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Ravilious: Watercolours of the Sussex Downs

by John Cobley

Wednesday Feb 8th, 2017



Like Eric Ravilious, I was captivated by the South Downs of Sussex from an early age. He grew up in Eastbourne and knew the most eastern Downs, whereas I grew up in mid-Sussex and knew the downs from Ditchling Beacon to Chanctonbury Ring. But I spent my teens at school in Eastbourne, so I also got to know the Downs that Ravilious loved. It was not surprising, therefore, that his watercolours of the South Downs had a huge impact when I first saw them. They were quite different from watercolours I had seen before. I instinctively liked them but couldn’t say why. So I decided to see if I could put into words why I find these paintings so successful—a difficult task as I soon found out.



In 2015 Eric Ravilious was finally honoured with his first major watercolour exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery--73 years after his death on a wartime mission. The enthusiastic reaction to this exhibition has suggested that he should be added to the prestigious canon of British watercolourists. Britain has long been in the forefront of watercolour painting with such masters as Towne, Girtin, Cotman and Palmer, not to mention the few watercolours by Turner and Constable.


For a long time after his death, Ravilious was better known for his wood engraving (one still appears on the cover of the Wisden cricket annual), his mural painting and his decoration of ceramics (Wedgwood). While he never stopped working in other media, watercolours became increasingly important to him. The subject that initiated this change was the South Downs.


Ravilious was born in London, but he spent his teenage years in Eastbourne from where the South Downs start their westward journey along the Sussex coast. In 1922 he left Eastbourne, where his father ran an antique shop, to study Design at the Royal College of Art in London (graphics, book illustration, mural painting and architecture). He returned to Eastbourne upon graduation to teach at the school of art there. But London soon reclaimed him when his professional career took off. It was almost a decade later that Ravilious spent time again in Sussex, staying at Peggy Angus’s cottage near Lewes. Throughout the 1930s he visited Sussex intermittently.


His watercolours of the South Downs were done during his occasional visits to Sussex in 1927, 1934, 1935 and 1939. I will examine eight paintings from these years.


 Firle Beacon (1927)


This early watercolour shows very little of the individual style that evolved later. It’s a busy painting that tries to evoke the power of wind in the tree and clouds. Ravilious had been studying the great British watercolourists in London museums and galleries. The wooden fence in the foreground is an obvious homage to John Sell Cotman’s Drop Gate, Duncombe Park. Critics have also suggested influence from his teacher Paul Nash. In this early work, there are already some aspects that will be found in Ravilious’s mature landscapes: the muted colours with a dominance of browns and greens; the combination of precision and wash (the fence, the corn and the beacon, versus the tree on the left and the clouds); and the absence of human figures. It’s fair to say that this early watercolour tries to do too much; his later works, as he grew in confidence, are not nearly as busy.


Downs in Winter (1934)



Waterwheel (1934)


Over the seven years following Firle Beacon, Ravilious developed his own watercolour style. This is immediately apparent in these two 1934 watercolours. They both depict bleak scenes devoid of human figures, where man-made implements and agricultural workings are the only indication of humanity. Befitting the lifeless scenes, the paintings have a limited range of colour, especially Downs in Winter. The grey skies complement the mood of these two landscapes. Both paintings have detail in the foreground and patterns of green or yellow in the distance. If you blot out the waterwheel and fence in one painting and the roller and copse in the other, you will have two works that are close to abstract studies in texture and shape. Clearly influenced by abstract painting, Ravilious nevertheless avoids the flat colour often found in abstract works. He delights in the subtle textures and undulating shapes of the hills, which he contrasts with the specificity of the four detailed objects. Another change: The wooden fence of Firle Beacon has now become a barbed wire fence, a feature in almost all his future Downs paintings.


Waterwheel has a more pronounced structure through greater variation of colour.  A structural sense is achieved with the two major diagonal lines converging at the wheel. The left-hand line is shown mainly by a fence; the right-hand line, which starts two-thirds up on the right margin, is shown by the boundaries between different colours. Watercolour wash is used only for the more distant hills and for a tiny area to the left, showing the trees before the sea. The rest of Waterwheel is composed of striated green and yellow fields, some grass and some corn. The shading and the striations skillfully show the many undulations. Especially well done is the large furrow that moves up diagonally from the right margin from just above the fence.


