Monday, 18 May 2015

Ravilious, Auerbach, Englishness

Eric Ravilious, Waterwheel, 1938, painted at Capel-y-Ffin, Wales; described by ER as 'a bit Chinese'
I had a phone call last week from columnist Ian Jack, who wanted my opinion on the subject of Eric Ravilious and Englishness; his typically nuanced and thought-provoking article is here. The fact that Ian is Scottish made our conversation particularly interesting, from my side at least. My father was from north of the border, and bar the accidents of fate I might have grown up in Edinburgh. If I now think of myself as English it is perhaps because 'British' carries echoes of the imperial past, although it may have more to do with cricket.

Currier and Ives, Champions of the Mississippi, 1866 lithograph: a similar print hung above ER's mantlepiece
The Ravilious name is not especially English-sounding (it's probably Huguenot), and during the war he sometimes found himself rather desperately identifying himself to bayonet-wielding sentries. As Baptists Eric's parents were part of the Non-Conformist movement that opposed the authority of the Church of England; he abandoned Chapel but retained a fundamental belief in personal freedom. This is reflected in his refusal to join the various movements on offer (Surrealists, Unit One, etc), in a lack of enthusiasm for party politics, in his (and his wife's) complicated romantic lives, and above all in his determination to follow his own vision. Conflict with wartime superiors was one result of this attitude.

Was that vision particularly English? There are paintings on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery which were created in Scotland, Wales, France and Norway, as well as England, but Ravilious was perhaps most inspired by the South Downs. The simplicity of the landscape, the chalky soil and the pale light appealed to him; horses and giants carved into the chalk resembled wood engravings, and so were perhaps more attractive still.

Georges Seurat, The Channel of Gravelines, 1890 oil, Indianapolis Museum of Art
It doesn't follow, however, that his choice of particular subjects reflected a nationalist or even patriotic impulse. True, Ravilious and his friend Edward Bawden were influenced by English artists of the past (Palmer, Cotman, Towne) but their interest in the local and particular was fuelled by exposure to the work of Van Gogh, Seurat and sundry other European painters (some of whom had been inspired, circuitously, by Constable). Did Van Gogh paint in Arles because he was on a retainer from the local tourist board? Was Monet out to boost Rouen Cathedral?

Ravilious had plans at different times to visit the United States, Greenland and Russia, among other places. Had he survived the war perhaps he would have beaten David Hockney to California. His favourite book, after all, was 'Huckleberry Finn'.

Hokusai, Ocean Waves, c1830
Having said all this, is there something peculiarly English about the way Ravilious approached his subjects - in his style? Again, there are no simple answers. He began his career as a draughtsman who tinted his drawings, and as such was following a very long insular tradition of line drawing, one that Paul Nash related back to Celtic design and medieval book illustration. (Nash, incidentally, talked in terms of British art, not English.) There's a brightness and clarity about his watercolours that, again, seems to have insular roots, although these are equally features of 19th century Japanese prints - which also display a marvellous use of line. You could probably argue that much of the Englishness we see in Ravilious comes instead, indirectly, from Asia.

Eric Ravilious, Storm, 1941, British Council

It's a tangled business, this, and to illuminate I'd like to introduce Frank Auerbach, the German-born British painter who has a retrospective at Tate Britain this year. Reading an interview in The Guardian yesterday I was struck by his humour, modesty and good sense. In particular he had this to say about art history:

“Aesthetics is more interesting than history. I wonder sometimes if people who are taught art history were asked to describe pictures, rather than put them in various sociological or historical settings of influence, how much they could say that would make somebody else see more in them. Does the quality of appreciation somehow atrophy when they assume that everything is part of a general story, rather than the general story being a vast mass of the mediocre and a few really great pictures which make the whole activity worthwhile, and which have a curious fellowship throughout the ages? Finally what matters is whether the picture works, and that could be Giotto or Fragonard or Monet, and finally the criteria as to why it works are the same. In a way I think of a Cézanne and a Giotto being closer to each other than a Cézanne and a Pissarro.”

So we can discuss Ravilious in all sorts of ways, and reach all manner of conclusions. But in the end it's the pictures that matter.

Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting by Catherine Lampert is published by Thames & Hudson on 25 May, priced £19.95. The exhibition will be at Tate Britain, London, SW1P from 9 October.

Ravilious continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until August 31. I'm doing a series of three talks at Dulwich, starting this week (info in sidebar, over that way -->)

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded of scenes from High Street, gardens with tables set for tea, train journeys, cricket, Wedgwood pottery; all of these images spring to mind when I think of ER. All great works of art despite being quiet and unassuming. I would be glad to celebrate his art as English.