Eric Ravilious: The Man Who Painted While the Bombs were Falling

When war broke out in Europe, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery in London, appointed artists to respond to the conflict and create a permanent record of the war from an eyewitness perspective. More than 300 artists were commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee, the program designed by Clark, including Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore, Bawden, Paul and John Nash. Ravilious got his commission on Christmas Eve 1939.

Posted to the Admiralty, Ravilious set to work, painting ships and submarines at the Royal Navy barracks at Chatham and the coastal defenses at Newhaven. Assigned overseas, he painted fjords in Norway and airplanes over Iceland, always working in his distinctive style. Ravilious created over a hundred works of art while on commission as a war artist. He seems to have enjoyed his duty as a war artist; “I enjoyed it very much, even the bombardments which are marvelous fireworks”, he reported in 1940, in the midst of a sinister naval battle off the coast of Norway. The following year, around this time with the RAF, he wrote to his family: “It was more beautiful than words can say, flying over the moors and coast today in an open plane, floating just on big, curly clouds and perfectly still and cool.”

His art of war drew criticism from some members of the military hierarchy for not addressing scenic views or varying the shape and size of his work, or for his detached or innocent stance. However, Alan Ross, in his book Colors of War, praised the detached stance of Ravilious’ art: “The battle zone may be far away, but it is here, tenuously, that all begins. In most of Ravilious’s war images, ships and sea, aircraft and landscape merge, camouflage having transformed machines and nature into a single abstract.”

Art of War and Peace

However, Ai Weiwei believes that staying true to his style was one of Ravilious’ greatest strengths: “From his paintings, I can see his firm control of watercolour, [his] a calm expression, attention to detail and meticulous care, showing his extraordinary insight and expression.” He adds, “He did not focus on style, but rather on his attitude and way of expressing. He added a strong personal touch to the themes he depicted. That’s why he’s great.”

James C. Tibbs