Film Review: Eric RaviliousDrawn to War

Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War is a new feature-length documentary about the life of one of Britain’s greatest landscape artists.

In July, Bristol-based writer and RWA staff member Grace Hannell attended a screening and special Q&A with director Margy Kinmonth at The Watershed, Bristol. Here’s her review…

by Grace Hannell

The film opens with a dramatic reenactment of the British artist’s tragic end. A plane, flying off Iceland in August 1942 loses control and plunges in the deadly waters. From the start, director Margy Kinmonth has painted Eric Ravilious as the tragic romantic hero lost before his time.

What really makes this film is that its narration almost entirely relies on the letters exchanged between Ravilious and his wife Tirzah Garwood. These letters really speak to the archival power of the written word to gain an insight into an individual’s life and the times they lived in, and makes us question how much, in the advanced digital age that we live in, will be lost when we try to learn about the lives of others in the future in their own words.

Freddie Fox and Tamsin Greig are beautifully selected in the voice roles of Eric and Tirzah, and audiences find themselves fully immersed in the certainly not perfect lives of the couple, from her family’s disapproval of the marriage to their newlywed poverty. Then again, there is something romantic about the illustration of them, cooped up in the marital home, taking all and any commissions to practice their talents for money.

Unbeknownst to many, their art was and is everywhere, from hotel murals to book illustrations and front covers. Tirzah, a talented artist in her own right, puts up gracefully with her husband’s various whims and affairs, but we wish that we too could have been present in their eccentric circle containing many of the ‘Great Bardfield Artists’.

The various techniques, from watercolour to woodcut printing are very well presented and are fascinating to watch. Kinmonth commissioned artists to duplicate work during the filming, and even the sound of the wood being carved adds a certain artistic magic to the film. It is wonderful to see Ravilious’s great works presented on a cinema screen, and some lesser-known ones too. Kinmonth interviews a wide and wonderful range of celebrities, as well as family, including Grayson Perry, Ai Weiwei and Alan Bennet. Admiration and pride is obvious in the words of the guests.

One opinion that personally stands out comes from nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who believes Ravilious’s work is so appealing to him because these are real non-airbrushed British landscapes stuck in time. Often, there is a tempting path in a Ravilious’s work, and the viewer craves stepping inside to follow it. These are green lands, trees blown by the wind, sweeping hills and barbed wire fences in all weathers, that are painted out of sheer love for the landscape.

Naturally a large part of the film covers Ravilious’s journey to becoming an Official War Artist. Peppered with references to working alongside other great names such as Henry Moore and Paul Nash, we learn in Ravilious’s own words how much he truly loved this dangerous, rogue game of painting on ships in rough seas, being ensconced in submarines and learning first-hand about Britain’s wartime successes and defeats. Audiences at the time flocked to war artist’s exhibitions to gain visual insight into how their men were defending the country, and the sheer force of planes, boats, and military paraphernalia needed.  Perhaps, unfortunately for the public, these paintings were subject to censorship, the remainder sparking more fascination and patriotic pride than possible horror. Ravilious recalls in his letters how his work outnumbered the rest of the artists in the exhibitions, a fact that does him credit, but something he was mildly embarrassed by.

Later in the Q&A, Kinmonth is asked why she didn’t include more ‘before and after’ shots of Ravilious’s paintings compared with the environment in the present day. I believe the blunt answer is because it would be boring! Anybody can curate their own tour of Britain based on Ravilious’s landscapes, and as Kinmonth explained, there is so much more to the artist than twee images printed onto tea towels and mugs. Ravilious idealized the British landscape of Sussex and Essex that he loved and therefore his work is not a paint by numbers version of reality. His work contains a style that is so fascinating, it lends itself to a rarity that many artists will never achieve: holding the viewers’ attention. I for one hope that many new Ravilious fans will feel the need to gaze on his work for many years to come.

‘Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War’ may not be a high budget masterpiece, but it has a star-studded cast and a rare and unique insight into this artists life and work, which will gain him many dedicated fans.

‘Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War’ is available to stream online at Curzon Home Cinema for £11.99.

The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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