Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War is the first feature-length film about Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), the much loved but hugely underestimated British Official War artist, killed in a plane crash over Iceland in 1942.
Written by Alan Bennett and Robert Macfarlane, ‘Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War’ recounts a life as compelling and enigmatic as his art, set against the dramatic wartime locations that inspired him.
Ravilious travelled to Iceland in August 1942. He flew to Reykjavik, arriving at the airfield of RAF Kaldadarnes by road on 1 September. The next day he flew with four airmen on a rescue mission in a Lockheed Hudson from No. 269 Squadron and was lost off the Icelandic coast. From the English countryside to the Arctic, his depiction of Britain in the ’30s & early years of World War 2 remains an incredible legacy, eighty years after his death.
Ravilious was the first of three war artists to die on active service in the second world war (along with Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards). Ravilious, whose final letter to his wife and fellow artist, Tirzah Garwood three days earlier, had extolled the deep shadows and leaflike cracks of the subarctic landscape. He was one of 300 artists hired by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) to cover the war.
In February 1940, Eric Ravilious was posted to Chatham Dockyard in Kent to document the factories and buildings at the naval barracks. In A Warship in Dock, 1940 Ravilious presents the bow of a destroyer in a flooded dry dock tied into position with numerous ropes. A man on deck holds one of the ropes while three other men board the ship via a gangway on the port side. Shown from ground level, the warship looks menacing with its angular marine camouflage and intimidating colossal scale. In the background, there are numerous structures, including a ship crane and a factory with a smoking chimney.
From Chatham, he travelled widely to, and out of, naval bases and began to send back work. When asked if he would have work for the first of the National Gallery exhibitions in July 1940, he offered 13 drawings, which he wished to be framed in sycamore.
Over September and October 1940, Ravilious was posted to Newhaven in East Sussex to paint coastal defences. The port was targeted as part of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain by the German forces, and was consequently heavily fortified. In this scene, Ravilious depicts the semi-circular curve of the coastline in dark greens and blues, colours which are repeated in the sea and sky.
The WAAC was a British government agency established within the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Headed by Sir Kenneth Clark, its aim was to compile a comprehensive artistic record of Britain throughout the war. This was achieved both by appointing official war artists, on full-time or temporary contracts and by acquiring artworks from other artists. When the committee was dissolved in December 1945 its collection consisted of 5,570 works of art produced by over four hundred artists. This collection was then distributed to museums and institutions in Britain and around the world, with over half of the collection, some 3,000 works, going to the Imperial War Museum.
After Germany launched an invasion of Norway in April 1940, seizing the capital, Oslo, and the main ports, the Allied forces attempted to counterattack on land but were poorly equipped and outnumbered. On 24 May, an evacuation of troops from the Norwegian port of Narvik was authorised, known as Operation Alphabet. Aircraft carriers HMS Glorious and HMS Ark Royal left Scapa Flow in Scotland on 31 May to assist with the withdrawal, escorted by five destroyers, including HMS Highlander.
The weeks in late May and early June 1940 that Ravilious spent aboard HMS Tetcott were among the happiest and most productive of his career. Attached as an escort to the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, Highlander left the shelter of Scapa Flow and travelled with a formidable naval task force to seize the Norwegian port of Narvik. On returning to Orkney the flotilla almost immediately turned round and made the journey again, this time to evacuate Allied troops and aircraft. Fortunately for Ravilious, Highlander was transferred to the escort of HMS Ark Royal, because on 8 June HMS Glorious and her escort were sunk by the German battleship Scharnhorst.
It was Admiralty representative Reginald Gleadowe (1888 – 1944) who approached Ravilious and John Nash regarding six-month appointments as Admiralty artists at a salary of £325. Ravilious was enthusiastic about the appointment “after the quiet life in the Observer Corps here since war began”.
The reputation of Ravilious as an artist of any worth very nearly didn’t survive at all. By the time of his death, one great mural, at Waterloo’s Morley College, had been bombed into oblivion, some of his war paintings had been censored, and dozens more had been sunk at sea on their way to an exhibition on the art of propaganda in South America. For more than 30 years, most of his surviving works lay forgotten under a bed in a house that he and his wife Tirzah had once shared with the artist Edward Bawden.
But ‘Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War’ sets the record straight, drawing on an impressive array of advocates – from Grayson Perry to Alan Bennett – to make a case for him as one of the great British artists, whose engravings broke new technical ground while his watercolours carried the tradition of Turner into the 20th century.
The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who featured Ravilious in his bestselling book The Old Ways, points to the way the artist would frame bucolic watercolours of the rolling southern English countryside with strands of barbed wire. “I think Ravilous is an example of the fatal Englishman, along with the mountaineer George Mallory and the poet Edward Thomas: they didn’t have to go to war or climb Everest, and all of them died in their 30s living out lives they had dreamed of as children. It’s this old, fatal love for the landscape.” The result, says Macfarlane, is that “both Thomas and Ravilious are thought of as quaint ruralists when really they’re not – they’re modernists”.
Today, Ravilious is remembered at the Chatham Naval Memorial, just over a mile away from the dockyard where he spent his first posting as a War Artist.