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Eric Ravilious – English Master

There is, perhaps, no writer alive today more English than Alan Bennett. Reading him, you get suffused with Englishness – the humour, the oddities and the quirks, all the nooks and crannies of England.

So, it is something when such a revered commentator says that the painter Eric Ravilious, whose life tragically ended in a war-time air crash over Iceland in September 1942, was an artist whose work revealed the essential elements of England and what is to be English.

Prolific during his short life, dying at only 39, Ravilious’ paintings of Sussex fields and hills, of a landscape seen from a train carriage, of buildings and monuments, of seasides and docks and so much more across this ‘green and pleasant land’ somehow conjour up the essence of England.

* One of Eric Ravilious' most acknowledged paintings - The Long Man of Wilmington, a scene on the South Downs

I first heard about Ravilious only a few years ago and his paintings have over time begun to weave a particular spell on me. One picture stands out as a personal favourite and one that links his far greater creativity to mine. It depicts a scene of the Royal Observatory together with General Wolfe’s statue in Greenwich Park, London. A central scene of my first novel, Potential.

* The Royal Observatory at Greenwich - Eric Ravilious

Ravilious’ works evince Englishness in their very core. Watercolours (he disliked oils) with a special, iconic signature so his own. Only sparsely recognised as a major talent in his own time, a deepening respect and admiration for him has grown in recent years rightly placing the painter in the top echelons of artists England has ever produced. And a relatively new film, ‘Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War’, cements his rank even further.

In the film, eminent artists such as Bennett, Grayson Perry and Wei Wei all pay tribute to Ravilious as a truly great painter. They see in him an innate ability to show a soft, stylistic view of an England that has somehow stood the test of time to the modern day. A core reason why Ravilious’ works are so popular now and his reputation continues to grow.

Drawn to War’ because along with his friends Edward Bawden and Paul Nash, Ravilious was chosen with the direction of Kenneth Clarke, then Director of the National Gallery, to be an official and salaried war artist in 1939 shortly after the outbreak of World War 2.

Ravilious went on the draw and paint for the war effort in various postings from Norway to York. His vast range of subjects depicting ships to submarines and weapons to servicemen – and always that special, trademark, incomparable style.

In 1942, Ravilious was posted to Iceland and immediately flew on a search mission for a missing plane but he was never to return, his body was never discovered. So, suddenly, an immense burgeoning artistic talent was cut off in its early prime. What could Ravilious have achieved if he had lived? What masterpieces could he have produced? How could he have continued to reveal what it is to be English and living in England?

Drawn to War’ is a poignant life-story of an artistic gem that was so long hidden after a tragedy. But a diamond many are now either discovering for the first time or continuing to revel in its beauty.

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