The war artist who was inspired by Sussex's colourful landscape
Born in London in 1903 and raised in Eastbourne, where his parents ran an antique shop, painter and designer Eric Ravilious never forgot his connection to the South Downs.
He was inspired by the colours of the beautiful landscape, and returned frequently to the area in order to create his watercolour paintings. He was particularly interested in recording its changing rural atmosphere.
Although he travelled around the UK much during his lifetime, Ravilious had studied at the Eastbourne School of Art, where he later taught part time.
As a teacher, he liked to take his students by bus or bike to Alfriston, Wilmington, and other nearby villages.
His friendship with Peggy Angus, a fellow painter and designer, meant that he often visited her at her house, Furlongs, which was located near Beddingham.
This house, which was originally constructed for the shepherds of the Glynde Estate, became a retreat for artists. Peggy was known as an inspiring teacher who liked to sing folk songs and make elderflower champagne.
In James Russell’s book Ravilious and the Downs, the author states that early in the artist’s career, ‘with his drawing board in a canvas satchel and a lightweight sketching easel on his shoulder, Ravilious explored the Downs like the topographical painters of old, either on foot or, when someone could be persuaded to act as chauffeur, by car. Naturally drawnto the distinctive and particular, he continually sought subjects that no one had painted before.
‘In 1939 he returned to the Downs once again, only with a different approach. Instead of seeking out new sights, he chose well-known subjects like the Long Man of Wilmington and painted them from unexpected angles of in unusual ways to bring them to life.’
Ravilious was a prolific artist who left behind a substantial body of work. He worked in a variety of mediums, including lithography, wood engraving and ceramic design.
Although Ravilious is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs, he also served as a war artist.
In December 1939, Ravilious was accepted as a full time salaried artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.
In 1940, he reported to the Chatham Dockyward Royal Naval barracks, where he painted ships at the dockside and barrage balloons at Sheerness.
Later that year, the artist sailed on HMS Highlander to Norway. On deck, Ravilious painted scenes of HMS Ark Royal and HMS Glorious in action.
When he came back from Norway, he was posted at Portsmouth where he painted the coastal defences at Newhaven and submarine interiors at Gosport.
In 1941, he transferred to Scotland. While at the Royal Naval Air Station in Dundee, Ravilious drew the Supermarine Walrus seaplanes based there.He spent some time at RAF Debden before moving to RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, where he began flying in the de Havilland Tiger Moths and sketching other planes in flight from the rear cockpit of the plane.
He died in 1942 at the age of 39, after the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland. His body was not recovered, and he is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial.
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