Gardening: Flowers untouched by human hand: Anna Pavord goes in search of the greenhouse that inspired Eric Ravilious, in our occasional series on gardens in art

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ERIC RAVILIOUS painted at least three watercolours of greenhouse interiors in the Thirties, but in all of them it seems to have been the patterns made by the structure itself that interested him more than what was inside it. The geraniums in their pots and the tall carnations trapped inside the heavy wooden cage on the left of the picture above are incidental to the strong diagonal lines of the roof struts, the bold edges of the greenhouse benches and the bars of the carnations' enclosure.

His greenhouse paintings have the same odd quality of a place seen in a dream. There is evidence of intense gardening activity here, but no sensation of a gardener or indeed of any human presence at all. A rather surreal air permeates the scene. The sack lying on the floor seems weightless, the lettering on it just sufficient to give it substance. The geraniums are real enough; you can see the rings on the leaves that brand them as zonals rather than regals. But the pervading atmosphere is cool and bloodless.

None of the three greenhouse pictures gives any sense of the world outside the glass walls. Here, a complicated hipped roof slopes down towards the back, then in a different plane to the wall behind the geraniums. Beyond the wooden slats stacked diagonally against the far wall is the ghostly image of another greenhouse roof.

Certainly, this was not Ravilious's own greenhouse. He does not seem to have been a gardening man, though he occasionally tackled gardening subjects, such as the trio of greenhouse paintings, a marrow bed (sold for eight guineas in his first show at the Zwemmer Gallery, London, in 1933), a strawberry bed and a cucumber house.

He grew up in Eastbourne and trained at the Royal College of Art, one of an exceptionally bright bunch that included Edward Bawden and Henry Moore. He married a student at the Eastbourne Art School, where he had returned to teach, and with Bawden and his wife rented a cottage, Brick House, in Great Bardfield, Essex.

'Edward and Rav are at Bardfield this week decorating the 'Victorian' room,' Charlotte Bawden wrote to a friend. 'They are threatening to paint stags' horns and trophies of the chase in suitable positions on the wall, and forget-me-nots and pansies round the fireplace, but I think Rav will keep a discreet hand over Edward's rococo spirit.'

Both artists painted views of the back garden at Brick House. The centrepiece of Ravilious's work is a fretwork gazebo, painted bright white and looking as though it has been newly erected. There is no sign of a greenhouse and, anyway, the scale of the one in Ravilious's paintings suggests that it must have been attached to a large country house.

Might this have been Oare House in Wiltshire, the country home of Sir Geoffrey Fry, Stanley Baldwin's private secretary and a generous patron of young artists? At the same time as Ravilious was painting massive murals at the Morley College for Working Men and Women, Lambeth, he was decorating door panels for Sir Geoffrey's flat in Portman Court. During the Thirties, Ravilious and his wife were often invited to Oare House, which had a large kitchen garden. But did it also have a large greenhouse? Bernard Upton, gardener at Oare Court for nearly 40 years, thinks it unlikely.

Sir Geoffrey, he reports, was not keen on glass and would scarcely have needed the acres of produce shown in Ravilious's pictures. There are vast quantities of carnations in the greenhouse picture owned by the British Council; benches full of cyclamen in the one owned by the Tate. Perhaps this was a market garden operation.

The painting above, Geraniums and Carnations, was exhibited at Arthur Tooth & Son's gallery in 1939, priced at 15 guineas. During the previous five years, Ravilious had been painting a great deal around Lewes and Firle, in East Sussex, where a friend from his Royal College days had a cottage. He painted sinuous smooth landscapes of the South Downs, floods at Lewes, the Alpha Cement Works - and the greenhouses.

Firle Place, home of the Gage family for 500 years or so, is perhaps where he found them. It used to have a huge kitchen garden, but some time before the last war it was divided in two. One half was taken over by a nurseryman. That would explain the vast numbers of carnations, each grown in a small pot and trained up to make long stems for cutting.

These days, computer systems monitor the amount of food and water, pumped from overhead sprays, that the flowers require. Plants are even moved around automatically on robot dollies. The eerie absence of human beings, the mysterious emptiness suggested in Ravilious's paintings, has become reality.

The greenhouse in the Tate's picture is immensely long. Raised beds are contained within brick walls built on either side of a central gangway paved with terracotta tiles and perforated with iron grilles for underfloor heating. The raised beds have wooden covers, on top of which stand massed ranks of cyclamen in pots. But the beds themselves are not wasted. From the back of the covers, the thick stems of tomato plants, planted in the soil of the raised beds, are trained like vines up the side ribs of the greenhouse and along the struts of the roof. They bear a heavy crop of yellow tomatoes that make a tunnel all the way through the building, and provide useful shade for the cyclamen.

Watercolour was only one of the media in which Ravilious worked. He was an expert wood engraver, and used this technique to illustrate some of the books published by the fine small presses of the Thirties, such as the Golden Cockerel Press and the Golden Hours Press. The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne has the originals, as well as smaller pieces of work such as labels and bookplates. One bookplate shows a greenhouse scene in miniature, stout wooden shelves holding a collection of auriculas, sempervivums, aeoniums, primulas and an opuntia cactus.

When war broke out, Ravilious joined the Royal Observer Corps, then was appointed as one of the Admiralty's war artists. By 1942 he was with a group of marines in Iceland, but on 1 September that year the Air Sea Rescue plane on which he was a passenger went down in the sea. Ravilious's body was never found.

THE LARGEST collection of Eric Ravilious's work (though none of the greenhouse paintings) is held by the Towner Art Gallery, High Street, Old Town, Eastbourne, open Tues-Sat (10am-5pm) and Sun (2-5pm). As well as paintings and wood engravings, the gallery has an interesting collection of the ceramics Ravilious designed for Wedgwood. Geraniums and Carnations is in private ownership. Carnations, owned by the British Council, is on show in Delhi. The Tate Gallery, London, has Cyclamen and Tomatoes.

For a full account, read Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist, by Helen Binyon (Lutterworth Press, pounds 15). Eric Ravilious 1903-42: A Reassessment of his Life and Work is the title of an exhibition catalogue published in 1986; copies are available from the Towner Art Gallery (pounds 4.95). The garden at Oare House, near Pewsey, Wiltshire, is open tomorrow (2-6pm), admission pounds 1. Firle Place, near Lewes, East Sussex, is open from May-September, Sun, Wed and Thurs, 2-5pm, admission pounds 3.25.

(Photograph omitted)