‘He died in his 30s living the life he had dreamed of’: artist Eric Ravilious | Movies

On 2 September 1942, a plane on a search-and-rescue mission off the coast of Iceland crashed into the sea, killing its pilot and 39-year-old passenger. The passenger was Eric Ravilious, whose final letter to his wife, 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 to cover the second world war, and the first to die on active service.

Back home in their dank Essex farmhouse where she was marooned with their three young children, his wife, Tirzah Garwood, was struggling: she had recently been operating on the breast cancer that would kill her nine years later. The pressures of illness and domestic life had put paid to her own successful career as an artist. But each evening, after putting her children to bed, she would sit down to type out her autobiography.

It was addressed directly to her future readers: “I hope you may be one of my descendants,” she wrote, “but I have only three children, and as I write a German aeroplane has circled around my head taking photographs of the damage that Yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival.”

Artistic union … Tirzah Garwood with her husband Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. Photograph: ESRO/The Keep

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 Garwood had once shared with the artist Edward Bawden, leaving only the mass-produced legacy of playful alphabet mugs commissioned by Wedgwood and a woodcut of top-hatted gentlemen players that for years graced the cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

But a new film, 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 watercolors carried the tradition of Turner into the 20th century. The film is a passion project for its author and director, Margy Kinmonth, who began to research it 15 years ago, but was repeatedly knocked back by funders who insisted nobody had ever heard of Ravilious.

Kinmonth’s previous film was a 2017 documentary about the artists of the Russian revolution, but when the pandemic struck, she realised she would have to set her sights closer to home, so returned to the snippets of interviews she had already recorded with surviving members of the Ravilious family. “They call arts the tumbleweed of television,” she laughs, “but fortunately cinema and art go very well together.”

Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig
Margy Kinmonth (right) with Tamsin Greig, who voices Tirzah Garwood for the film. Photograph: foxtrotfilms.com

Her persistence has paid off. A circle of “friends” chipped in to help with the finance, and more than 70 cinemas have already signed up to screen a film, which is both a warts-and-all account of a passionate but unconventional marriage and a persuasive curatorial tour around a body of work whose quiet surfaces are never quite what they seem.

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who featured Ravilious in his bestselling book The Old Ways, points to the way the artist would frame bucolic watercolors 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”.

Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious
A bucolic landscape – with barbed wire … Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious. Photograph: foxtrotfilms.com

A Wiltshire landscape that is one of the artist’s best-known works shows a jaunty red van approaching the junction of a road that stretches towards an ominous future (it was created for Artists Against Fascism). A domestic scene of a deserted outdoor tea table beneath an umbrella is titled Tea at Furlongs but could be called Munich 1938, reflects Alan Bennett in the film, quoting WH Auden’s prewar poem The Witnesses: “Something is going to fall like rain / And it won’t be flowers.” Most strikingly, a letter to Garwood describing his shock at witnessing the drowning of a young airman in a military exercise is juxtaposed in the film with a painting of biplanes seen through a window bobbing benignly on the sea.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei admits he knew nothing about Ravilious until Kinmonth approached him because of his installation history of Bombs at the Imperial War Museum. “I was curious to know how a war artist worked, so I accepted the invitation to participate in the project,” he says. He was astonished by what he discovered. “His expression is very calm, and he has such an innocent and almost naive painting style. I was deeply moved by the authenticity, attention to detail, and humanitarianism expressed in his artworks about war. He is able to observe and express in an extraordinary way. Although a lot of his works are watercolor paintings that seem like an understatement, they are profound, rigorous and meticulous. I think that Ravilious is one of the best artists in the UK.”

The film begins and ends with the doomed plane bleating out a mayday signal that was never heard, before looping back to Ravilious’s childhood in the Sussex countryside where he took pleasure in sketching commonplace objects – a brush and bucket, his father’s collar and tie, as well as the planes flying over the chalk hills. He went on to get a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, and was teaching at Eastbourne School of Art when he met Garwood, a colonel’s daughter who was studying wood engraving, and whose parents were snobbishly opposed to their relationship.

The story is semi-dramatised, with the task of voicing Garwood falling to Tamsin Greig, whom Kinmonth approached after seeing her in a play at Hampstead theatre. Greig was also unfamiliar with Ravilious’s work. “The reason I was drawn to the film is because really it’s a love story between two human beings who share a similar passion, but there is a cost in the partnership of two artists, which someone has to bear,” she says. “They’re trying to hold together the wildness of creativity but also living within the constraints of social systems.”

Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious
Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious. Photograph: Fry Art Gallery/foxtrotfilms.com

In her autobiography, Long Live Great Bardfield, Garwood is open about the impact on her of two affairs that Eric publicly pursued, starting while she was pregnant with the first of their three children. Her account is painful but never self-pitying. “I like that combination of deep feeling that’s written on a very thin epidermis,” says Greig. “I find Margy’s storytelling very tender and elegiac.”

Part of the story is told by Ravilious and Garwood’s daughter, Anne, who was a babe in arms when her father was killed (in her autobiography, Garwood recalled the effort of trying to lift her to wave a final goodbye) and just 10 when her mother also died. As Kinmonth points out, the film would not have been anything like as layered had she not made available the couple’s personal correspondence and all the letters between her father and his two lovers, which she inherited after their deaths.

For all the turbulence and injury of their relationship, there is a balance between Ravilious and Garwood as artists that is made clear in two of their pictures. Both were of third-class train carriages traveling across the countryside. But whereas Ravilious’s watercolor carriage is empty, giving center stage to the white horse carved into the hillside beyond, Garwood’s woodcut is crammed with passengers.

Poignantly, it falls to the couple’s granddaughter, Ella Ravilious, now a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to read out Garwood’s passage bequeathing her book to posterity, should it have survived. “If you are not one of my descendants,” the passage continues, outside the film, “then all I ask of you that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.” This might be the story of a great man, but it is a tale told by women.

Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War is in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 1 July