They say never meet your heroes, and with one or two exceptions, generally ‘they’re’ right. This is a documentary with some drama about the life and times of extraordinary British watercolourist and engraver Eric Ravilious.
A recent appreciator of his art, I looked forward to more of his war art. And I got it — how the colour popped on the big screen! I also realised that exhibitions of his works have made him rather dull — these works are more life celebrating and produced by a more joyful character than presented, often with a lot of humour. Fizzing with creativity he moves from print making/engraving to watercolours, entranced by the light, lines and shadows of British countryside, then Iceland and planes, inspired by World War One war artist Paul Nash, his teacher.
What I wasn’t expecting was to find an artist who betrayed his wife repeatedly, and yet was able to own his immaturity and mistakes and seek to reconcile and live differently and lovingly. Often celebrated for his British tweeness, this is a much sharper, decisive artist who can produce a watercolour at will and yet, in perfectionism, perhaps destroyed half of his produced works. Someone who married a fellow artist, even producing a mural together, bouncing ideas and influences off of each other and yet still wanted his ego stoked and flattered, perhaps not able to cope with domestic and family responsibilities and fighting class differences, and yet owning his failings to became a good, loving husband and father, before dying at the tragically young age of 39 in a horrible way as the dramatised bits kept suggesting.
Hidden until the 1970s, his works were feted during his life time (as he and his wife grafted hard to earn money) and often censored for showing the mechanics of defense during World War Two. They also got dispatched to the deep in a World War Two attack. In this documentary we don’t learn much about his creative processes (mostly due to his destructive impulses), but we do learn about the suffering of his wife Tirzah Garwood — a mastectomy and medical abortion as her body was deemed not to be able to cope with carrying a child whilst being treated for what is hinted at as breast cancer. Not to mention not being able to fully carry out her own successful artistic career due to three young children, and who also died very young, widowed. Yet she was vibrant and deeply creative (we experience her work too); a General’s daughter; called Tirzah as she was the third daughter and the first Garwood female to get married in a hundred years!
But the art! The lost murals. The unique perspectives of World War Two planes, including details such as tents over the engines to stop snowfall freezing them. The sheer talent and imagination and draftsmanship — and his ability to draw you into a place and time — be it abandoned fishing boats, damp on the walls, barbed wire newly put in place, military equipment and convoys or fireworks — especially as a war artist. His dazzle is literally dazzling because of the patterns, shapes and lines — and most of all, that light!
There are also some funny moments as his daughter reads the hopes and experiences of her parents during her birth, and the honesty of the family in sharing their famous relative, flaws and all, is something. (Not to mention Alan Bennet’s comments about the pristine nature of the Third Class carriage portrait and its lack of accompanying dirt and grime — such as the leather window strap which left you with black lines on your palm when you adjusted it!) But this documentary has put me off his art somewhat — although if his much wronged wife could forgive him and reconcile, then so should I.