Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship

Millennium Gallery
- , 2018

Tickets: Free

Shining a spotlight on 20th-century artist Eric Ravilious and his close-knit group of creative friends. Our review...

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The muse is a familiar figure in art, whether it's Jarvis Cocker’s Deborah and her woodchip walls or Andy Warhol’s Edie Sedgwick and her copious layers of eyeliner. Muses are often the point about which the art revolves, appearing front and centre in the finished work. However, there is a less recognised group of people who also have a huge influence on an artist’s practice, even if they don’t appear on the canvas itself. These are the people the artist eats with, lives with, debates with and grows with. In short, these people are the artist’s friends. Millennium Gallery’s Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship takes on the task of recognising the special people that influenced 20th-century artist Eric Ravilious.

It helps that all of Ravilious’s friends appear to be artists too, and this exhibition draws together work from Ravilious, Paul Nash, John Nash, Enid Marx, Barnett Freedman, Tirzah Garwood, Edward Bawden, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, Peggy Angus, Helen Binyon and Diana Low. The carefully curated showcase is a map of their lives together, journeying from their early collaborations on student publications at the RCA where they met to photographs of them in army uniform over ten years later. Rather than being bound by a manifesto, Ravilious and companions shared common interests, homes and life, which makes for an intriguing collection of work where you can trace the influence of one on the other.

Unsurprisingly, Ravilious’s wife Tirzah Garwood clearly had an impact on his practice. Garwood’s early creations are both humorous and heavy, detailing domestic scenes and revealing the heart of humanity in the mundanity of everyday life. In The Hypochondriac, an ill woman is being waited on by her two daughters. At first glance, the subject looks somewhat close to death but the title of the piece infuses it with comedy. In contrast, Ravilious’s work often depicts large landscapes with rolling hills and brooding clouds. Occasionally though, Garwoodian moments of humanity appear like the train that sneaks past in The Westbury Horse or the discarded jacket in his portrait of Edward Boden.

Of course, Garwood is also muse and inspires The Boxroom where Ravilious captures the attic where Garwood lived when he was still unsure of her feelings for him. This same work went on to become the frontispiece in a special edition book demonstrating how the boundary between personal practice and commercial work is a fine line. Instead of ignoring commissioned pieces or designs, Ravilious & Co unites them with purely-for-pleasure pieces. The exhibition even has a section entitled The Bookroom where the group’s many forays into book cover design and illustration can be found. Limited edition designs for Wedgewood, textile pattern and newsletter designs illustrate the breadth of the artists’ abilities and also the necessity of making a living.

The moment when artistic practice and occupation really became one was in 1939 at the dawn of the Second World War, when a number of the group were recruited as war artists. Ravilious’s previously bright and airy paintings started to take on much darker tones; greens and oranges gave way to deep blues and greys. And although his interest in light is still evident it peeps out from behind industrial battleships and RAF bombers. It was the war that would sadly break the connection between friends as Ravilious was declared missing in action in 1942 after the RAF plane he boarded never returned. In just 20 years, these creative friends loved much and achieved much – Ravilious is now considered to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Ravilious & Co is not just a celebration of an impressive catalogue of work but of the sort of creativity that can abound when in the presence of like-minded and encouraging friends.

Written by Hannah Clugston; November 22, 2017