Freda Constable in The England of Eric Ravilious makes a very helpful point on the texture in these watercolours: “In his [wood] engravings Ravilious learnt much about texture, and this was something he was to use with full effect in his painting: through line, scratches, flecks and dots he produced weight and variety within two-dimensional shapes.” (p. 18)


The colours in Downs in Winter differ from those in Waterwheel because of the season—the latter having been painted in August. Winter is shown in faded colours of green. Contrasting this is the roller, which is painted with extreme precision. The clump of trees, also precisely painted, balances the roller, but there is little evidence of geometric shapes, except perhaps the small dark triangle on the horizon. Again the foreground has more striations than the farthest hills, and like Pissarro, Ravilious takes up the challenge of depicting frost on ploughed land. There is also some crosshatching on the right. Again, Ravilious deftly captures the gentle undulations of the downland landscape, this time with more muted colours and subtle textures.


For me, these two paintings work best as mood pieces, capturing the emptiness and openness of the Sussex Downs during two different seasons. But they aren’t as memorable as his later paintings of the Downs.


Mount Caburn (1935)


A year later Ravilious was living in a caravan near Lewes, further east along the Downs. Mount Caburn captures the view from this caravan. For this landscape he chose to include figures, perhaps because he knew the farmers and would have seen them at work. Apparently he was never comfortable painting human figures, and he sensibly put the farmworkers in the distance. The men rolling, harrowing and sowing are nothing more than stock figures. Had Ravilious painted this scene a few years later—judging by the title--I believe he would have omitted these figures because they distract from what I presume he is really attempting with this painting.


A remarkable feature of this work is the strong forward impulse from the bottom of the painting. This is achieved by a series of green and brown parallel lines that move away along the sloping field. This forward movement is enhanced by the downward slope of the field. The slope is clearest on the left where the roller is descending. The slightly curving road to the right also adds to the forward movement. All this movement harks back to Firle Beacon and differs strongly from the peaceful stasis of Waterwheel and Downs in Winter.


The curved, imprecise lines of the field are contrasted by some precise detail (gate, buildings, trees) and some straight lines (gate and post on the right foreground, edge of the field from the right margin to the farm house that continues with the light-coloured wall in front of the buildings).


The colours, as in Ravilious’s other landscapes of the Downs, are predominantly dull greens and browns. There is much more watercolour wash here. The texturing is limited to the foreground and to some areas just beyond the buildings. The light area across from the centre left on to the farm buildings suggests low early morning sunlight that doesn’t reach Mount Caburn, whose dark colour is accentuated by the bright sky. Note that the paper appears through the paint in the foreground, for example beneath his signature.


So the most powerful effect of Mount Caburn is the forward movement. It’s technically brilliant, but I have a problem with the way Ravilious stops the movement abruptly at the farm buildings. For me, this makes the buildings the focus and Mount Caburn merely the background. Relying mainly on his title, I wonder if this was the intention here.


As well, I find this painting too crowded for a study of the South Downs. Mount Caburn works better as a topographical painting than as a work of art. It faithfully captures a scene—what Gainsborough called “the real view”--but sacrifices aesthetic concerns. Of course, Ravilious may well have intended this painting to be merely topographical.


Chalk Paths (1935)


For me, this is his most effective painting of the Downs. It captures Edward Thomas’s description of the South Downs as “this pure kingdom of grass and sky.” (Quoted in James Russell, Ravilious in Pictures) As someone who knows the Downs well, I find the painting really evokes this unique treeless location. It is the painting where Ravilious focuses purely on the Downs and uses no props like the waterwheel. His later 1939 paintings, though arguably more artistically advanced, all have a focus that supersedes the Downs.


