Tuesday, 2 September 2014

A Ravilious Rediscovered

Eric Ravilious, Aldeburgh Bathing Machines, 1938 (photo JS Auctions)

Until this year only the owner of ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ knew of its existence. This scintillating watercolour was bought from the artist’s exhibition at Tooth’s in May 1939, and since then the title has been attributed to a different painting, also of bathing huts. As far as anyone other than the owner knew, the picture featured here had never existed, so that to Ravilious’s descendants, collectors and fans ‘Aldeburgh Bathing Machines’ is not a lost painting returned, but a new and exciting discovery.

Eric Ravilious was in the middle of a prolific period when he visited Aldeburgh late in August 1938. Galvanised by the prospect of the Tooth’s exhibition he had travelled around the country, seeking out inspiring subjects. His letters are generally a good source of information about his activities, yet we know almost nothing about his visit to Aldeburgh; he left no clue as to why he was so intrigued by bathing machines.

There were, however, similar devices on the beach at Eastbourne when he was a boy. Ravilious was born in London, but at the age of eight moved to the Sussex seaside town, where his father ran an antiques shop. A scholarship took him to the Royal College of Art in 1922, and from there his career as a designer and artist blossomed alongside that of his friend and fellow student Edward Bawden. Ravilious retained a lifelong fascination for unusual and old-fashioned objects, particularly wheeled vehicles.

He also liked to work in series, so we should not be surprised that he painted three watercolours of these delightful blue-and-white-striped bathing machines. In this case the composition is centred on the parking sign and its shadow, around which the other objects (and the attendant) are carefully arranged so that the eye keeps moving from one to the next as if around a dial. The objects themselves are intriguing even by Ravilious’s high standards of oddity: the chicken appears in another painting and must have had some purpose, but we don’t yet know what it was. Having no doubt seen his friend John Piper’s illustrated essay on ‘Nautical Style’ in Architectural Review a few months earlier, Ravilious may have included the fowl as an amusing addendum.

However, the most striking feature of this beautiful painting is the quality of the light. Dawn was this artist’s preferred time for outdoor work, and in many watercolours it is the radiant early morning light that seems his true subject. The striated iridescent sky would become a feature of Ravilious’s finest wartime paintings, but this is peacetime, and the scene is set for a holiday.

'Aldeburgh Bathing Machines' is going under the hammer at JS Auctions on Sept 27. I wrote the text above for the catalogue.

In other news, Towner will be opening its Ravilious room on Sept 12. This will be a resource room for fans of the artist, with an evolving display of work, plus books, documents, etc. Obviously I haven't seen it yet, so do contact the museum if you want to know more.


  1. What an exciting find! I love the way he has captured the light in his brushwork.

  2. The chicken is a cast iron chocolate vending machine made in Dresden, Germany by Hartwig & Vogel. You can see examples here: http://www.pennymachines.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=4048
    The others (also accurately represented) appear to be another tall vending machine, a weighing scale and a metal nameplate stamper by the British Automatic Company of London, examples of which can be seen here: http://www.pennymachines.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=590