Writer and Director: Margy Kinmonth
“I find it hard to say what it is to be English, but Ravilious is part of it,” Alan Bennett admits in Eric Ravilious: Drawn to war. Director Margy Kinmonth’s sumptuous film presents us with a feast of images reminding us why Ravilious is considered one of Britain’s leading twentieth-century artists.
The glorious cinematography is by Rob Goldie and Richard Ranken together with intriguing archive footage and a restrained and perceptive script by Kinmonth herself. Edmund Jolliffe’s original score pays unobtrusive homage to composers including Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten who were inspired, as was Ravilious, by English land- and seascapes. Kinmonth shows us a wide range of Ravilious’s paintings and illustrations. The calm camera work allows us to absorb each image and then invites us to compare his presentation of specific landscapes with evocative aerial footage of the gentle countryside of southern England.
Most of Ravilious’s works unapologetically celebrate rural England and Englishness. A famous painting depicts the inside of a third class railway carriage with a glimpse of Wiltshire’s white horse on the chalk hillside beyond. On camera, Alan Bennett talks of always liking a reproduction of this work on his schoolroom wall. “It was familiar to me. I had,” he says, “no notion that this was art.” It’s partly Ravilious’s likeable familiarity that might paradoxically explain why his work went out of fashion after his death in 1942. But it is partly too the fact that Edward Bawden, fellow artist and friend, kept such a quantity of Ravilious’s work under his bed until the latter’s children approached him in the 1970s.
The film explores what it is about his paintings, illustrations and designs that make them now so loved. Grayson Perry points out that Ravilious can take an unprepossessing subject and turn it into a masterpiece. We are shown deceptively simple scenes – a tea table set out in a summer garden, a bedstead in a damp-looking attic, a tree-less road through nondescript agricultural land. Perry draws out attention to Ravilious’s extraordinary skill as a craftsman, the “bold precision” of his lines. The challenge for the water colourist is that “you get no second chance” – you can’t overpaint an error. “I can’t stand oils,” Ravilious is said to have declared.
Robert Macfarlane talks of the artist’s love of the pathways on the South Downs: “you look at that painting and you want to walk through it.” But, Macfarlane adds, the landscape Ravilious paints is not just typical English landscape but a prehistoric one. He finds Ravilious’s work simultaneously “profoundly serene and profoundly disturbing.” Only Ai WeiWei finds Ravilious’s paintings romantic: Alan Bennett, for example, insisting that the painter’s watercolours are “not cosy.”
At art school in his early twenties, Ravilious met 18-year-old Tush, Tirzah Garwood. Her well-to-do parents considered Ravilious “not quite a gentleman” but they marry nonetheless. There is delightful early cine footage of the couple emerging from church on their wedding day. In voice over, Anne Ullmann, their daughter, comments cheerfully on the sour looks of Ravilious’s new parents-in-law.
Kinmonth gives due space to Tirzah’s own work as an artist, reduced to marbling paper to make ends meet for their growing family. The film does not labour the point, but it is clear that Tirzah had little freedom to further her only artistic career. Beyond this, she had to put up with a period of Ravilious’s infidelity, before the marriage settling back into a comfortable pattern.
Drawn to War, the film’s subtitle, refers to Ravilious as official war artist. He was one of the first to be invited in 1939, being made an honorary captain in the Royal Marines. He found he was captivated by the work, excitedly illustrating aircraft and warships, flotillas and convoys together with their personnel. It’s the newness of the modern world which evidently inspired him, despite his horror of death and war.
The film ends where it began, with breath-taking aerial footage of the craterous landscape of Iceland. It was here Ravilious was sent to work in 1942 aged 39. His last letter to Tirzah conveys his sheer joy at this magical landscape. He felt conflicted about enjoying the work, but admits it interests him ‘to the bone and marrow’. Not long after his arrival he accompanied a fighter pilot on a flight. The plane never returned and it is assumed the two men plunged to their deaths in the sea.
In all respects Margy Kinmonth’s Eric Ravilious: Drawn to war is a compelling film. It’s a classy one too, with voice overs provided by the likes of Tamsin Greig, Freddie Fox, Jeremy Irons and Harriet Walter. Throughout there are close ups of an artist’s hands, busily engaged in his craft – incising a wood block or laying down careful watercolour strokes. It is a film made with similar attention to craft. When we’re looking at a Ravilious’s painting there’s a second or two of charming animation included in the film, figures move in the landscape, as they seem always about to do in all his paintings.
Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War is released in UK cinemas by Dartmouth Films on 1 July.