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Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War – new film about the 'forgotten' war artist who lived in Great Bardfield



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War artist Eric Ravilious disappeared without a trace when he joined an RAF search party looking for an aircraft lost over Iceland and never returned.

For many decades after his death on September 2, 1942, his work was missing from the pantheon of English painters, but film director Margy Kinmonth is determined to see him in his rightful place alongside household names like Turner and Constable.

She said: “He belongs in the pantheon of the great British landscape painters.”

Eric Ravilious (57674831)
Eric Ravilious (57674831)

In Ravilious’ adopted home of Uttlesford, she found a rare seam of appreciation for his talents as she put together her new documentary feature Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War.

The Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden is home to a significant collection of his work thanks to his association with Great Bardfield.

Born in Acton, west London, Ravilious spent most of his early life in the East Sussex seaside resort of Eastbourne, studying at the Eastbourne School of Art and later teaching there after studying at the Royal College of Art from 1922 to 1925.

Eric Ravilious and wife Tirzah Garwood on their engagement day
Eric Ravilious and wife Tirzah Garwood on their engagement day

It was at the RCA that he met Edward Bawden, and they became the lynchpins of a community of artists who lived in and around Great Bardfield from the 1930s to 1970s. The group also included Bernard Cheese, Joan Glass and Michael Rothenstein, whose 1933 painting of Ravilious and Bawden is part of the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

For a time, Ravilious and Bawden and their artist wives Tirzah Garwood and Charlotte Epton shared Brick House. Garwood’s autobiography is titled Long Live Great Bardfield.

Margy said: “I spent a lot of time at the Fry. They've put together the most wonderful collection and were nothing but helpful.”

She harboured ambitions to make a film about Ravilious for around 15 years, inspired by her childhood memories of his work, but struggled to find backers who shared her passion for bringing him to a wider audience.

The Westbury Horse
The Westbury Horse

“I spent a lot of time at my grandparents, who lived in Sussex, and they took me to the Turner museum [which boasts a major body of work by Eric Ravilious] so I remembered certain things about him.”

Her love of the South Downs and its chalk figures chimed with Ravilious’ watercolours capturing the Long Man of Wilmington – a 235ft (72m) tall figure holding two staves on the steep slopes of Windover Hill in East Sussex – and the Uffington White Horse, a 360ft (110m) long prehistoric figure formed from deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire.

Although Margy's career includes credits for EastEnders, Casualty and Grange Hill, she has a background in fine art which is evident in features like Revolution: New Art for a New World, Hermitage Revealed, Royal Paintbox with Charles, Prince of Wales, War Art with Eddie Redmayne and Looking for Lowry.

Margy Kinmonth directs Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War
Margy Kinmonth directs Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War

Her work has won her a BAFTA for Best Documentary Series, the Royal Television Society Arts Award and the Creative Originality Award at the Women in Film and Television Awards.

She finally got the chance to make the first major feature film about Ravilious as the 80th anniversary of his death approached.

Freddie Fox recording as the voice of the eponymous artist in Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War
Freddie Fox recording as the voice of the eponymous artist in Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War

The breakthrough was unique access to the archive left by Ravilious and Garwood, granted by their daughter Anne Ullman, now in her 80s, who was a baby when her father went missing and 10 when her mother died of cancer. The couple had three children: John, photographer James and Anne, who has edited books on her parents and their work.

Margy said: “She was a wonderful person. She allowed me to work from all his letters and private correspondence and have access to photo albums.”

This gave her an insight into the dynamic of their marriage and the toll that Ravilious’s drive, putting his work before his family, had on their relationship.

“He was totally dedicated to his work. His work was the most important thing, more important than anything, and everything had to service that.”

Eric and Tirzah painting a mural in Morecambe, Lancashire
Eric and Tirzah painting a mural in Morecambe, Lancashire

Their story was so compelling that Margy could easily have written a traditional screenplay – and still might now audiences’ appetites have been whetted – but she decided to create a semi-dramatised documentary using Ravilious and Garwood’s own words and rare film.

She said: “I did start writing some scenes, but it would have cost a fortune to do and been much more difficult, but having made this documentary, I could make a whole feature film.”

The couple are voiced by Freddie Fox, who played convicted mass murderer Jeremy Bamber in ITV crime drama White House Farm, and the award-winning Tamsin Greig, whose TV credits include Black Books, Green Wing, Love Soup, Friday Night Dinner and Episodes.

Margy said: “Whenever I make a film, I have to choose the moment where that person’s life is at the most poignant. For him [Ravilious] it was living through a period of great change. Peace and war, beautiful Britain and then the Britain that was under attack. He took us on that journey he travelled himself.”

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ai Weiwei studio (57674871)
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ai Weiwei studio (57674871)

Insight into Ravilious’s influences and continuing impact comes from interviews with luminaries like Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei.

