Ravilious – a life cut short by conflict

A NEW documentary film from artist and film-maker Margy Kinmonth explores the life and work of the watercolorist and wood-engraver Eric Ravilious, who disappeared over Iceland during the Second World War.

Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War, which has local premieres from 12th July at Bath and Bristol and screenings at Poole’s Lighthouse Arts Centre and Winchester, features contributions from writer and playwright Alan Bennett, artists Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei and landscape and nature writer and poet Robert Macfarlane.

The director chose artists to talk about Ravilious rather than curators or journalists. They bring an engaging creative energy to the narrative.

Produced by Foxtrot Films, it is the first major feature film to be made about Eric Ravilious, the much loved but underestimated artist who died in 1942. It recounts a life as compelling and enigmatic as his art, set against the dramatic wartime locations that inspired him.

Ravilious’s own words – largely drawn from his many letters – provide the narrative thread. Actors Freddie Fox and Tamsin Grieg provide the voices for Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood, who was also an artist. As well as the private correspondence the film includes previously unseen archive material. Two other actors taking part are Jeremy Irons and Harriet Walter.

Director Margy Kinmonth is a BAFTA and RTS Award winner, whose films include Naked Hollywood, Royal Paintbox, with Prince Charles,  and Revolution: New Art for a New World. She says: “As a filmmaker and artist myself, I am telling the story of an artist whose life was cut short by conflict.

“Ravilious was a brilliant painter whose art portrays a very British way of life, creating his unique point of view at a particular point in history, my film asks what his life and art might tell us about the elusive concept of Englishness.”

Margy believes that Ravilious is one of Britain’s greatest landscape artists: “He is much loved and very popular. He should be widely recognised alongside Turner, Nash, Constable and Hockney. But Ravilious is not a household name. I want my film to bring him wider recognition and not just around the UK.”

One reason that Ravilious was relatively forgotten for many years after his death was that the existence of many of his paintings was unknown until his children discovered them under the bed of his great friend Edward Bawden.

People may not have heard of him but nowadays they certainly recognise his art, she says: “Since he went out of copyright, his work is to be found on every dishcloth and handkerchief – but who wants to be Britain’s favourite mousemat?”

Margy has known and loved Ravilious’ art since she was a child, particularly because of his connection with Sussex, where she spent much of her childhood.

He is widely known for his watercolours of the chalk downs of Sussex and Wessex, and for paintings of the chalk carvings – many of white horses – in the downs. Indeed, as a war artist, he was commissioned to paint the chalk carvings in their Second World War camouflage of turf or ink. He had not completed the commission when he joined the fateful flight to Iceland.

His war paintings have a strong sense of narrative, says Margy: “They all have a story and are not just a record.” Ravilious was an Official War Artist, and many of his paintings are in the Imperial War Museum.

The film is also a celebration of Ravilious’s talented wife Tirzah Garwood. She was “an amazing artist and writer,” says Margy. “Female artists often get left out of the picture. In the course of history their legacies get lost or disappear completely. I want to bring out the stories of female artists.

“Tirzah was a noted artist .. and a prolific writer. I used her autobiography for my screenplay. It is her words and female perspective which give us the story of this marriage of two artists, a relationship innocently born in peacetime and then shattered irrevocably by the onset of war in 1939.”

Ravilious: Drawn to War is having a series of premieres around the country, beginning at the Curzon in Mayfair on 27th June, followed by Lewes, in the heart of the South Downs, and including the Little Theatre at Bath on 12th July and the Watershed at Bristol on 13th. There will also be local screenings on 12th July at Poole’s Lighthouse arts centre and from 12th to 14th July at the Rex Cinema, Wareham.

A Dorset artist, Robin Mackenzie, has a special place in the film. One of the youngest and finest wood engravers in the country, he was commissioned to make the little wood blocks for the tiny engravings seen in the film, standing in for Ravilious’ own wood blocks which were lost in the war.

Pictured: Capt Eric Ravilious with his parents; Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood on their engagement day; director Margy Kinmonth with artist Grayson Perry; Beachy Head, by Eric Ravilious; Tea at Furlongs, by Eric Ravilious. All images © Foxtrot Films