We sweep down from the opera singer’s house past Virginia Woolf’s to the Ouse flood plain, the first of our Ravilious rendezvous. A heron nonchalantly flaps overhead. The riverbank into Lewes is beautifully overgrown, my shins whipped by wild grass and flowers. Butterflies skitter about. We’re the wrong side of the Ouse for the Ravilious view, I think it’s from under Caburn but will be obscured from our eyes by the A27. We track the noisy dual carriageway, a glance left for his painting of the farm in the curves below Caburn, and then tuck ourselves under the road alongside Glynde Reach into Beddingham and to The Lay. This is part of the old ways before the A roads were bulldozed through. The shaded track to Furlongs is waterlogged and muddy, tyres slipping. In my head I see his caravans on the side of the track.
I’m not sure when I became conscious of the paintings of Eric Ravilious. I don’t recall being taught about him either on foundation or degree. It was all Duchamp and Picasso and Modernism and the big brash Americans. In the fine art studios we all painted in oil or acrylic (or in my case tins of Dulux when things got too big to be economically viable to paint with little tubes). No sign of watercolour outside of the illustration and graphic design rooms. Perhaps Ravilious was too parochial, too twee, just too English. He may have watered down his credentials by also working in design and illustration and applied arts. Maybe he died too young, however dying young doesn’t usually impede an artists reputation. Whatever it was it seems he was out of fashion for half a century. Flicking through books from art school days and scanning indexes, barely a mention. The 1987 Royal Academy catalogue for a huge survey show of British Art in the 20th Century, absolutely nothing. He wasn’t Modern in the international sense, he didn’t paint the epics of the Romantics, he didn’t fit the cultural narrative of the last century as it was then told.
The glare from the Shock Of The New faded and Common Ground rose along with the New Nature Writing. Particulars of place were emphasised, the local was no longer parochial. It’s worth noting that Ravilious once produced 44 wood block prints in 1937 to illustrate a new Nonesuch Press edition of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by the godfather of nature writing Reverend Gilbert White, a book the artist had read as a young man. Then there were a couple of exhibitions in a short period of time, one at Dulwich Picture House and another at Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, also home to the largest public collection of Ravilious works.
The Towner is where we are heading, continuing along the Old Coach Road in the lee of the Downs, bypassing Alfriston to Lullington Church. Later I know we’ll see Ravilious’s beautiful small woodcut of the tiny church. From the graveyard looking back the way we came is the vista from an earlier watercolour, maybe one of the first completed in Sussex. Caburn squats low on the horizon. It’s these hills and valleys and coombes between them that I explored and rediscovered during the first of the COVID lockdowns. I travelled along paths again and again and again in the footsteps of many before me, tracks worn into the chalk over centuries, in Ravilious’s words the “long white roads are a temptation, what quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.” More often than not riding at sunrise when empty of people the hills, much like Percy Douglas Bliss’s 1933 description of his friends paintings, were “captivating in their quiet elegance, their complete absence of haste.”
Brushing the soles of the Long Man we climb over Windover Hill in stifling heat. Tree tunnels in and out of Jevington, stopping at the churchyard to sit in the shade for a few moments and make the most of the drinking water tap. I soak my cap and water drips down my back, a pleasant cooling shock. Back up on the Downs Eastbourne sprawls below us, tower blocks look out to sea. I’m not sure Ravilious would recognise it. An unknown path steeply drops into the Old Town. Zigzagging through streets and parks and possibly past a house where his parents lived we arrive at the Towner.
It may have been when I read Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways that I first really paid any attention to Ravilious. To be honest whenever I did first see his paintings I didn’t really like them. The paint was thin and colour subdued, they looked unfinished, sketch like. There was something odd about the atmosphere they conveyed. They felt distant and uncanny.
Then something happened when I started to spend a lot of time on the Downs. Those subdued shades of his paintings are the colours of the Downs during winter and shoulder seasons. The South Downs are soft and low, “seen from a distance, it seems to ebb and swell like the ocean from which it once emerged”*. In high summer blinding sun in enormous empty skies flatten the view, all becomes line and pattern. “The design, so beautifully obvious” in the artist’s own words. Slowly Ravilious started to make sense, the thin paint a metaphor for the barely there earth that just about covers the chalk: As Christopher Neve wrote in The Unquiet Landscape he painted with “an almost empty brush which allowed the white of the paper to glitter through”. Pencil lines and crosshatching visible through the watercolour mirror reality, the mark of plough and crop. “In this place he had perfect pitch.”
Leaving the Towner we climb back up to where the Downs literally fall into the sea at Beachy Head. Avoiding the road we ride a bridleway slightly inland and parallel to the coast, Belle Tout visible all the way. Having seen his painting of the Cuckmere Meanders a little while before we speed down the descent with this view to our left.
We finish our Ravilious ride with a pint and chips in Newhaven at The Hope Inn where the Ouse meets the English Channel. He stayed in rooms here with Eric Bawden when they drew and painted the harbour. Earlier we had seen two Ravilious paintings of the steam packet leaving and arriving from Dieppe. Serendipitously the current equivalent, the Transmanche ferry, leaves the harbour as we sit and drink and watch it head for France.
* Helen Gordon, Notes On Deep Time, 2021