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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate