War on Film – Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War

Taylor Downing reviews a new documentary.

The role of the official war artist has always been a fascinating one. The brief is to record conflict as he or she sees it in the air, at sea, or on the land. But are they to be an arm of propaganda intended to boost morale on the home front? Or should they provide a more personal exploration of what war meant and how it was seen through an experienced artist’s eye?

The work of Eric Ravilious in the Second World War raises all these questions, and it is splendid that in a recently released film, Margy Kinmonth has made this documentary about his life and work.

I am puzzled that it should be made for the cinema, as usually it is only celebrities – John McEnroe, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Mohammed Ali – who attract paying audiences to see a documentary on the big screen. But I hope audiences will seek it out, as Kinmonth has produced a fascinating film, which is also a visual feast.

Eric Ravilious began his life as an artist in the 1920s. At the Royal College of Art, he studied under Paul Nash, who had been a distinguished official war artist in the First World War. Nash would be a major influence on Ravilious’s work for many years. The first technique the young student mastered was wood engraving, a form that he kept up for much of his life.

Many will be familiar with Ravilious’s engraving of two men playing cricket, which has adorned the front cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack for more than 80 years. From woodcuts, Ravilious moved on to painting watercolours. Commissions in both forms just about kept him going. But earning enough money to live moderately well proved a challenge throughout his life.

Kinmonth’s film begins with some beautiful images of mist rolling over the South Downs and of the chalk outline of the Wilmington Giant. A young boy appears, signifying the beginning of Ravilious’s long love affair with the area and this mystical giant figure in the landscape. Then a biplane appears overhead. This marks the young Ravilious’s other obsession, with aircraft, flying, and the machines of war.

The film tells the story of Ravilious’s life by concentrating on his relationship with Tirzah Garwood. Most of the narrative is conveyed through the reading of their letters to each other. Freddie Fox reads Ravilious’s letters with a lovely mix of boyish enthusiasm and innocence. Tamsin Greig reads Tirzah’s letters with a charming but rather more world-wise tone.

The two met at the Eastbourne College of Art in 1926, where he was a 23-year-old tutor, and she an 18-year-old student. Ravilious was popular with all his students, especially the women. A photo shows Tirzah as a young beauty with her lively young tutor as he asks to go on a walk. Tirzah, looking back on this first ‘date’, later remembers that she was ‘a bit apprehensive, not sure how anyone who was not quite a gentleman might behave under such intimate circumstances.’

Four years later, in July 1930, Eric and Tirzah married. A delightful home movie records the event and is used as a way to introduce the members of the two families. Hers were upper class. His were poor, lower middle class. Her family totally disapproved of Eric and thought Tirzah was marrying beneath herself. But it was a love match, even though the two young artists struggled to earn a living. Her parents were obviously unsympathetic and not inclined to offer much help.

By this time, Ravilious was already producing some of his wonderful watercolours of the English countryside, especially of the South Downs. The film is packed with his works of art and, if you don’t already know his distinctive style, I’m sure you will soon become a fan of it.

The film includes many interviews with admirers who reflect on his paintings. Alan Bennett asks what it is to be English and claims Ravilious is at the centre of the nation’s identity with his depictions of the English countryside. But Bennett insists it is not a cosy view and can be quite unsettling at times. Grayson Perry praises Ravilious for his skilful techniques and his mastery of his form, whether wood engravings or watercolours.

In 1932, Eric and Tirzah moved to Great Bardfield in Essex, where they shared a house with another artist, Edward Bawden, and his wife, Charlotte. The house became a centre for young and upcoming artists. In the late 1930s, they moved back to the South Downs to live in a house called Furlongs. There, Eric had a series of affairs. Their daughter Anne, the only surviving child of Eric and Tirzah, describes in an interview how painful this was for her mother. But after a couple of years, Eric returned to his wife and she became pregnant. From this point on he was devoted to her.

Meanwhile, in the late 1930s, the prospect of war was looming over Europe. In one painting of the Wiltshire countryside, the pathway winds off into the distance towards a series of storm clouds. Ravilious was very aware of the precarious times they were living through.