Except for the sky, fences, trees and the chalk of the tracks, paths and quarries, the whole painting is a mix of different shades of green, with just a hint of brown in some areas. Showing the various undulations of the hills, most of these shades are wash, but there is some texturing too, subtle in the distance and a little more pronounced in the foreground. Undulation is the essence of the South Downs, and the design-trained Ravilious is clearly fascinated by this. He has made little effort to make the bright sky interesting, giving it less than 10% of the whole painting. This makes the viewer concentrate on the downs themselves and goes against the tradition of landscape painting that makes the sky an important component. (Constable, for example, studied clouds in great detail and often used them to create the mood he wanted for his landscape.)


There are actually three white chalk tracks. The minor one to the right mirrors the major track, but its almost jagged line disappears and never reappears. The third track  works mainly as a frame from the lower left corner.


The eye is drawn along the curving and undulating chalk track, which disappears for a time and then reappears, reaching probably the skyline near the right margin. By following the path the eye “feels” the undulations. Alongside this track is another Ravilious barbed-wire fence. Depicted with the usual precision, this barbed-wire fence is more prominent that in previous paintings. The straightness of the fence--not only in the posts but also in the taut wire with its direction changes--contrasts the curves of the track.


Trees are rare on the South Downs, but there are six in this scene. These leafless trees suggest wind from the right, a movement that can also be seen in the strong lines emanating from the right. The placing of the six trees suggests two triangles, the furthest three more obviously. These triangles add to the movement of the eye towards the gentle curve of the horizon. If there are no human figures, there is at least the implication of human presence in the two quarries and the barbed-wire fence.


Alice Sprawls: “His later drawings (as he called them) do things that shouldn’t be possible.” (London Review of Books, 27 August, 2015)


Cuckmere Haven (1939)


By 1939 Ravilious had developed his watercolour skills even further. The scene faithfully captures this remarkable view of Cuckmere Haven, just west of Eastbourne. As he often does, Ravilious portrays the scene from a high perspective above the tarmac road that joins Eastbourne and Seaford. The meandering river that apparently snakes across the mudflats is actually static: the river is detoured upstream. The flow runs along a channel that is depicted as a straight brown line from centre right. So only the furthest section of the visible water is actually flowing.


As if to compensate for the lack of undulating hills, Ravilious now provides the horizontal undulations of the river, as well as some interesting rounded shapes in the mudflats just beyond the road. Of course there are some gently undulating hills to the left, where again he shows a track disappearing and reappearing. As well, there is gentle roundness on the horizon and in the clouds to the right.


Green and brown again dominate the landscape. As in Chalk Paths, there is more washed colour than in the earlier Downs paintings. A distinctive feature of his texturing is the large amount of cross-hatching in the foreground and in the sky. This technique appeared with far less emphasis in Chalk Paths and Downs in Winter.


Two other main colours contrast the greens and browns. First there is the off-white of the track on the left and of the Cuckmere itself. (The Cuckmere here acts in the same ways as the tracks in Chalk Paths.) Second there is the black of the tarmac road, the darkness of which Ravilious exaggerates. Also notable is the small area of blue on the horizon (the English Channel). This is the first time since Firle Beacon that blue has appeared in his South Downs watercolours.


The stippled black tarmac road is the main straight line that counterbalances all the curves. Less dominant but even longer is the straight channel that takes the river-flow to the end of the estuary close to the sea. The diamond-shaped ploughed field on the right adds a little more straightness, as does the triangle centre-left where the fence climbs.  Of course, the cross-hatching also provides straight lines. Finally Ravilious includes some fencing, but this time only some of it is straight.


Thus Ravilious remains faithful to the topography of Cuckmere Haven while indulging in the watercolour techniques he has developed over the 12 years since Firle Beacon.


 The Wilmington Giant (1939)


One his most famous watercolours, this painting is quite different in style from Cuckmere Haven. Apart from some of the clouds and the yellow area beneath the giant, there is no watercolour wash. It could be called a study in textures. Most of this painting has been created with laborious striations. The grass in the foreground and the corn are the most obvious, but there are parallel lines in almost all the textured green and even in the blue sky and dark clouds. Ravilious also achieves texture with very dry paint, leaving some of the paper exposed.


