Thursday 16 April 2015

Ravilious in Pictures: Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge

Eric Ravilious, Iron Bridge at Ewenbridge, 1941-2, Fry Art Gallery

Beneath bare winter branches a bridge leads across a stream to open country beyond. For a rural footbridge this is an impressive structure, with iron railings and posts supported by elegant iron hoops, but on closer inspection it appears that the bridge was built not for human traffic but for sheep. The ground in front of the bridge is well worn, the hill beyond ideal for grazing. The name too is suggestive. Charles Strachey recalls that his family always referred to the farm as Ewenbridge and, despite a lack of hard evidence, believes that the site may mark an ancestral crossing place for livestock.

This was one of several watercolours Ravilious painted in lieu of rent (to Labour politician and author John Strachey); it is unlikely that we would have any pictures of Ironbridge – or, for that matter, any non-war related paintings from this period – if the arrangement had not been in place. And this is an exquisite piece, one that celebrates good, everyday design and workmanship while inviting an imaginative response. A fairytale troll might live beneath this bridge; a pilgrim might cross to the other side. The elegant ironwork suggests a faith in the power of good design to carry us safely into the future.

In September 1942, only months after completing this painting, Ravilious was reported missing off the coast of Iceland. Still weak from surgery, Tirzah now found the government reluctant to pay either her late husband’s outstanding salary or her widow’s pension. She was forced to argue her case repeatedly, until she finally received the money owed to her a year later and was able to concentrate on the business of living. She began painting in oils, and in 1946 married BBC man Henry Swanzy. However, her cancer returned and she died in March 1951, with Anne not quite 10 years old.

Here the story takes a twist in keeping with Ravilious’s optimistic nature. With the upheavals of the war, their old Hedingham friend Kay Goodden had parted from her first husband Robert, and by coincidence married Henry Swanzy’s brother John. On Tirzah’s death Kay and John took the Ravilious children in, and gave them a stable and happy home.

This future lay ahead, unseen, as Ravilious sketched the bridge. He was at Ironbridge on and off during the summer, as the farm became idyllic once again. In June he reported, ‘The river here looks lovely and I bathed today. The old man Brown who keeps the boats wears a battered old Panama and stinging vermilion football jersey in these grey green willows.’

He came and went, returning for the last time in August to find the children waiting. ‘The Baffy (James) and Anne were at Overall’s corner when I returned…’ he wrote, ‘James chasing a cat and Anne laughing with joy to see her Father.’

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Country Life', published by The Mainstone Press.

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