Friday, 27 February 2015

Ravilious and Bawden: An Artistic Friendship

Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden Working in his Studio, tempera on board, 1930 (Royal College of Art)

In the autumn of 1922 a group of new students arrived for their first day at the Design School of the Royal College of Art, next door to the V&A. Among them were two young men from the provinces, neither yet twenty, both from chapel-going, shopkeeping families. In some ways they were very different. Famously, Edward Bawden was so shy he preferred to walk around London rather than board a bus, whereas Eric Ravilious leapt straight into the social whirl of college life. 

But as well as their background they also shared a love of the incongruous and the antique. Together with another new arrival, Douglas Percy Bliss, they became firm friends. 

A talented writer, Bliss later wrote a warm, perceptive book on Bawden, in which he described the young Edward as 'a little outside life'. He went on:

But we knew him for a genius, Eric and I. We did not laugh at him but with him. And what laughter we had! He had such odd habits. If a stranger approached him he got into reverse gear and backed away to the wall. His extraordinary innocence and ignorance of what John Bull cares about, his complete indifference to Everyman's interests, Sport, Politics, Ballet, Music, etc, all this puzzled and delighted us. It was like having a foreigner in our midst. Moreover his sense of humour transfigured every object in our daily lives.

Ravilious was also described by contemporaries throughout his life as being 'slightly somewhere else', but he shared many of 'Everyman's interests', from tennis and cricket to fancy dress parties and dances. He worked hard but had a reputation for being carefree, earning the nickname 'the Boy' for his youthful insouciance. Bawden worked constantly and didn't care who knew it. By the time they left the Royal College he was becoming established as a commercial illustrator, then came the mural commission that brought the pair to public attention for the first time.

At Morley College, across the river from Westminster, Ravilious and Bawden worked on different walls of the canteen to create an exuberant celebration of Elizabethan theatre, which was opened to widespread acclaim by Stanley Baldwin early in 1930. Not long afterwards, Bawden asked Rav to paint this portrait of him at work.

This is what I wrote about it for the Dulwich catalogue (currently at the printers):

This delightful painting is a rarity for Ravilious: a portrait painted in tempera. As a watercolourist he was just beginning to find his way at this stage in his career, and it is unclear why he abandoned a medium that he used here to such good effect. In this highly finished painting we have his close friend Edward Bawden, working on a painting of Clacton Pier in his back room in Redcliffe Road, Chelsea; the rolls of paper in the corner are studies for the Morley College murals, testament to the amount of work the artists put into the project. 

While certainly a portrait, this is a painting as much of Bawden’s aesthetic world as it is of him in person. Though excessively hard-working and painfully shy, the boy from Braintree was a trendsetter, particularly in his admiration for Victoriana – note the rococo mirror and easel, and the bust of Queen Alexandra on the mantelpiece. The guardsman’s jacket on the floor could have been carelessly dropped by a visiting Beatle; we might remember that Bawden was an influential teacher at the RCA when Peter Blake and his contemporaries studied there after World War II. 

There is something curiously animated about the jacket, and with the curtained corner and the tailor’s bust the overall picture has an understated strangeness that presages the mood of Ravilious’s later watercolours.

It was in 1930, in fact, that the two friends went in search of a weekend retreat in order to paint watercolours, discovering Brick House in the Essex village of Great Bardfield. There they worked, often literally side by side, producing during the decade that followed a startling body of paintings.
Of these, Ravilious's share is becoming well known, with many of his best watercolours about to be shown at Dulwich. Bawden's contribution is currently less visible, because the detective work needed to find work bought at exhibition in the 1930s is only now being done, but be prepared: there are some exciting paintings out there.