The present work was exhibited at Ravilious' last solo exhibition, held at Tooths in May 1939, four months before the invasion of Poland and the declaration of war against Germany.
In her monograph on Ravilious, Freda Constable has commented, 'it was in the late thirties that Ravilious reached the fully ripe stage of his painting career' (see F. Constable, The England of Eric Ravilious, London, 1982, p. 29).
In Paddle Steamer, Britannia, with its distorted perspective giving unfamiliar proximity to aspects of the steamer, one can admire the elegance of line and delicate use of colour. In his early war pictures working with the Royal Navy, Ravilious used this technique of unusual perspective to great effect.
'Ravilious consistently made his pictures so that as onlookers we are slightly above our normal eye level, above ground level but not so divorced from it as to be flying over the landscape. This means that objects within the picture before us take on a character slightly different from their normal and expected one, and so we are always aware that this is a picture, not a pretence of reality. Also the artist guarantees the unreal durability of his subjects within the picture space, whether they are massy groups of buildings or giant machine parts' (ibid., pp. 23-24).
The paddle steamer Britannia depicted in the present work was stationed at Bristol Quay, and was requisitioned by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war and renamed HMS Skiddaw. She was a fast ship and she still holds the Bristol Channel speed record for a trip to Ilfracombe to Weston with a time of one hour and fifty six minutes. She was sold for scrapping in 1956 after sixty years as a favourite steamer.