The white giant with his two staffs is the strongest focal point of all the Downs paintings. The 235ft figure, now prosaically called The Long Man of Wilmington, was carved out of the downland turf 400-500 years ago. Its whiteness is not created by the chalk under the turf but by painted breeze blocks. The giant is just off centre, but it stands out strongly against the dark-green background. To the right of this figure is another object, a disused quarry that looks more like a surrealist floating rock that might have appeared in one of Paul Nash’s paintings.


This time the eye pulls back from the giant rather than moving towards it. In pulling back, the eye sees the rickety fence with, yet again, some barbed wire. The second horizontal wire has been loosened and lowered, allowing an uninterrupted framed view of the giant--but not of the quarry.


Straight lines (fence posts, the corn, and the giant’s two staffs) dominate. The main fence post is not parallel with any other line. Acting as a frame, it tilts a few degrees to the left, while the giant’s staffs and the corn tilt a few degrees to the right. The fence post also counters the strong movement from the left margin. All the wires except some of the barbed wires are more curved than straight.


There are no undulating Downs this time, just a slightly curving and descending horizon. Roundness is also seen in the quarry and in the wonderful curving track that takes the eye to the giant’s feet.


There is an interesting counterpoint between the corn in the lower left corner and the storm clouds in the opposite corner. One is pastoral and comforting, the other dark and threatening. Unusually, the sky demands attention. It is tempting to see it as creating gothic emotions about the giant who looms above the viewer. (Ravilious usually paints the Downs from a high perspective, looking down.)


Photos attest to the topographical accuracy of this work. Still, Ravilious yet again finds the freedom to indulge his own watercolour techniques.


Beachy Head (1939)


In this most original of his Downs landscapes, Ravilious has developed his very personal style even further. While continuing to use his earlier techniques, he has simplified this painting by limiting the number of clearly defined sections to 15. (Compare this painting with his earlier Firle Beacon.) The closest he came to this level of patchwork simplicity was Waterwheel.


Each section has its own sameness of colour. Six of the sections, comprising over half of the painting, have a similar variable shade of green. This includes the cloud top right, which is the same colour as the turf on the cliff edge. This green has been painted dry so that many tiny spots of the white paper remain uncovered.  The other sections are blue, white and black. There is much more blue than in previous downland paintings, about 25%, the sky being almost the same shade as the sea. The white and off-white dazzle especially around the lighthouse top. As in The Wilmington Giant, white is at the focal point. The white below the lighthouse suggests that a low tide has exposed the chalk that has fallen from the cliffs. Ravilious wisely didn’t paint the red band on the lighthouse; this omission of red is actually correct as the lighthouse is still in the shade of the cliff. The black of the undulating tarmac road is effective in breaking up the large areas of green. Finally with colour, there is a touch of yellow in two of the three lighthouse beams.


Earth, sea and sky meet near the lighthouse, which like the Wilmington Giant is just off center. There are four triangles: three from the top of the lighthouse, and a less exact one in the sea between land and the main light beam. Straight lines abound in the downland grass crosshatching and in the striation of the sea. The sky to the left has diagonal striation (suggesting a rising sun) and horizontal striation in the centre. The cliff face (not pure white as it is in the shade) is dead-straight in contrast to the jagged edge on top. Rather than fence posts, Ravilious this time has telegraph poles. Finally we have a straight line for the first part of the road—before it disappears in typical Ravilious fashion, only to start curving when it comes into view again.


The sky gets more attention than usual, not only with the suggestion of sunrise to the left but also with the round storm clouds to the right. Again dry paint has left  some of the paper exposed, but I think Ravilious has also added some touches of white. The cloud has some feint parallel lines that mirror the lines in the sea.




The three 1939 watercolours of the Downs were the last ones Ravilious painted. As soon as war was declared he was enlisted as a war artist. He painted many remarkable watercolours in this role before he disappeared on an air-sea mission in September of 1942. He was only 39 and at the height of his career as an artist.




1 Comment

Sue Mitchell Saturday 1st May 2021

My introduction to Eric Ravilious's work and was struck how he can portray the same powerful impressions of the landscape and objects as our own Newfie, David Blackwood, does. Different mediums, but the essence of the portrayal is profound. Love this work.

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