“Exhilarating, enthralling and outstandingly beautiful. A revelation.” That was the verdict of Observer art critic Laura Cummings in 2015 on the first major exhibition of Eric Ravilious’ watercolours since he was killed in 1942 aged 39 while serving as a war artist. His work was almost forgotten until his children found a stash under a bed in the 1970s.
This well-crafted documentary makes a thorough and convincing case for Ravilious as a major figure in early 20th-century art. It’s a portrait of the artist as a tea-sipping cheerful sort of a chap with not an ounce of artistic torture in his body – which might go some way to explaining why he was ignored for so long. That and the fact that his gentle, comforting pastorals are so easy on the eye. The film features an impressive lineup of talking heads doing heavy lifting for his reputation, from Grayson Perry to Alan Bennett and Underland author Robert Macfarlane, who writes about the ancient pathways in Ravilious’ paintings of the South Downs – the beloved Sussex landscape of Ravilious’ childhood.
Ravilious was born in 1903, and after graduating from the Royal College of Art made a living – he was always strapped for cash – from murals, woodcut illustrating books, and designs for Wedgwood. In 1930, he married art student Tirzah Garwood; despite his affairs, they stayed together until his death, when the air-sea rescue plane he was flying in disappeared at sea. Their letters are beautifully read here by Freddie Fox and Tamsin Greig.
Director Margy Kinmonth seems to be fascinated by Garwood too. Ravilious wrote his wife excited letters about his wartime adventures, while she grafted at home, raising their three kids in a freezing house in Essex and working as an illustrator. Seeing her breathtakingly tender and exquisite drawing of their newborn daughter, it crossed my mind that Kinmonth could be making a point here about the women in art history who have not been forgotten as such, but whose careers were never able to take off in the first place.