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Eric Ravilious: The Master Engraver
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Alan Powers explores the life and work of the celebrated illustrator, painter and book engraver Eric Ravilious, paying particular attention to his skill as a wood engraver.
Born in 1903, Eric Ravilious was just starting his art training in Eastbourne when the Society of Wood Engravers was founded in 1920. Proposed by Paul Nash, he was elected as a member five years later, as he was leaving the Royal College of Art where Nash was teaching. Ravilious began to make his name as a watercolour painter and a mural artist as well as an engraver, associated with other members of the student group that Nash described as “an outbreak of talent”, including Enid Marx, Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman. In his early career, wood engravings were his most reliable source of income, apart from teaching.
Although members of the Society were encouraged to exhibit single, stand-alone prints at its annual group shows, Ravilious was immediately drawn into book illustration with a novella, ‘Desert’, by Martin Armstrong, in 1926. His style at this time was closer to the more painterly engraving of Paul Nash and his brother John, but Ravilious was best known for his neat cutting, using a variety of strokes that provided equivalents for surfaces and effects of light. His human figures tended to be slightly doll-like and he seemed most at ease when he could place them in meticulously detailed landscape or interior settings.
Illustration in the 1920s was sometimes burdened with a false rusticity, but while drawing inspiration from the primitive classicism of Elizabethan needlework and similar folk art imagery, Ravilious brought his imagination in line with his technical skill in design and cutting to make works which, while full of traceable influences, are distinctly his own and which wore their false naivety without sentimentality.
There seems to have been something about the rustic classicism of that time, distantly refracting the Renaissance yet, as we know from the poetry fully attuned to its Neoplatonism, that enabled Ravilious to create some hauntingly memorable emblem pictures.
He was commissioned by the Lanston Monotype Corporation, an enlightened pillar of the printing trade, to engrave twelve images for its ‘Almanack’ for 1929, a slender pocket diary for presentation to clients. Each of the symbols of the Zodiac (with a few variants of his own invention) enters the East Sussex countryside and coast, suggesting that modern lives are as much ruled by mythological archetypes as any before them, and that the landscapes of today contain, for those who can see them, the radiance of the cosmos.
To assure us that his symbology is in earnest, Ravilious wrote a short introduction to the booklet, his only official writing about his own work, in which he discourses with charm and learning about these signs. As a result, he achieves something similar to Sylvia Townsend Warner who in ‘The True Heart’, published in the same year, set a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche legend in Victorian Essex.
As his engraving became more ambitious, Ravilious showed the skills he also employed in dancing and playing tennis – a spontaneity and physical control associated with rhythmic movement. He made pencil drawings onto the blocks before cutting, as most engravers do, more beautiful, his RCA friend Douglas Percy Bliss tells us, than the prints that emerged from them.
Bliss describes how “he fashioned ‘scorpers’ (a sort of miniature gouge) from odd pieces of metal, and soon was obtaining upon box-wood these qualities of dot and speck and dash and dab in white-line with which he enriches his blocks.”
When working at his parents’ house in Eastbourne in a trance of concentration, sometimes whistling in thirds on an intake of breath, the family canary sat on his shoulder watching him at work. Ravilious spent hours ‘covering a passage with tiny dots or flecks to get an even gray effect, such as the ground beneath the figure of his ‘Boy Birdnesting.’
This and other single prints of the late 1920s such as Children in a Park display a farouche quality in the awkward poses of their young subjects yet more tender than grotesque, suggesting a wry reflection on the phase of life he had just left behind. His contemporaries commented that while he enjoyed a party and while his letters testify to his humorous approach to life, there was also something aloof and slightly unworldly about him.
Ravilious’ engravings divide between single items from imagination, those done to illustrate given texts and those commissioned for other purposes – book covers, abstract emblems and advertising images.
As a watercolour painter, by contrast, his work depicted actual scenes, places and objects. The book illustrations include Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ and plays by Christopher Marlowe. For a book of rather feeble verses by Martin Armstrong, ’54 Conceits’, 1933, he produced a series of vignettes, somewhat like a 17th century emblem book, that spring from the subjects of the poems while far surpassing them in feeling and wit. ‘The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne‘, 1938, his last major commission, was one of his favourite books. The engravings have a quality of intensity like a hot summer’s day with thunder ahead.
Perhaps the best known of all Ravilious’s engravings is the vignette commissioned for Wisden’s ‘Cricketers’ Almanack’ for 1938 as part of a redesign of the existing typographic cover undertaken by the advertising agent extraordinaire, Robert Harling – also a designer, magazine editor and novelist. The early Victorian batsman remained poised at his wicket every year until, ironically, Ravilious’ centenary in 2003, and was soon reinstated by popular demand. As early as 1937, the print curator Basil Gray wrote that “of modern wood engravers he is certainly the most perfect.”
Ravilious was lost at sea while serving as a war artist. By that time, his printmaking interest had moved on to lithography, in which he developed a personal style with the book ‘High Street’ and the wartime series of submarine prints. His perfection was combined with an attractive and approachable way of seeing the world, so that his work is as much appreciated and circulated today as it has ever been.
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Pallant House Gallery Magazine No. 31, first published in October 2013.
Discover more of Eric Ravilious’ wood-engravings for Gilbert White’s seminal book, ‘The Natural History of Selborne’.
Want to know more about Ravilious and wood engraving? Listen to Alan Powers’ talk on SoundCloud.