War artists project

When war finally came in September 1939, Ravilious initially joined the Royal Observer Corps. But in December that year, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, persuaded the Ministry of Information to employ official war artists, reviving a project first set up during the First World War. The purpose was partly propagandistic, to promote Britishness and help boost morale, but also to provide a sort of documentary record of the nation at war. This would obviously not be a photographic record. That was being captured by official photographers and film-makers.

Instead, it would be a record interpreted through the unique eyes of an artist. Ravilious was asked to become one of the first war artists and was commissioned as a captain in the Royal Marines. He was delighted to be approached and openly admitted that a regular salary from the Ministry of Information would be very helpful during the challenging days of war.

The second half of the film focuses entirely on Ravilious’s time as an official war artist. Often stationed apart from his wife and young family, the letters between Eric and Tirzah carry the narrative of the next few years. Imaginative though the film is, it resorts rather too frequently to shots of hands writing letters. But the correspondence is highly revealing. It expresses Ravilious’s sense of engagement, that he felt part of the war effort and was totally committed to the art he was producing. But he still felt forever poor. As he explained in one 1940 letter to Tirzah, ‘it’s hard to keep up the pace of painting all year round,’ especially seeing that he could still not pay his bills. He asks his wife to send him five pounds. She does.

Interviews with curators from the Imperial War Museum keep us informed of his many varied assignments. In April 1940, he was on HMS Highlander in the Arctic Sea and observed the fiasco of the Norwegian campaign. He was a witness to the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, with the loss of 1,500 lives. Having heard reports of the sinking of Glorious, Tirzah was frantic about the danger her husband was in. ‘I think of you working at sea under attack,’ she wrote. ‘I shall be so relieved to have you back here.’

Eric and his wife slowly grew apart. He loved his work and the thrill of being amidst the preparations for war. ‘I do like this life and the people,’ he once wrote to her. But back in a new home they had rented, Ironbridge Farm in Shalford, Essex, Tirzah was struggling to bring up a young family. Stressed and exhausted, she became ill.

Ravilious, however, moved from one assignment to another. He painted light ships at sea. At Scapa Flow he painted the fleet at anchor. Then he was assigned to a submarine, HMS Dolphin. Here there was no space for him to paint, so he could only make sketches, drawings, and notes, which he later turned into watercolours.

In late 1940, he was sent to Newhaven to paint the sea defences. He was later posted to the Island of May, off the west coast of Scotland, which he loved, and then to Dundee air station, where he drew the aircraft of war and once again became obsessed with the magic of flight, as he had been as a boy.

Recognisably Ravilious

The artist’s war work was, in Alan Bennett’s phrase, ‘recognisably Ravilious’. It displays a fascination with the shapes of the machinery of warfare, especially fighting ships and aircraft. However, I agree with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who thinks his works ‘romanticise war’ and display a childish innocence about conflict. Some of them do suggest menace, although at no point do they convey the horror of war. Yet Ravilious did witness terrible moments of death and destruction.

The documentary uses archive clips throughout the story of Ravilious’s war years. These don’t add much and there is one outrageous misuse of archive film. We hear in a letter from Tirzah that a ship carrying some of Eric’s paintings to South America has been sunk and his art has ended at the bottom of the sea. Unbelievably, to illustrate this, the documentary shows HMS Barham exploding in the Mediterranean in November 1941.

This remarkable piece of film, shot by a newsreel cameraman on an adjoining vessel, shows Barham beginning to capsize and then, when sailors are scrambling to save themselves, its magazine igniting. The ship is literally blown apart in a gigantic explosion, in a disaster that claimed 862 lives. The shot is entirely gratuitous and should never have been used to convey the sinking of a cargo-carrying vessel in the mid-Atlantic.

LEFT Tirzah Garwood and her husband Eric Ravilious. While Ravilious moved with enthusiasm from one wartime project to another, Garwood had to bring up a young family alone.
Tirzah Garwood and her husband Eric Ravilious. While Ravilious moved with enthusiasm from one wartime project to another, Garwood had to bring up a young family alone. Image: Foxtrot Films/ESRO/The Keep.

