A glimpse of hope and harmony

Eric Ravilious - official war artist, illustrator, decorator - created some of the most captivating images in 20th-century British art.
"There is hardly room to move, of course, so drawings have to be hasty... a blue gloom with coloured lights and everyone in shirts and braces. People go to sleep in odd positions across tables." This is not, as you might think, a description of a City nightclub, but Edward Ravilious's account of drawing the inmates and interiors of a wartime submarine. The extraordinary series of submarine lithographs that Ravilious produced as an Official War Artist in the summer of 1940, recently published in facsimile as a book and now on view at the Fine Art Society, provides a rare glimpse of a talent snuffed out by the artist's death on active service in 1942, aged only 39.

The key to Ravilious's work lies in the title image of this series. In it we see his hand drawing the picture - a declaration not only of the artist's presence and skill but also a testimony to the essence of his art. For Ravilious art was not artifice. Clearly, in the post-modernist world, it was pointless attempting to imitate nature through mere verisimilitude. Rather, art could only be a poetic transcription of reality as perceived by the artist. Having made this declaration to himself early on in his career, Ravilious set about satisfying it, producing, in his own inimitable brand of stylisation, some of the most memorable and captivating images in 20th- century British art.

Today, largely because of its size and nature (he was chiefly employed in his brief, 17-year career, as an illustrator and decorator), Ravilious's work does not often feature on the walls of our major public galleries. The last exhibition devoted to the artist was 10 years ago, but, if your appetite is whetted by "Submarine Dream", you will probably be satisfied by a visit to Eastbourne, where Ravilious attended art college (before the RCA), and whose Towner Art Gallery boasts the largest holding of his work, on permanent loan from the Ravilious family. Here is the full breadth of Ravilious's prodigious range, from lithographs to oil paintings and drawings, and the decorated porcelain so familiar in 1950s nurseries and kitchens.

Like his contemporaries, Eric Bawden and Rex Whistler (the latter also killed in the Second World War), Ravilious worked in a quintessentially English style, marrying the rustic engravings of Thomas Bewick with the linear elegance of Gainsborough, the everyday anecdote of Hogarth and something of the spirituality of Blake and Palmer. There is nothing tame about these images. Having been out of favour since the 1950s, largely thanks to Clement Greenberg the term decorative has in recent years begun to lose its pejorative associations and it is now possible to speak of the true rigour and boldness of Ravilious's work without fear of derision.

Certainly, in his early work, Ravilious may echo the mock-18th century precocity of late Art Deco. But look, for instance, at The Garden Path of 1934, or a vertiginous drawing of Beachy Head. Both images, reminiscent of the work of Edward Wadsworth, incorporate an essentially surrealist distorted perspective and unorthodox viewpoint. Similarly, a modest cotton handkerchief design of 1942 juxtaposes disjointed images of a unicorn, a pair of boots, a bicycle, a clock face and a gravestone in an apparently random collection of motifs. While it might be a child's counting guide, this could just as well be an exercise in Surrealist object association. Likewise, Train going over a Bridge at Night is both a potential book illustration and a Turner-esque allegory. From our knowing, late-20th century viewpoint we might be tempted to think of it as quaint. But, for all its undeniable Englishness, it is also powerful and brooding, and will not be dismissed merely as a still from an Ealing Comedy. There is always something more to Ravilious.

That, of course, is said with the benefit of hindsight. In 1941 the world was an ugly and brutal place and Ravilious's art offered a glimpse of hope and harmony. Today, although underpinned by an intrinsic and modest knowledge of art's "deeper" concerns, it is still his delight in the decorative pattern and colour of the world about him that immediately engages the viewer. And it was this that eventually proved his downfall. As his friend and fellow war artist John Nash remarked: "He seemed avid for fresh experiences, especially those where excitement or even danger were offered." In August 1942 he got his wish to travel to Greenland "to draw the Royal Marines... with duffel coats and perhaps those splendid plum skies". He never returned.

n 'Submarine Dream' is at the Fine Art Society, London W1 (0171-629 5116) to 17 May

n Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, Sussex (01323 417961)