‘Ravilious’s training in and talent for design work undoubtedly influenced him when he was painting. It enabled him to be highly selective and was, I think, one of the reasons why he became an exceptional watercolourist artist and not just another good, but unexciting, painter of landscapes in watercolour. Whatever subject he painted he was keenly aware of the value of shape, textures which had to be untied to his flat expressions of three-dimensional forms’ (F. Constable and S. Simon, The England of Eric Ravilious, London, 1982, p. 23).
This unusual watercolour was once thought to belong to the wartime oeuvre of artist and designer Eric Ravilious. From the timbers of the dockside shed to the buoys themselves, the subject is of the kind he took on while stationed at ports around Britain in 1940-41. We now know, however, that this is an earlier work, created in April 1933 and displayed at the artist’s first solo exhibition that November, at London’s Zwemmer Gallery. It appears as number five in the catalogue.
At this stage in his career Ravilious tended to work close to home. Most of the watercolours in the Zwemmer show were created near Great Bardfield, where he and his wife Tirzah were then living, sharing Brick House with Edward and Charlotte Bawden. It seems unlikely that he undertook a special journey to find this dockside scene, so the most plausible scenario is that he made the drawing on a trip arranged for another purpose. In fact Eric and Tirzah travelled to Morecambe in the spring of 1933, to paint a set of murals in the tea room of Oliver Hill’s dazzling new Midland Hotel. Unfortunately, the preparation of the walls was beset with problems and it seems likely that Ravilious made this drawing during one of several lengthy delays.
Although the new hotel was exciting, the couple were not much taken with off-season Morecambe, which Tirzah in inimitable style likened to ‘a sluttish prostitute who hadn’t yet bothered to get out of bed and paint her face’ (T. Garwood, Long Live Great Bardfield, 2016). In search of more congenial surroundings they walked north along the coast to the village of Heysham and there found a room. The nearby port – today a bustling ferry terminal – was probably the scene of this dockside still life.
In common with works such as Talbot-Darracq (1934) this is essentially a drawing, which the artist has tinted delicately with watercolour. Look carefully at the buoy in the centre of the composition and we can see Ravilious’s marvellous draughtsmanship quite clearly. In his earliest surviving drawings, made when he was not yet in his teens, he showed an uncanny ability to capture not only the form of a three-dimensional object – a teapot, for example – but also its character. Honed over the years that followed, this skill won him scholarships to the Eastbourne School of Art and then, in 1922, to the Royal College of Art. Twenty years later it continued to underpin his watercolours, which he always referred to as ‘drawings’.
At the Royal College he also studied wood engraving, rapidly becoming one of the country’s foremost proponents of the medium. This experience influenced his work as a watercolourist in several ways, teaching him how to create visual drama with a limited palette and how to generate the illusion of three-dimensional space on an almost microscopic scale. The engineering of space became an essential feature of his later watercolours, and it was in 1933 that he first began enjoying success with this approach. Look, for example, at Two Women in a Garden (1933), where a trestle table and accompanying benches pull us into the composition.
The structure of the present work is more effective still, since the arrangement of objects appears accidental. In the foreground a coil of rope offers a textural contrast to the grappling hook of the title, while a stack of planks serves both to break up the composition and to direct our eye into the middle ground. Following a zig-zag pattern often seen in later Ravilious watercolours, the eye is then led away along the line of buoys. With their rounded bases and conical tops, these suggest lumbering creatures, an effect enhanced by the barn-like quality of the shed, but even without this interpretation there is something wicked in the contrast between the sharp hooks in the foreground and the rounded forms of the buoys.
Later in the decade Paul Nash tried to persuade Ravilious to sign up as a Surrealist, but the latter steadfastly avoided this kind of group. True, his choice of subject for this watercolour was vogueish. Nautical style and, more specifically, the nautical still life had already been explored with panache by avant-garde artists such as Edward Wadsworth. However, there is nothing forced about this arrangement of marine equipment. One might happen upon a similar scene even today. As in so many of Ravilious’s most celebrated watercolours, we see here unglamorous subject matter treated in a deceptively straightforward way. The enigmatic quality of Buoys and Grappling Hook is not something imposed on the scene but rather teased out of it by an artist who is finding his vision.
In the nine-and-a-half years remaining to him, Ravilious returned often to the mini-genre of the nautical still life, most memorably in the beguiling watercolour Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck (1940). As a war artist he also revelled in the unadorned wooden huts associated with military life. In Buoys and Grappling Hook, we see Ravilious exploring these important future interests for the first time. It is a breakthrough work, and a compelling drawing of strangeness and charm.
We are very grateful to James Russell for preparing this catalogue entry.
James Russell curated the 2015 exhibition Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the current exhibition Century, at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings. His latest book is The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden (Mainstone Press, 2016).