Margy approached him after his History of Bombs artwork, about the incalculable destruction of conflict, was exhibited at the Imperial War Museum (IWM). As Covid-19 barred the public, Margy was allowed exclusive access and then flew to Portugal to film the interview.

The documentarian and activist was not familiar with Ravilious’s catalogue but soon saw the connection.

“He got completely drawn in and completely fell in love with his work,” Margy said. “He also really respected the fact I was revealing this artist who has been forgotten and putting him back on the map and taking him to a greater audience.”

Neither of them knew that the war in Ukraine would bring images of conflict and its consequences into such sharp focus once more.

Ravilious was one of the first official war artists to be appointed by the War Artists Advisory Committee in December 1939 to record the events of the Second World War.

Between 1940 and 1942, he produced watercolours, lithographs and drawings featuring ships, aircraft and coastal defences, 50 of which are now in the IWM's collection.

Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth - IWM (57674528)
Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth - IWM (57674528)

They include Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, 1942. He had served at bases across the country, but in March 1942 his wife developed serious health problems and he was given permission to work closer to their Bardfield home, at RAF Sawbridgeworth in May and June that year.

According to IWM records, shortly after his arrival, he wrote to Tirzah: “My hut is I think made of cardboard and the bed, iron-hard with no pillow, looking glass for shaving, chair, or towel. I shave by touch alone and dry my face on a shirt... I live with the RAF regiment who are very nice people indeed and am brought a thick brown ‘gunfire’ [tea] in the morning at 7.”

His painting employed artistic licence – the iconic Supermarine fighters did not arrive at the airfield until August 1942. The decision to depict the Spitfires remains a mystery. By August, he was on his way to Iceland.

He flew to Reykjavik, arriving at the airfield of RAF Kaldadarnes by road on September 1. The next day he joined four airmen in a Lockheed Hudson from No 269 Squadron as they attempted to find an aircraft that had gone missing on patrol.

When they too did not return, four further days of searching were to no avail and the RAF declared Ravilious and the four-man crew lost in action.

Alan Bennett, the acclaimed actor, author, playwright and screenwriter, said: "Painting was his active service and he gave his life for it.”

Director Margy Kinmonth filming with Essex artist Grayson Perry
Director Margy Kinmonth filming with Essex artist Grayson Perry

During the film, Bennett also explains why Ravilious is part of what it means to be English, while Essex-born, Turner Prize-winning contemporary artist, writer and broadcaster Grayson Perry, renowned for his ceramic vases, said: “He [Ravilious] takes unprepossessing subjects and turns them into masterpieces.”

For many years, Ravilious carved out a career as a book illustrator in wood engraving and lithography, but was best known for his designs for fine china and porcelain household goods manufacturer Wedgwood, including his commission for Edward VIII’s Coronation mug in 1936, and they were increasingly popular in the 1950s.

Margy has considered what he might have achieved had he lived longer.

Eric Ravilious by Serge Chermayeff
Eric Ravilious by Serge Chermayeff

“It’s terribly interesting. He would have carried on doing things in the Festival of Britain after the war. I think he might have gone back to doing murals and architectural things. He has the mind of an animator – he might have gone into making films.”

She thought his fascination with Iceland, which ultimately cost him his life, might also have inspired a more surreal landscape series.

But ultimately she believed what Ravilious achieved in his short life was enough: “It’s difficult to know if he reached his peak or not but he certainly left an amazing legacy.”

For half a century he was more or less ignored until, in the 1980s, daughter Anne decided to find out more about her parents and discovered an unknown hoard of her father’s works, hidden for decades in the home of his great friend Bawden.

* On Friday (July 1), Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War will open on more than 70 screens across the UK and Ireland – a rare feat for an art film and a tribute to a compelling and enigmatic painter and Margy’s skill in telling his story. On Saturday (July 2), Saffron Walden community cinema Saffron Screen will show the documentary at 2.30pm. For tickets see https://saffronscreen.com/eric-ravilious-drawn-to-war/.

Filming on the Sussex Downs
Filming on the Sussex Downs
Director Margy Kinmonth with Eric's granddaughter Ella Ravilious, who works at the V&A Museum
Director Margy Kinmonth with Eric's granddaughter Ella Ravilious, who works at the V&A Museum
Tirzah and Eric (57674840)
Tirzah and Eric (57674840)
Eric with Fred the cat
Eric with Fred the cat
Eric with his parents (57674844)
Eric with his parents (57674844)
Tea at Furlongs - Fry Art Gallery (57674838)
Tea at Furlongs - Fry Art Gallery (57674838)
Two Women in a Garden - Fry Art Gallery
Two Women in a Garden - Fry Art Gallery


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