Eric Ravilious - Wheelbarrow

Eric Ravilious – Wheelbarrow

Time was when Eric Ravilious was a closely guarded secret in an art world dominated by post-pop, structuralism, radical feminism and minimalism. His paintings of a prelapsarian, inter-war eden of cream teas, brisk downland strolls and trains more comfy than your gran’s parlour were relatively unknown outside of the closed world of the art schools. And not only Ravilious but his friend and occasional colleague, Edwin Bawden and a host of other home-grown ‘Romantic Modernists’ who had doggedly pursued their own – determinedly English – take on 20th century art. It was fashionable then – in the late seventies – to be seen to despise this tendency in British art as insular and suburban.
Now of course it’s fashionable to despise it because it’s popular.
The Ravilious bandwagon rolls on, barely a year going by without a new biography, memoir, or retrospective of the artist known as ‘the Boy’ by his contemporaries.
You can see why. There is a childlike intensity of enquiry in his gaze that infuses the most mundane of objects with a mystical gravity.
I have a section of cotton lawn printed with Ravilious’s Garden pattern originally designed for Wedgwood but here used for curtain fabric for the first Queen Elizabeth cruise ship. Among the pots, sheds, rakes, hoes, beehives and greenhouses is a wheelbarrow drawn with such elegance and intensity that it transcends the banality of existence and becomes Platonically Real – an Ur-wheelbarrow from which all subsequent and material barrows derive and which are but imperfect and impermanent flickering shadows.
Not really what you want from a wheelbarrow, but never mind.
The recent show at Dulwich picture Gallery, concentrates quite rightly on Ravilious’s paintings. But I was drawn to a glass vitrine containing the original engraved boxwood printing block for Ravilious’s ‘Boy Birds Nesting’. What interested me – as a sometime wood engraver myself – was that he had chopped about 5mm off the right hand side of the block (the left hand side as printed: you can see the line is not quite straight.)
He might have done it to tighten up the composition although I think it would have been better had the full width of the tree trunk been printed. He might have done it to fit a pre-determined printers’ layout – although ‘Boy Birds Nesting’ was sold as an edition of 500 prints and anyway 3.2 inches is an odd width compare to, say, 3.5 inches, the actual width of the block.
Perhaps the most likely explanation is that he made an error – a slip of the graver taking a chunk out of the design – leaving him with the options of tipping the white mark in once printed or scrapping the block altogether and re-cutting a new one.
Does this matter? No, but it’s encouraging to know that even the best still make mistakes.

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