Eric Ravilious was a printmaker, watercolourist and war artist whose reputation has always stood high. A contemporary of Henry Moore at the Royal College of Art, London, in the 1920s, he was respected by moderns and conservatives alike. While his work has abstract qualities in its pictorial structure and handling of space, it always remains figurative in what it depicts. A fine example is his watercolour Coastal defences, one of several with this title. Its focus is a gun emplacement whose location is not specified, probably for security reasons. However, the chalk cliffs suggest its proximity to Newhaven, on the English south coast, where Ravilious was working in October 1940. The date closely follows the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, when German invasion posed a formidable threat.
Ravilious was an artist ‘who passionately enjoyed drawing everything … from cats and crocuses to battleships’ and was not, according to critic Christopher Neve, ‘easily distracted by the horrors of war’.(1) Yet Coastal defences is one of his most austerely serious and impressive war paintings. The quirkiness and whimsicality evident, for example, in Ravilious’s Wedgwood coronation mug, 1937, is deliberately purged. Instead, we see a landscape of deftly woven patches of colour, which constitute earth and sky. Their leaden tonalities evoke military camouflage. The aircraft flying overhead looks strangely vulnerable. Its cross-like shape suggests sacrifice and is echoed by the nearby mast. Small figures guard the emplacement, and the gun turns towards enemy-occupied France. Barbed wire runs across the composition, helping to anchor it but also making the emplacement’s military function clear.
The geometrical qualities of the fortifications appealed to Ravilious, and these are subtly echoed in the dark, heavily worked foreground zone. The landscape, with its multitude of scribbles and stipples, is carefully wrought, expressing the analogy that he surely felt between his areas of paint and the geology of his beloved, and threatened, south coast. Ravilious himself was a war victim. Within two years of this painting, in September 1942, he joined an air-sea rescue flight over Iceland as an observer. The plane disappeared and no trace of it was ever found.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. Christopher Neve, Unquiet landscape: Places and ideas in twentieth-century English painting, Faber & Faber, London, 1990, p. 21.