Monday, 23 May 2016

An Unseen Ravilious

Eric Ravilious, HMS Actaeon, 1942
People often ask me if there are any more Ravilious watercolours to be discovered, to which the short answer is 'yes'. For instance, quite a few pictures from his first solo exhibition at Zwemmer Gallery in 1933 are unaccounted for. They exist only as titles in a catalogue, and not particularly descriptive titles at that. Other pictures have gone AWOL since his second and third exhibitions, but not many, likewise few known paintings from his years as a war artist are missing.

But not all his work was exhibited in his lifetime or handed over to the War Artists' Advisory Committee. Now and again he painted a watercolour for somebody, either (one would imagine) as a private commission or as a gift. Which is why a lovely painting like 'HMS Actaeon' can suddenly materialise in a London exhibition, almost seventy-five years after it was painted.

This watercolour goes on view at the Fine Art Society in June, as part of an exhibition to celebrate the gallery's 140th anniversary. According to the catalogue, Ravilious gave the painting to Lieutenant West, a mine disposal officer stationed aboard this curious looking vessel.

HMS Actaeon was a floating training and research facility housing the Royal Navy torpedo school, and part of a larger shore establishment at Portsmouth named HMS Vernon. Actaeon itself was a 50-gun ‘fourth rate’ launched in 1832 and attached to the torpedo school in 1876. She had been commissioned originally as HMS Vernon but was renamed in 1886 to avoid confusion and the torpedo school took over her name. 

In the Second World War, and following on from the increasing use of mines, Vernon took on responsibility for mine disposal and developing mine countermeasures. The staff were able to capture a number of enemy mines and develop successful countermeasures. A number of officers working with Vernon were awarded Distinguished Service Orders for their successes in capturing new types of mine. Some of these were the first Royal Naval decorations of the war.

So what had Ravilious to do with West? On-the-ball Rav fans may remember the naval officer as one of the figures in a trio shown in the 1940 painting 'Dangerous Work at Low Tide'. They are en route to defuse a mine, which appears small but sinister in the distance. You can see a close-up of the group in the video below, about a minute in, and in the title image.

It seems that Ravilious gave Lieutenant West the painting of 'HMS Actaeon' as a thankyou, presumably for allowing him to come along that morning and making all the necessary - and no doubt irritating - arrangements. One curious thing, though. According to the catalogue this painting is dated 1942. Ravilious watched the mine defusing operation early in 1940, and was then in Portsmouth that summer; by 1942 he had left the Royal Navy and was working with the RAF. So either there's been a mix-up with the dates, or Ravilious promised the picture but took a while to paint it, or he and Lieutenant West ran into each other at some point long after that dangerous dawn.

The Fine Art Society 1876-2016: A Celebration opens on 6th June.

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