HMS Tetcott is a rare treat, one of those hidden treasures that art historians love to discover. Painted in 1941 by Eric Ravilious as a wedding present for a naval friend, Lieutenant Richard Rycroft, it has been enjoyed by the family ever since. Until recently, in fact, nobody outside a small circle of family and friends knew that this very personal watercolour existed.
Lieutenant Rycroft’s widowed mother had moved to Castle Hedingham, Essex, in the mid-1920s, and the two men met ten years later, when Ravilious and his wife Tirzah also found a house in the village. Shortly before Christmas 1939 Richard joined the destroyer HMS Highlander as First Lieutenant, while Ravilious was appointed to the Admiralty as an official war artist. After a wearying winter in various east coast ports he went in search of a more stimulating posting and, when Lieutenant Rycroft invited him to travel aboard HMS Highlander, took up the offer with alacrity.
The weeks in late May and early June 1940 that Ravilious spent aboard the destroyer were among the happiest and most productive of his career. Attached as an escort to the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, Highlander left the shelter of Scapa Flow and travelled with a formidable naval task force to seize the Norwegian port of Narvik. On returning to Orkney the flotilla almost immediately turned round and made the journey again, this time to evacuate Allied troops and aircraft. Fortunately for Ravilious, Highlander was transferred to the escort of HMS Ark Royal, because on 8 June HMS Glorious and her escort were sunk by the German battleship Scharnhorst.
Describing the chaos of naval war as ‘excitements above and below’ Ravilious focused coolly on the marvellous light of the far north in midsummer, producing a dazzling series of watercolours that were warmly praised by Kenneth Clark, head of the War Artists Advisory Committee. In letters home the artist described the scene, with seas ‘the finest blue you can imagine, an intense cerulean and sometimes almost black’.
He also responded positively to the naval environment, writing to Tirzah, ‘This ship is so clean and swept and painted, like a new pin … There are even flowers on the table and chintz curtains. It made me laugh to see a fine cottage chintz in the Wardroom of a destroyer’. And later, ‘I love this ship and feel completely at home: work goes with a swing’.
The following year Lieutenant Rycroft left HMS Highlander to take command of another destroyer, HMS Tetcott, and in November 1941 married Penelope Gwendoline Evans-Lombe at Liverpool Cathedral. To celebrate the wedding – and his friend’s promotion – Ravilious created this lively watercolour of the vessel under way. Everything about the picture suggests lightness and purpose, from the bright scattered clouds above to the mobile surface of the sea. By this time he had become adept at suggesting different sea conditions through texture and pattern, and here the choppy waves are picked out with simple flicks of the brush. Even the destroyer is enlivened by pattern, the camouflage design that made the ship a more difficult target for U-boat commanders – and a more enjoyable subject for the artist.
We are very grateful to James Russell for preparing this catalogue entry.
James Russell is compiling the catalogue raisonné of watercolours by Eric Ravilious, to be published as Eric Ravilious: the Complete Watercolours by The Hedingham Press. For information, please visit hedinghampress.co.uk.