Strangely Strange Though Oddly Normal
Saffron Walden in Essex is one of those quintessentially English market towns which seems to drowse eternally in warm sunshine. It manages this to some extent by banishing most car-borne visitors to a huge car park on its outskirts from which you trudge into town. The clash between a sylvan image of prelapsarian England and the realities of the 21st century are neatly captured in the name of the car park, for this tarmac expanse in which several hundred cars sit bumper to bumper is “Swan Meadow”.
You can experience a not dissimilar dislocation between image and experience when you visit the excellent Fry Art Gallery in the town as I did on my travels this summer. The Gallery is home to the North West Essex Collection – the work of artists who lived in that area mainly in the middle years of the last century. The current exhibition features work by Eric Ravilious – an artist who turned his hand to almost any commission but whose prints and paintings in particular have intrigued me for some time – perhaps because, a bit like the carpark and the town, they seem to straddle the eternal and the modern at the same time.
His early work was mostly wood engraving – a black and white form whose use of line, shape, texture and space might be seen in some ways as analogous to monochrome photography. The photographer has a full range of shades of course, while the engraver can use only black and white – though in the hands of experts such as ER the suggestion of shade from these two extremes often leaves me open-mouthed with admiration.
For someone of my age a print such as Boy Birds-Nesting is full of suggestion. (Eric’s friend Douglas Bliss obligingly draped himself across the back of a settee in his bedsit in rugby gear so that the artist could get the lines right.) Firstly the boy looks well into adolescence yet is still in short trousers, long socks, some kind of short-sleeved jumper and school shirt (as one was most evenings, having simply cast off the school blazer and cap). Secondly, the image harks back to the innocent days when taking eggs from a bird’s nest was a respectable hobby for a young chap and not the environmental offence that it is now. Thirdly, climbing way up in trees was a daily experience for any self-respecting schoolboy yet is a practice which seems simply to have died out. It suggests to me the eternal sunshine of my boyhood rather than the tarmacadammed realities of adulthood. I could look at it and other such prints by Ravilious for ever.
He moved on to watercolour and pencil to create works which I find perhaps even more intriguing. As chance would have it, I read Ravilious and Co: The Pattern Of Friendship by Andy Friend (Thames and Hudson, 2017) earlier this year and what emerges from that is just how uneventful a life ER led: he went to Art School, worked as a jobbing artist, got married, had children and was one of two war artists killed in the war. That’s it. The book more or less had to be about a whole group of people because the facts of ER’s life couldn’t have filled it.
In some way this is what I see in the watercolours. They are full of, well, emptiness. When I first saw them I yawned a little and went back to the prints. What after all is in them? This one is representative.
There is virtually nothing of note in it. It is a typically English landscape of chalk downland, its tones ranging through pale to paler and then palest. It seems age-old yet there is an angularity of line that is very modern. So often there is a slightly odd perspective too, flattened out like a Persian miniature so that what is farther away is not necessarily relatively smaller.
Some of this can be seen in this study of the artist’s temporary bedroom
So often his subject is ordinary: lanes, mills, gardens, potting sheds, fields, fences which seem to reflect the ordinariness of his own life. Yet he invests them with an aura. Even when he moves on to more concrete subjects such as studies of Newhaven harbour there is still that air of mystery that it is hard to tear the eye away from. I think this comes often from the absence of human form in the work, the timelessness of the subject matter and the modern treatment of line and angle. Then the modernistic, slightly desaturated palate seems to suggest an undertow of black and white which is often reinforced by the use of pencil with the watercolour.
As a photographer I envy the artist’s absolute freedom to play with line and point in this way. Perspective is a tyranny in photography. Although lens length will affect the relative appearance of the planes running through the image, standard perspective cannot be avoided without a trick lens. You are more or less lumped with a preordained view of a scene in which a single point is supposed to draw the eye of the viewer and everything else is relative to that. Occasionally you might avoid that but mostly by happenstance. Truth is, if I had one per cent of ER’s talent with a woodblock I might never pick up a camera again…….