Thursday, 31 January 2019

In Relation: Eric Ravilious & Tirzah Garwood

Tirzah Garwood, Hornet and Wild Rose, 1940s (Towner Gallery)

The story of Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood began in 1925 when the 22-year old Ravilious returned to his boyhood home to teach at the Eastbourne School of Art. Then in her late teens, a Colonel’s daughter and thoroughly respectable, Tirzah was already a student and observed the new staff member dispassionately:

‘He had a smart double-breasted suit and shy, diffident manners not unlike those of a curate and, with my family’s training behind me, I quickly spotted that he wasn’t quite a gentleman…’

Indeed, Ravilious was from a Chapel-going family, his father a small businessman whose fortunes were adversely affected by periods of religious mania. To Tirzah’s family, Ravilious was not at all the right sort; nevertheless a friendship gradually developed between the pair. He admired her drawings and wood engravings, in which she took what he had taught her technically but used the medium to explore her own subjects in her own way. As a student Ravilious had developed a distinctive approach to wood engraving, using pointed tools (scorpers) of his own devising to build up contrasting areas of pattern. Tirzah used a similar method here and there in her work, but a quick comparison shows that her interests were quite different; as she began exhibiting with the Society of Wood Engravers and gaining her first commissions from the BBC and the Curwen Press, she took great delight in producing caricatures of her family and various relatives.

By the end of the 1920s Tirzah had escaped the confines of respectable Eastbourne and was enjoying the artistic life in London (under the watchful eye of various Aunts), where Eric was also living. It was in a sense this unconventional, artistic life that she opted for when forced to choose between Ravilious and a far more suitable suitor: ‘a pipe-smoking husband’. She married into her new life in 1930.

Eric Ravilious, Tiger Moth, 1942 (Tate)

The couple moved into a flat on the Chiswick/Hammersmith border, almost on the bank of the Thames (and just downriver from Durham Wharf – see below), and in the spring enjoyed Boat Race parties with their neighbours. ‘We were very happy,’ Tirzah wrote, ‘and we both worked away at various jobs. Eric was illustrating Twelfth Night for the Golden Cockerel Press and I helped him cut away white backgrounds and take prints and I made chair covers and cushions…’  She also continued to make her own engravings, while Eric encouraged her to continue her education in London’s museums and libraries. And they quickly began evolving a shared aesthetic, visiting junk shops and collecting books, furniture and cactus plants. For a while cactuses were a favourite subject for their wood engravings.

The renting of a holiday place in rural Essex led in the mid-thirties to a permanent move to Castle Hedingham, but by this time the first thrill of marriage had worn off. Eric had one affair, then another, much more serious relationship with Helen Binyon, daughter of Laurence and (many years later) Eric’s first biographer. At one stage he left Tirzah and their first baby John, intending to move in with Helen, but returned. Tirzah meanwhile was in love with fellow artist John Aldridge. How on earth did they keep going? Honesty, it seems, was the key. Like the Bloomsbury set, they and most of their friends loathed the stuffy respectability of their upbringing and believed strongly in personal freedom. Neither Eric nor Tirzah kept secrets from each other, but discussed each other’s love problems with astonishing candour. Anyhow, they endured, so that when the free-and-easy days of peace were over and the difficult war years began, they were still together as a family. The warmth of Eric’s wartime letters is testament to their success. 

Eric’s achievements as an artist in these years are well-known, Tirzah’s hardly at all. By the mid-1930s she had more or less given up wood engraving (probably due to falling demand occasioned by the recession) and instead taken up marbling paper, becoming extremely adept at creating designs that were put to practical use as lampshades or endpapers for books; for very little money you can pick up Everyman editions from the late 1930s that carry Eric’s designs (in wood engraving) on the cover, and Tirzah’s endpapers.

She continued to draw too, demonstrating in her work a similar clarity to that seen in Eric’s watercolours and a similar gaze - at once innocent and a little mysterious, even disturbing. This vision of hers evolved rapidly after Eric’s death in 1942 when, in spite of having three young children, then a new husband and a long and eventually unsuccessful fight against cancer, she emerged as a quite remarkable artist. Perhaps she had been intimidated or in some way held back by Eric’s presence, or perhaps his death opened some door for her (as bereavement did for Paul Nash). But in her 3-D paper constructions of houses and shops, and in her oil paintings of birds and animals, insects and plants there are touches of brilliance. When she died in 1951 a remarkable talent was lost. 

This is an extract from 'In Relation: Nine Couples who Transformed Modern British Art', available from Sansom & Co. Eric and Tirzah feature in my lecture 'Lover, Teacher, Muse... or Rival?' which I'm giving at various places over the next few months - see side panel for details >>>


Unknown said...

just ordered 2 copies of the 9 couples book. Hope you may be lecturing again in London, Cambs or Bedfordshire soon, so to hear another of your excellent talks

James Russell said...

Thanks! I'm at Blackheath Halls on 3 April - info on sidebar >>>>>