Owned by the same family since its purchase from the artist's estate in the 1960s, Beachy Head Lighthouse (Belle Tout) is both a delightfully original watercolour and an important work in the catalogue of artist and designer Eric Ravilious (1903-42). Although perhaps completed too late for his third exhibition of watercolours, held at Arthur Tooth and Sons in May 1939, it is closely related to that body of work, which captured the attention of seasoned critics Eric Newton and Jan Gordon. In The Observer (14 May 1939), the latter described the work on display at Tooth's as ‘magic, almost mystic’, and the overall reception guaranteed the artist’s selection as a war artist in December of that year.
In this instance one can see why the critics enthused about Ravilious, and also why they found his work puzzling and difficult to categorise. In an age of groups and movements he was neither Realist, nor Surrealist, nor Abstract artist. As a man he whistled and sang, laughed often and enjoyed earthy pleasures; he was husband to fellow artist Tirzah (née Garwood), father of three children and a successful commercial designer and illustrator. As an artist, however, he remains an enigma.
In March 1939, Ravilious went to stay with his parents in Eastbourne. Due to sail from nearby Newhaven to Dieppe for a last-minute painting trip, he spent a few days exploring the clifftops of Beachy Head. The previous year he had enjoyed drawing lighthouses at Rye Harbour and Dungeness, and now he focused his attention on the lighthouse standing below the famous white cliffs, observing it at night and by day.
The weather was bright, but windy and bitterly cold. Having spent a whole day perched on the edge of the cliff, he was invited to work inside the former lantern of the disused Belle Tout lighthouse, which had been decommissioned at the turn of the century and converted into a private house. The spectacular view had attracted numerous visitors, including King George V and Queen Mary. As he described in letters at the time, Ravilious spent the day sitting comfortably with his coat off in ‘a splendid Chinese chair’ as a gale blew across the cliffs.
Although he usually completed a watercolour in his studio, he invariably began work on site, and when bad weather kept him indoors he made studies of interiors. Sometimes these show the room itself as a self-contained world, but more often we see both the interior and the scene outside the window. This was not in itself a new approach – Matisse, for one, had often combined interior and exterior in this way – but Ravilious brought to this sub-genre an eye for the unusual and a peculiar sense of space.
In his mature work Ravilious used subtle but sophisticated compositional techniques to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, and to keep the eye moving between foreground and distance, and this was particularly true in these interior-exterior paintings. Thus our eye is drawn to the beguiling wallpaper and painted sailing ship of Room at the William the Conqueror (1938), only to be distracted by the distinctive lighthouse beyond the window. A similar effect is achieved in Train Landscape (1939), in which the interior of a railway compartment, rendered in mesmerizing detail, competes with the chalk figure of a white horse seen through the window.
Here the contrast is between the sun-drenched cliffs and distant lighthouse, and the interior of the lantern. While Ravilious seems to have used a resist medium to create the decorative effects on the ceiling, the success of the painting comes from his willingness to simplify. The handling of light and shadow on the frames of the windows – dark against light on the right hand side of the painting, light against dark on the other – conveys both interiority and spaciousness. Where the light is brightest, as we look towards the sun, the painting dissolves, the blue of the sea and green of the clifftops disappearing into whiteness.
While living in Essex in the early 1930s Ravilious and Edward Bawden had relished the challenge of looking into the sun as they painted. Initially perhaps they simply sought unusual light effects to give their work individuality, but within a few years Ravilious was making the light itself an important focus of his work. An artist who was famously reticent about his work, making almost no public comment about his ambitions or motivations, he left little clue as to why he did this, but we can see how his visual language evolved. We might also hazard a guess, as we gaze at this radiant watercolour, that he wished to communicate a sense of something marvellous in the world.
We are grateful to James Russell for preparing this catalogue entry.
James Russell curated the 2015 exhibition Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery. His latest book, The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden, will be published soon by the Mainstone Press.