IN THE last room of the exhibition “Ravilious” at Dulwich Picture Gallery is a watercolour of a lighthouse near Beachy Head. Belle Tout Interior (1939) is not a conventional scene of the South Coast. Instead, it is a view from inside the great lantern.
Eric Ravilious (1903-42) makes us see the familiar white cliffs from an unexpected and vertiginous angle. The glazing bars make a grid across our vision. They curve out, distorting perspective, and catch the rays of a rising sun. Beyond and below, the undulations of the cliff edge are marked in green and white.
Painted on the eve of war, Ravilious’s image of the English Channel could have been clichéd or nostalgic. But the modernist tension created by the panes of glass between us and the landscape produces a shiver of disquiet.
Ravilious worked largely in watercolour, with forays into print-making and designing for Wedgwood. His landscapes transcended the traditions of Cotman and Cozens, whose pictures were shown in popular exhibitions in the 1920s. He adopted some of the peculiarities of Samuel Palmer. Like Palmer, he added texture to the painted surface. Ravilious experimented with wax resist; he scratched, scraped, and hatched his seas and skies. Many of his pictures are empty of people. But he made studies of chalk figures cut into hillsides — giants and ancient white horses. They have an eeriness, a sense of expectation reminiscent of Palmer’s mystical landscapes.
The paintings of interiors are just as bothersome. As an Official War Artist from 1940, Ravilious had access to spaces inside submarines and operations huts. He explored the subterranean Home Security Control Room beneath Whitehall. In his watercolours, uniformed figures sometimes stand in doorways, or answer the telephone. Yet they are faceless, almost see-through. Ravilious’s focus was on the secret life of objects — a teleprinter sitting silent, a step-ladder waiting beside a map of London. As James Russell suggests in the exhibition catalogue, the war gave Ravilious an opportunity to travel more widely, but it did not in fact mark a dramatic shift in the themes he chose. He had always painted empty chairs. He also used the same methods before and after 1939: still working directly from the subject at first, and then completing it from memory, reconfiguring the scene perhaps, or turning the perspective out of kilter.
Staging a substantial show of Ravilious’s work was potentially risky. How would his watercolours appear en masse? Would they seem too slight, too decorative to deal with a big subject such as war? It is a relief to say that his pictures, many from private collections, stand up to scrutiny. We become aware of the complex surfaces of his images, so often flattened in reproduction, and their papery fragility — many bear the marks of drawing pins, and pencil notes in the corners. Seeing them up close, we can feel our way across their taut geometry. In Wall Maps (1941), our eyes are held by the insistent diagonals of beams and skirting board. Then we see the converging rectangles of wall and window, and the globes of reflected light.
Ravilious created anxiety in the doubled image of a map of England, with a reddish dot hanging over London. And, just off-centre, a clock. It is nearly a quarter to one. In the morning, or at lunchtime? It is impossible to tell in the confined space with no natural light.
This is one of Ravilious’s great skills as a war artist. He suggests the claustrophobia and dislocation of conflict by concentrating on the paraphernalia. He paints concrete objects such as a bomb-disposal kit or a barbed-wire fence. Added to this is Ravilious’s pleasure in pattern-making. He draws a rippling line along the edge of a runway, a criss-cross of blue and white overhead. In HMS “Glorious” in the Arctic (1940), he finds a zig-zag of light on the water echoing the camouflage on the side of an aircraft carrier. And nine planes hang in the sky like cut-outs from a child’s mobile.
HMS Glorious was sunk on 8 June 1940, just hours after Ravilious had sketched the ship silhouetted against the midnight sun. Like her, Ravilious failed to return from the Arctic. He was posted to an RAF station in Iceland, but his plane was lost somewhere over the sea in September 1942. The Dulwich exhibition ends with a picture of a fjord, Norway (1940). The grass-green foreground is dotted with red. One ship lies at anchor; another has sunk, her prow and funnel jutting out of the cold water. It is a reminder of the dangers that Ravilious and the men on the Arctic convoys faced every day.
Yet Ravilious was drawn to painting the far north, where the landscape was reduced to essentials — the ridges and furrows of the sea, and a sky filled with pale sunlight or snow-clouds. As he wrote to his wife, “I simply loved it.”
“Ravilious” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 31 August (closed Mondays). Phone 020 8693 5254.