Andy Friend, Barnett Freedman, Cecelia Dunbar Kilburn, Diana Low, Douglas Percy Bliss, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Eric Ravilious, Helen Binyon, John Nash, Paul Nash, Peggy Angus, Percy Horton, Phyllis Bliss, Thomas Hennell, Tirzah Garwood, William Rothenstein
I like the watercolours of Eric Ravilious, there is something both precise and haunting about them. So I was happy to come across Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend while we were on holiday in Wales. It purports to be a group biography of a bunch of artists who came together at the Royal College of Art just after the First World War under the inspired leadership of Sir William Rothenstein and the teaching of Paul Nash. The core group consisted of Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Enid Marx, Douglas Percy Bliss, Percy Horton, Peggy Angus and Helen Binyon, with others, notably Tirzah Garwood (who became Tirzah Ravilous), Thomas Hennell, Cecilia Dunbar Kilburn, Diana Low (with Helen Binyon, one of Ravilious’s mistresses), and of course John Nash, taking an increasingly prominent part in the narrative. But in fact it doesn’t really work as a group biography, because they weren’t really a group. They were a very talented generation of artists who came of age at roughly the same time in the fervid post-war world, and who all to some extent fell under the influence of the Nash brothers. They were also to benefit from Rothenstein’s profound belief that commercial art and design were at least as important as fine art, and also from his energetic promotion of their art, putting them forward for murals, posters, book designs and the like. In fact, come to think of it, Rothenstein was the glue that held the group together, and should in some ways have been the central figure in the story, so it is sad that he disappears for the bulk of the book. But then, others that we might expect to be important in a group biography also disappear for much of the time, notably Freedman, Bliss and Horton. Yet this is only to be expected, given that it is obvious that Friend is only really interested in Ravilious, and those who disappear from Ravilious’s immediate circle simply disappear from the narrative. Or mostly; Enid Marx hardly remained close to Ravilious, but Friend keeps switching the story back to her, as if he suspects there might be a more interesting life to pursue here, if only he knew how to do it.
What we have, then, is a biography of Eric Ravilious, with an occasional sideways glance at whoever is in his immediate circle at any particular time. Which is a pity, since some of these were curiously interesting characters. Thomas Hennell, for instance, spent time in a mental hospital, then wrote an extraordinary book about the experience, was encouraged by friends (including Ravilious) to develop his talents as an artist, became a war artist in World War II, notable for his work in France and the Low Countries after D-Day, then went to the Far East “where he was murdered on 5 November 1945 while sketching during civil disturbances in Surabaya,” a throwaway remark that demands a much fuller story.
Before this book I knew about the work of Ravilious and the Nash brothers, and I had heard of Edward Bawden, but the other names meant nothing to me. It may be because they specialized in areas other than fine arts, of course. Enid Marx went into fabric design, and those of us of a certain age probably know her work without knowing it, because she designed the fabrics used in London Underground trains certainly into the 1960s and I think beyond. Barnett Freedman made his name in designing posters, again often for London Underground. Helen Binyon, with her twin sister Margaret, wrote a series of children’s books, and also specialized in puppetry. Douglas Percy Bliss, who, interestingly, worked in camouflage design during the war (another story I’d love to hear more of), went on to be head of the Glasgow School of Art, while Percy Horton was Ruskin Master of Drawing at Oxford University. Illustrious careers all, but not ones likely to have swum into my purview.
Of the others, though: how had I not come across Tirzah Garwood? There is a watercolour she did in 1927, “Barcombe Mill Interior”, that is, I think, the equal to any her husband produced, and far superior to the work he was doing at that time. And there were superb woodcuts, every bit the equal of those Ravilious was doing. I find it interesting that some of the most exciting art shown in this book is in the form of
woodcuts, a form that most of the featured artists took up though they tend not to celebrated elsewhere as much as their paintings were (I don’t remember any woodcuts by Paul Nash in the book about him I read a little while ago, but there are some lovely examples included here.) Of course, Tirzah Garwood, like several other women in this book, had the disadvantage of being female and therefore not getting the attention from the art world that her work deserved. She largely stopped producing art when she married Ravilious, except for paper marbling that she took up at that time; she returned to art only after Ravilious was killed in 1942, with a series of late paintings with an almost fairytale feel, before dying of cancer in 1951.
then there is Ravilious. There is a remarkably generous selection of his work shown throughout the book, alongside pieces by the rest of the group. What they show, without Friend ever really spelling it out in his text, is how much Ravilious owed to Paul Nash in both his woodcuts and his watercolours. Though later I suspect that John Nash became a somewhat bigger influence on the watercolours, (the two images from Bristol Docks were painted at the same time, the two men sitting side by side), especially when the two men started going on painting trips together. Both, for instance, have an interest in heavy machinery, ships at anchor, abandoned farm machinery and so on. But Friend doesn’t exactly dwell on things like influence or technique, none of the technicalities of the work, although the work that all of these artists chose to pursue was highly technical in nature. The
incredibly light and airy copper engravings produced by Helen Binyon set against the darker and heavier copper engraving,
“Redcliffe Road”, by Edward Bawden, look like two different media, and a sentence on how their techniques differed would have been very welcome. And there were technical issues with a mural Ravilious painted that meant it had to be retouched not long after it was finished, but we don’t learn in detail what those issues were. Instead, Friend pays more attention to the various sexual infidelities of his cast. This seems to have been the archetypal, often lampooned, artistic milieu of easy virtue. Ravilious was married to Tirzah, but had long-lasting affairs first with Helen Binyon then with Diana Low, neither of which had any enduring effect on the marriage, and the two women remained close friends with Tirzah
throughout. Meanwhile Diana’s husband welcomed Ravilious as a friend and seems to have been happy to invite Ravilious to stay knowing the affair was going on. A curious menage, therefore, but to me rather less interesting than the art. Or maybe that’s just the way Friend writes about it. One of the things I’ve noticed in so many of the art books I’ve been reading over the last few years is how poorly they are written. There’s a flatness of tone even when describing the most glorious of pictures. And the facts of the life, or lives in this case, are recounted in a sort of dull monotone. This is not a book you would read for the pleasure of reading, but oh the pictures.