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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003