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Politics, reconstruction and Englishness: Eric Ravilious and the English landscape between the wars

It's official. Ravilious is record-breaking - being our most visited show to date. But just what makes the artist's watercolours, in particular his landscapes, so unique? As the show reaches its final weeks at the Gallery we asked Art Historian, Tim Challans to share his MA dissertation on Eric Ravilious and the English landscape between the wars. In the following excerpt he considers one of Ravilious's most famous paintings, Westbury Horse.

"The Westbury White Horse is one of a number in Wiltshire and is thought to have been created in the late 17th Century as a "mock-Saxon" folly. By the time Ravilious painted it, it had been restored a number of times and was stabilised with concrete, but it was valued as a representation of the heritage and the unique chalk environment of the Downs. A recent photograph suggests that Ravilious’s picture is topographically correct, although he has softened the contours of the hill. In the painting the horse carving and the hill that it occupies are in the foreground of the picture and in sunlight but the plain below the hill is in a grey monotone and the sky looks ominous and stormy. Ravilious chooses to show the railway line, the Great Western line between London and Penzance, which still exists but is not even visible on the photograph, by having a train run through the centre of the image. The train is out of scale and is typical of his portrayal of moving trains, which look more like toys, rather than the real thing. If he wanted to appeal to the conceit of the rural ideal he might have painted a topographical representation of the Wiltshire landscape contrasting the downs with the plain to the north and highlighting the unique heritage of the White Horse, and the changing weather conditions. However, by disrupting the White Horse picture with what appears to be a freight train (an iron horse) he immediately introduces an element of modernity, industry and functionalism into the scene disturbing the pastoral and picturesque with detailed reality and, dramatically, contrasting the old and the new. He could also be taking a preservationist perspective in this picture by highlighting the vibrant colours of the old and contrasting this with the grim monotone of the new. However, in selecting both, Ravilious is in effect opening up the debate, by asking the question of which is the most relevant image; the White Horse or the iron horse, and which expresses England and the Englishness the most on the eve of another war?"

The above is an extract from SUBVERTING THE MYTH: Politics, reconstruction and Englishness: Eric Ravilious and the English landscape between the wars, by Tim Challans.

You can read the full dissertation here