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“The Boy—Eric Ravilious in his studio at Redcliffe Road” by Edward Bawden, c.1929 (©Estate of Edward Bawden)

The exhibition has more than 400 items, from painting and prints to wallpapers and ceramics. Indeed, the applied arts were vital to the group, not just as a worthy if neglected branch of the arts but as a means to making money. None of the group came from wealthy backgrounds: quite the opposite — Ravilious, for example, was the son of a bankrupt while Freedman’s East End Jewish family was too poor to send him to school. Painting was a precarious way of earning a living so commercial design offered a more reliable income stream.

Freedman and Bawden found regular work with large companies and corporations, producing advertising designs for the likes of the BBC, London Transport, Shell, and Fortnum & Mason (Freedman also designed the 1935 Silver Jubilee postage stamp); Ravilious created a series of decorative designs for Wedgwood to go on pieces originally designed by Josiah Wedgwood; Binyon and Garwood produced book illustrations. The group was instrumental in leading a renaissance in “artists’ books” — high-quality editions for small presses such as the Curwen Press and the Golden Cockerel Press — as well as more popular editions for the likes of Faber & Faber.

All this material could seem safely nostalgic: after all, Ravilious specialised in the woodcut, that most ancient medium, but the group brought to their work a modernist aesthetic — formal patterns, a limited palette, a underlying structure — that made their productions obviously contemporary even when they harked back to William Blake and Samuel Palmer. If the Bloomsbury group, their Sussex neighbours, trumpeted continental modernism the Ravilious circle found a way to ally it to native traditions. One of the group, Douglas Percy Bliss, said of Ravilious that “the woodenly serious was not  his province” and the same was true of the rest of his circle too. Bliss put his finger on another characteristic element when he noted that Ravilious “never sits down to draw the view that ninety-nine out of a hundred watercolourists cannot resist”.

The exhibition’s cut-off point is Ravilious’s death in 1942. The other friends all survived the war and carried on working prolifically, Freedman dying in 1958, Bawden not until 1989. The mark that they had made in the 1920s and 1930s was indelible. Although the watercolours of Ravilious and Bawden have come to take their place among the high points of British 20th-century art this show suggests that the real achievement of the group was, as Osbert Lancaster said, to bring back “into the popular art of this country a robustness, a wit and a sense of style that, many thought, had vanished in the fifties of the last century”.

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