dorset (1936) and John Piper’s Oxon (1938). The worse London’s traffic jams became, the greater the appeal of open country.

Ravilious himself produced numerous wood engravings to advertise London Transport and its offshoot Green Line Buses, and in 1936 made engravings for the first two books of Country Walks, which described and mapped forty walks accessible by bus or coach from central London. Not that the artist had an aversion to cars. He once told Helen Binyon, he wished they could drive fifty miles as fast as possible then go dancing afterwards. And in March 1937, shortly before painting ‘Wiltshire Landscape’, he noted that ‘Tirzah is buying a year-old Morris for £70 tomorrow from the local garage, and it seems to my eye to look as good as new. May it start up in cold weather.’

While contemporary guidebooks and advertising focused on sights to be seen along the road, this painting shows the road itself, from an odd, slightly raised perspective. The spring countryside is peripheral, and instead one’s attention focuses on the junction ahead and the red van approaching from the left. In fact Ravilious did not see this vehicle on the road but spotted it in a Post Office magazine when he got home and added it to the composition. Imagine the picture without it and the mood is rather different, the road stretching ahead perhaps less a route to freedom than a journey to be endured; hemmed in by endless green verges, only the turning to the left offers respite.

A similar melancholy pervades ‘The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs’, the other painting from this short trip. As a non-driver Ravilious relied on public transport or the good will of friends, and in April 1937 Helen Binyon was his driver and companion. They stayed near Andover and drove out across Salisbury Plain, but it was not the kind of great adventure they had enjoyed in the past. Binyon was silent and distant, Ravilious said afterwards, which made him uppish and out of hand; only a month later he was to end their affair, though they remained close friends.

But this is still an image of the open road - the kind of byway that city dwellers dreamt (and dream) of. The clouds may be grey and stormy but the road ahead gleams silver.

This is an extract from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs', published by The Mainstone Press. 'Wiltshire Landscape' will be auctioned at Christies on 26 June 2014, alongside work by Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Graham Sutherland and Walter Sickert. I hope it is bought by a public collection...

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