I went to a talk about the life and work of Eric Ravilious this week. I’m familiar with his wood engravings but knew little of his life or his paintings so thought I’d take an early lunch break and trot along to the FOSMAG lecture in town.
Born in 1903, it seems that Ravilious had a pleasant childhood and uneventful adult life (before it was tragically cut short in 1942 when he was just 39). I say uneventful; he married (and had affairs), had three children and a very successful career in design before being commissioned as a war artist at the outbreak of the second world war. I guess what I mean is that as far as I know, his life seemed relatively trauma-free. And by all accounts he was terminally cheery. Fellow artist and friend Douglas Percy Bliss said, ‘I never saw him depressed. Even when he fell in love – and that was frequently – he was never submerged by disappointment. Cheerfulness kept creeping in.’ How tiring that must have been for everyone around him.
Even in the throes of war, he seemed abnormally optimistic. About his post in the Observer Corps on Sudbury Hill, he wrote: ‘We wear lifeboatmen's outfits against the weather and tin hats for show. It is like a Boy's Own Paper story, what with spies and passwords and all manner of nonsense.’ And in the midst of bloody sea battle off the coast of Norway: ‘I enjoyed it a lot, even the bombing which is wonderful fireworks.’ Insane.
This cheeriness filters through to his war paintings, which rather leave me cold. Whilst I don’t dispute that he was a talented artist, to me his watercolours feel like an extension of his design work and have nothing of the horrors of war about them; there’s no angst or real sense of drama. The pale colours and simple shapes might look more at home as fabric designs (I wouldn’t mind his cheery boats and planes bobbing across my curtains…). His wood engravings on the other hand, are a whole different ball game - much more effective. Think I'll stick with those.