By 1942, Tirzah had developed breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and took time to recover. Her husband transferred to Essex to be near her but soon grew restless, missing his role as a war artist. He was drawn to painting mountains and snowy peaks, and leapt at the opportunity of a posting to Iceland, where the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union were assembling to begin their hazardous journey to Murmansk or Archangel. Eric and Tirzah said their farewells – not knowing it would be their last.

Ravilious loved Iceland and had great plans for work there. But on 2 September 1942, he was invited as a passenger to join an aircraft on a mission to search for a downed American airplane. Whilst on this mission, his aircraft suffered from some sort of technical problem and crashed into the sea.

Ravilious, aged only 39, was killed in the accident. The film expresses this in a moving underwater montage. He was the first official war artist to be killed on active service during the Second World War. Ironically, it was not as a consequence of enemy action but of a technical failure in one of the aircraft he had loved since boyhood.

The Ravilious documentary is visually a fine piece of work – although it fails to place the artist in the general context of British culture in the 1930s. And it makes the rather ludicrous claim that Ravilious remained almost unknown until Edward Bawden discovered some of his fellow artist’s paintings under his own bed, some forty years after Ravilious’s death.

Ravilious was in fact well known when alive and, although there might have been a dip in his popularity after the war, his work has been copied and reproduced on a massive scale for many subsequent decades. Despite its faults, I wish the documentary every success and hope it will raise awareness among audiences of the fascinating role of official war artists. •

Official artists in the Great War

In 1916, Charles Masterman, head of the British War Propaganda Bureau, came up with the idea of sending war artists to the front to make their own interpretations of what they saw. The first was Muirhead Bone, who was given permission to travel up and down the lines making sketches. They were published in an anthology called The Western Front in December 1916 and formed part of a very successful exhibition the following year.

Next, a well-known portraitist, Francis Dodd, was asked to paint a series of paintings of generals and admirals. Although this early work had some propagandist intent, it seems that as time passed the briefs given to the artists allowed for more freedom. In 1917, not just established and safe artists but several young radicals of the day were sent to France as well. Paul Nash had been in the infantry and was invalided home in early 1917 but went on to produce many memorable paintings, including The Menin Road and The Ypres Salient at Night. Stanley Spencer was part of the avant-garde Vorticist movement when he was asked to work as an official artist.

The American painter John Singer Sargent was commissioned to produce work that would in some way symbolise Anglo-American sacrifice. He went on to paint one of the most famous artworks of the war, Gassed, in which a long and tragic line of blindfolded soldiers, with their hands on the shoulder of the man in front, are being led along a series of duckboards by a medical orderly.

The work of these artists has helped shape our vision of mud, barbed wire, trenches, and life and death on the Western Front. Many of the paintings are now held by the Imperial War Museum.

Official artists in contemporary wars

The idea of commissioning official war artists was repeated from 1939 to 1945. As part of the Ministry of Information, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) sent more than 400 artists to front lines across this global war. In 1982, the concept of the official war artist was revived when the Imperial War Museum asked Linda Kitson to accompany the British task force to the Falklands, where she made more than 400 drawings.

The IWM now manages the Art Commissions Committee and has sent, among others, painter Peter Howson to Bosnia, director Steve McQueen to Iraq, and photographer Mark Neville to Afghanistan, after which he suffered from PTSD. Eric Ravilious is part of a long British tradition of artists being commissioned to record their very personal and different takes on modern warfare.

Eric Ravilious: Drawn To War (2022)
Written, produced, and directed by Margy Kinmonth with principal photography by Rob Goldie and Richard Ranken. A Dartmouth and Foxtrot Films Production. Available on Curzon Home Cinema (homecinema.curzon.com/film/eric-ravilious-drawn-to-war) and to purchase on DVD via Foxtrot Films (foxtrotfilms.com).
Images: Foxtrot Films/IWM.