Tuesday 6 July 2010

Eric and James Ravilious

A superb exhibition opened last Friday at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne. The Towner, long a repository of some fine work by that most English of watercolourists, Eric Ravilious, has a show featuring not only his paintings but also a photographic collection of the work of his son James. Sadly the two never knew each other as Eric lost his life in a flying accident during the war whilst employed as an official war artist. James grew up with his father's eye for truth and observation though, and his recording of scenes of village life and landcsape around his home in Devon never lapse into either chocolate box or have so much 'verité' that they become inaccessible - simply, it is as if the photographer is not there, his presence never trespassing upon the scene - a rare gift and proof positive that James was completely accepted by his subjects with an ability to blend into the background. Never asked to pose, the characters peopling his work are consequently full of life and vigour. Eric's work has always been amongst that of my favourite artists...watercolours and yet not in the conventional style, a dry brush, cross hatching, muted colours, extreme detail but also expanses of landscape and sky with hard edges to the clouds. Of course I'm no Bernard Berenson so my analysis is a bit thin and it sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does, triumphantly! There's a lot about his chosen subject matter that pleases a Sussex person and indeed much of the exhibition contains work from my area, but again not always the obvious...of course The Downs, but also Newhaven Harbour and the long-gone Cement works only a couple of miles from the highly decorated Charleston 'set'.

On show too are Ravilious' wood engraving (his engravings are stunning works in miniature by the way) tools wrapped in a velvet cloth and James' beloved Leica camera with its customised lenses. Thinking I might finally avail myself of the reproduction Ravilious 'Alphabet' mug by Wedgwood at the gallery shop I was told that they are no longer available and the manufacturer's future is far from rosy...sad but there were two lovely books to be had featuring the work of father and son to which I can turn whenever I need a Ravilious fix.