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On 2 September 1942, Eric Ravilious joined the crew of a military plane that was embarking on a search party for a missing aircraft off the coast of Iceland. Four days after that plane also failed to return, the RAF declared the crew lost in action, and Ravilious became the first official war artist to die in active service. Ravilious had been prolific and successful in his truncated career, but his reputation fell into obscurity in the decades following the war, and he has yet to earn the respect many feel he deserves. In Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War, he is described as “a shared secret” by Alan Bennett, one of his most ardent admirers. “Because his paintings are so accessible, I don’t think he’s thought to be a great artist,” Bennett suggests. “I’m not sure he’s properly estimated because he’s so easy to like.”
Margy Kinmonth’s documentary makes a good case for the richness of Ravilious’s body of work, and for his status as a significant English artist. The interviewees that Kinmonth has canvassed for this film – ranging from famous fans like Bennett, Grayson Perry and Ai Weiwei to curators and family members – make intelligent observations about his artistry, highlighting the cross-hatching and stippling techniques that gave his watercolours their distinctive texture, or detecting ominous qualities behind the apparent ‘cosiness’ of his paintings. The second half of Drawn to War focuses on Ravilious’s World War II experiences, and it’s interesting to note how little he adapted his style to this new milieu. There’s no immediate horror or propagandising on display here, and his paintings of battleships and submarines possess the same sense of serenity as his pastoral views of Sussex. These works are summed up in the film as “profoundly serene, and profoundly disturbing.”
Kinmonth has a wealth of materials to draw from and she makes good use of the paintings, engravings and ceramics that the artist left behind, but her documentary is primarily structured around letters and diary entries. Perhaps her smartest filmmaking choice is to give Ravilious’s wife and fellow artist Tirzah a near-equal share in the voiceover narration (spoken by Freddie Fox and Tamsin Greig), allowing her to emerge as an equally intriguing figure. Tirzah had to sacrifice her own artistic endeavours as she took care of their often cash-strapped family, as well as putting up with her husband’s long absences and numerous infidelities. One of the most memorable artworks shown in this film doesn’t belong to Ravilious at all, but to Tirzah. Her engraving The Wife simply depicts a woman sitting up in bed, with her husband’s side pointedly lying empty.
► Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War is in UK cinemas from 1 July.