Ravilious was given three solo exhibitions in his short lifetime, two at the Zwemmer Gallery in 1933 and 1936, and one at Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1939. Wiltshire Landscape was purchased from the Tooth exhibition, where it was priced at 15 guineas, and has remained in the same private collection ever since. This painting is still in its original frame, of the type that Ravilious had made by Alfred Stiles and Son of Hammersmith.
Ravilious and his friend Edward Bawden were noted for their contribution to the development of a new direction in watercolour in the 1920s and 30s. The critic Richard Seddon referred to it as the ‘textured type of watercolour’, a reversion to an earlier, dryer, more linear approach after the predominance of ‘the wash method’ at the end of the nineteenth century. In this respect, Seddon saw it also as a reclamation of a distinctively English taste and method (see R. Seddon, ‘Contemporary Water Colour Technique’, The Artist, vol. 25, July 1943, p. 101).
It was in a series of paintings of the South Downs beginning in 1934 that Ravilious developed his mature style as a painter, transforming the bleak looking slopes of ploughland or grass from many separate brushstrokes overlaid on stripes of wash, which when seen from a distance give a solid feeling to the shape of the land. For Ravilious who grew up in Eastbourne, any form of chalk hill country provided strong association, and he enjoyed the openness of the space after the more enclosed landscapes of Essex. He preferred to avoid too much green in a picture, so often worked on winter subjects with bare trees and ploughed fields, as seen in Wiltshire Landscape.
Although East Sussex and Essex provided the majority of Ravilious’s painting locations, he visited Wiltshire first in 1932 as the guest of Sir Geoffrey Fry, the owner of Oare House near Marlborough, where he painted the garden and two nearby landscapes. Following his visit in 1937, when Wiltshire Landscape was painted, he returned two years later to find two of the subjects in his set of six paintings of ‘chalk figures’, of varied date, inscribed on hillsides by removing the turf and exposing the white stone beneath.
Evidence from the artist’s letters indicates that Wiltshire Landscape was made in the first week of April 1937, when Ravilious visited the village of Redenham, on the border between Hampshire and Wiltshire, with his lover, the artist Helen Binyon. During this visit, he worked on another landscape, The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs (Victoria and Albert Museum), which is mentioned in a letter to Binyon of 12 April, as ‘gloomy enough at any rate’, an odd description given that it is a sunlit scene. In the same letter, Ravilious refers to ‘the other one’ (i.e. Wiltshire Landscape) and his discovery in ‘one of my post office magazines’ of a small mail-van that may be useful … though in the wrong position for mine’ (see A. Ullmann, S. Lawrence and C. Whittick (eds), Eric Ravilious: Landscape, Letters and Design, Upper Denby, 2008, p. 357).
The painting brings together several of Ravilious’s recurrent themes: chalk downland, a road or path making a line on the landscape, and plough furrows adding direction and texture to its surface. With only a few exceptions, Ravilious’s paintings of landscape subjects include elements of the man-made, often slightly discordant and non-picturesque ones. This description would apply to the row of telegraph poles, still a feature of many country roads, and a valuable contribution to creating depth in this painting. The black-and-white painted finger post is of a type less commonly found today, but universal in the middle years of the century, while the Post Office van is one of many vehicles that Ravilious included in his paintings, ranging from bicycles and hand carts to ships and trains. Its red bodywork (somewhat toned down from the scarlet livery of the GPO), the white gleam of its roof, and the silhouette of the driver, add liveliness to an otherwise rather chilly scene with its grey clouds and sense of recent rain. He did not normally work from photographic references in his paintings, but the inclusion of the van, presumably during further work at home after the visit, gives a special character to the painting, setting up a sideways movement to offset the strong line up the middle of the composition.
Wiltshire Landscape was loaned to several early retrospective exhibitions following Ravilious’s death while serving as a war artist in 1942. It has appeared in a number of books about his work, featuring on the cover of James Russell’s popular Eric Ravilious, A Travelling Artist, Sparham, 2012. It is one of relatively few major paintings of his maturity that are not in public collections, and its appearance on the market comes at a time when the artist’s reputation is standing higher than ever before.
We are very grateful to Alan Powers for preparing this catalogue entry. His new book, Eric Ravilious: Artist & Designer was published by Lund Humphries in 2013.