FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on May 2, 2015

I have been meaning to make it to Dulwich Picture Gallery for years but somehow never quite got around to it, despite the ridiculously short distances involved. Today, enticed by glowing reviews from their exhibition of works by Eric Ravilious, I finally made it. I was really glad to have done so too, for the exhibition is probably the most wonderful collection of work that I have seen at any gallery.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery

The current exhibition has brought together over 80 watercolours by Ravilious, ranging from delightful visions of the english countryside to the most extraordinary impressions of wartime in the arctic. It’s all the more astonishing when you realise that most of this work was completed over a 20 year period, for Eric’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 39 when his plane went missing off the Icelandic coast in September 1942.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the way that Ravilious framed many of his landscapes, such as in a picture from 1939 which shows us the Westbury Horse, a chalk figure on the hillside, from the interior of a third class railway carriage. The slightly wonky angle of the picture is a wonderful touch that gives a sense of the movement of the train, as if the train had jolted just as the picture was being composed.

The Westbury Horse also features on another watercolour from 1939 that has been used to advertise the exhibition on posters. This time, the painting is taken from a viewpoint just above the chalk figure, looking down on a steam hauled freight in the distance. It’s such a powerful composition with the vibrant green of the hillside contrasting with the almost monotone landscape beyond.

Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Westbury Horse features on an exhibition banner

My favourite pictures in the exhibition all came from the spell that Ravilious spent as an official war artist, from December 1939 until his premature death in 1942.

One of the most striking watercolours from this period is ‘Dangerous work at low tide’ (1940) which shows three figures striding off into the distant sea, heading towards unspecified danger, whilst a group of uniformed men watch from the sands. The picture makes you feel the vast expanse of blue sky and sea opening up ahead, which is in complete contrast to another brilliant series of pictures from the same year showing men at work in the incredibly claustrophic conditions of a submarine.

The intensity of colour in Eric’s pictures becomes much more evident in the images originating from his time in the arctic, as can be seen in the painting of HMS Glorious below. As the curator of the exhibition points out, the camouflage of the warship is wonderfully mirrored by the light zig-zagging across the water. A letter on display records Eric’s amazement and delight in the rich blues of the region.

HMS Glorious in the Arctic


HMS Glorious in the Arctic
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 283)

Other watercolours from this period on display in the exhibition include Coastal Defences (1940), A Warship in Dock (1940), HMS Ark Royal in Action (1940) and Runway Perspective (1942).

The exhibition is open at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 1st April 2015 until 31st August 2015 and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Don’t just take my word for it though, the critics have given it the thumbs up too – the Observer critic described it as exhilarating, enthralling and outstandingly beautiful whilst the Telegraph’s critic maintained that it was a joy from start to finish.

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