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“The Ward Room” by Eric Ravilious, 1941 (Courtesy Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne)

Seventy-five years ago, in the middle of the war while serving as an official war artist, the painter Eric Ravilious died accompanying an RAF recovery mission that was looking for two seaplanes that had gone missing off Iceland. His own plane never returned and no traces of it were ever found. At the time of his death Ravilious had just established himself as the most innovative watercolourist then at work and an artist with a distinctive and uncommonly broad range of talents.

He produced not only paintings that brought a dry brush and a modernist sense of form to the rural scenes they depicted but also woodcuts, typography, ceramics, murals, book illustrations and furniture designs. Over the past 20 years or so, Ravilious’s role in both the fine and the applied arts of the mid-century has come to be widely recognised and, alongside his friend and colleague Edward Bawden, he is lauded as the man who captured a quintessential — and now lost — sense of Englishness.

What hasn’t been widely recognised, however, is that Ravilious was at the heart of a group of talented friends who amount to a hitherto unrecognised school. As well as Ravilious and the gifted Bawden, the circle includes, among others, the designer Enid Marx (best known for her fabric designs used for decades for the seating on Tube trains), the painter Percy Horton, the lithographer Barnett Freedman, and the designer-illustrators Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious’s wife) and Helen Binyon (his mistress).

The friends met in 1924 at the Royal College of Art where they were mentored by two influential figures, William Rothenstein — the portraitist father of John, the Tate’s longest serving-director before Nicholas Serota — and the distinguished war artist Paul Nash. Both men recognised what Nash was to call “an outbreak of talent”. Of course, some were more talented than others, something Marx clearly understood: “I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so and very often many become known as entities, but only the Rembrandts or the   Bewicks or the tops remain as identifiable. The lesser pebbles become sand.”

Those lesser pebbles are now receiving due recognition at a ground-breaking exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Ravilious’s home town of Eastbourne. Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship is the first concerted show to look at the 1924 cohort as a group and while the individuals didn’t always work together (although Ravilious would go on regular painting trips with John Nash and Bawden) they did encourage, advise and support one another — and sometimes sleep with one another too — so that the work they produced in their various fields has a communal style.

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