'It's 12 o'clock', lied the clock tower at Eastbourne station. Time was standing still; rain was falling. What better day to visit an art gallery, what better gallery to visit than the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, and what better exhibition to see than Eric Ravilious and Friends?
The 'and Friends' bit made my heart sink because of the sloppy exhibitions at Tate Modern with awful 'influenced by...' and 'was an influence on...' paintings, but the accompanying artists' work here (a combination of pupils and fellow-artists) was absolutely top quality and showed that here was a community of artists, all striving for the same goals.
You could focus on so many different things: the graphics, the design, the paintings, the ideas. There was so much to see and so much of the process was revealed: memory books by Peggy Angus and Helen Binyon depicted scenes such as a chimney sweep racing a bus in his horse and cart and other rEast-end scenes. Wood blocks and stencils, all as beautiful as the actual prints themselves, demonstrated the painstaking craft that went into the illustrations and book-covers that were displayed next to them. There was a lovely photograph from East Sussex records office of Helen Binyon sitting at a table, concentrating on cutting into a block of wood. She and her sister Margaret made children's books together and toured with a puppet show that they created.
Tirzah Garwood's work was brilliant. She was in a relationship with Ravilious but out of all of the friends here, her work was least influenced by his. I particularly liked a series of unpublished prints of her relatives: a crocodile of schoolgirls walking past a wall, a sinister uncle in a belted mac standing in a garden full of fallen leaves, her sister in law at a dog show, womanhandling an unruly terrier. There was work by Barnett Freedman (absolutely exquisite), Edward Bawden, Paul and John Nash and many more.
The intense blacks of the printing ink makes the prints remarkably striking and powerful to look at.
Ravilious was taken to the Alpha Cement Works by a friend and so liked it that they managed to persuade the owners to leave the arc lights on at night so that he could paint there. The colours of all of these paintings are the colours of dreams; there, almost there, but not quite there. Corporal Stediford's pigeon loft, painted in 1942, is almost comical in its rustling detail. There was a particular landscape of a Norwegian ship in water that showed his absolute genius as a painter. From a distance, it looks almost photographic but close-up there was exactly the same relationship between pattern and representation as there is in the black-and-white woodcuts. With politics thrown into the mix (for this group of people supported refugees, and cared deeply about their country and the suffering that war brought about), there is a whole added layer of emotional meaning to it all.
The joy in their creativity! Halfway through a drawing an artist would change their mind; positives would become negatives and negatives would become positives. 'Ha! I'll change my mind about a colour field halfway through a drawing!': but then it looks as though the change happened because of something inherent in the paper, because further on the colours change back again. The lettering and the decorative prints are extraordinary in their variety of lines, patterns and ideas. Sometimes the lettering looks almost embroidered, then sometimes it looks like unravelled metal tape sprawled across the page. I wanted to eat it all!
This is a wonderful exhibition.They were permitted to be war artists, and kept out of the army because the powers-that-be didn't want a whole generation of artists to be killed. Ironically, on an artist's mission out of Iceland, the plane that Ravilious was travelling in disappeared. Oh, the complete and absolute futility of war! When you see the beauty and joy of an artist like this, so unusual and so inspiring, simply obliterated in an instant because humans are too f*cking stupid to be able to live peacefully together, it makes you weep with frustration.
I left the exhibition feeling completely inspired, full of pride in British culture, but full of shame for British warmongering, past, present and future. It is a must-see show, for its beauty, for its historical value and for the underlying messages that it transmits about the necessity for us to nurture art and artists, always.