Saturday, 26 March 2016

Eric Ravilious and a Boat Race Landmark

Eric Ravilious, River Thames at Hammersmith, 1933 (Towner)

Although he was born in London and lived there on and off through his twenties, Ravilious painted few watercolours of the capital. Fans of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race may recognise the scene, however, as the island lies about halfway along the course, just around the Surrey Bend from Hammersmith Bridge. We are looking from Chiswick Mall over the western end of Chiswick Eyot towards the low-lying land of Barnes.

By 1933, Ravilious and Tirzah were dividing their time between Great Bardfield in Essex, where they shared a house with Edward and Charlotte Bawden, and a flat on Weltje Road, Hammersmith, which overlooked the river a short way downstream of this vantage point. Here the couple held Boat Race parties every spring, particularly enjoying the moment of drama when the thin, pointed prows of the boats first appeared out from under Hammersmith Bridge, with the spreading swarm of little steamers and motor-boats following behind. In 1938 Ravilious designed for Wedgwood a magnificent Boat Race bowl.

Further upstream, Tirzah later recalled, ‘was a barge made into a boat house... and even further along was our landlady Mrs Austin and then Mr Nigel Playfair’s house with its large semi-circle of window... opposite these houses was a little island called the ‘Ey’ or Ait’ which you could visit at low tide’

It was perhaps from the landlady’s window that Ravilious painted a scene that is full of interest. In the foreground a workman gazes upriver, ignoring for the moment the piles of bricks and sand that he is about to build into the slipway one can see today. Beyond him lies the island, one of those low, cigar-shaped accumulations of mud that belong uniquely to the tidal Thames. From it protrude curious tufts of vegetation. They could be rushes, except that the plants on the far left, which are uncut, seem more substantial. Something is certainly being cultivated here, but what?

The Eyot floods at high tide with brackish water, making it useless for most crops but ideal for growing willows such as the shrubby, multi-stemmed osier (Salix viminalis). This fast-growing plant was once vital to fruit growers and market gardeners, who relied on its stems, known as withies, for basket-making. In earlier centuries Chiswick was renowned for its market gardens and, from around 1800, the Eyot was used to cultivate osiers, a practice that continued until the last grower went out of business two years after this painting was made.

Osiers still grow on the island, now a nature reserve. Nearby another longstanding local industry remains very much in business – an industry in which the artist had a considerable interest. Fuller’s Griffin Brewery occupies the same extensive site just behind the artist’s vantage point on Chiswick Mall, as it did in 1933 and has indeed since 1845. Perhaps, as he worked, Ravilious smelled the fragrant hops and looked forward to a pint of London Pride.

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

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