The glorious English landsapes of Eric Ravilious

Chalk Paths (1935) by Eric Ravilious
Chalk Paths (1935) by Eric Ravilious Credit: Bridgemanart.com

 Ann Wroe celebrates the luminous Sussex landscape that inspired the artist’s beguiling watercolours

If you catch the No 12 bus from Brighton east along the Sussex coast, stay on it for 20 minutes through the dispiriting semis of Saltdean and the bungalows of Peacehaven, then navigate for a further 15 minutes through the glorious meanders of Cuckmere Haven and the long climb out of it, you arrive at a stop called “South Downs Way”.

You are on a high crest of the Downs, bare rolling hills on every side, with Eastbourne vaguely stretching to the sea in the blue mist far below. It was in Eastbourne, they think, that Debussy finished the orchestration of La Mer, that peerless evocation of wind and light on the sea. Already, the clues are gathering.

If you head a little distance north from the stop, across the golf course, you find yourself on a rough chalk track that descends, through battered thorn hedges, to the village of Jevington. Down to your right a church nestles among trees in the steep windproof lee of the hills: a small, mouse-like building of brick and flint with a “Sussex cap”, the unassuming local version of a spire. And you may well recognise it, as I did, even if you have never passed this way before. It is exactly the unnamed “Sussex church” engraved by Eric Ravilious in 1925.

Some claim his church is a different one, in another East Sussex village; it hardly matters. Ravilious, one of the 20th century’s greatest painters and wood-engravers, is all over this landscape. Climbing up from Eastbourne, where he lived as a boy (his father a fitter of blinds, to temper the extraordinary southern sunlight), he walked these hills, cycled them, brought his students here to draw tumbledown flint barns, and embraced his lover Helen Binyon on the soft, springing turf. He told her that he wanted to draw a map, marked with asterisks, of all the places where he had kissed her; but the whole scene is filled with the shapes and textures of his art and permeated, like his art, with light.

It is impossible to look at Beddingham Hill, a long ridge south-east of Lewes, without seeing it painted with his pale green-and-brown washes; hard to look at the small dry coombes on the slopes without seeing the hollowed-out curves and cross-hatchings of his engravings; hard, even, to look at lush long grass or crops in a field, without remembering his thin, regular, painstaking brushstrokes, with the chalk-white paper blank beneath them. If you are lucky, one of his favourite totems, a rusty old roller or some long-abandoned tractor, will provide a foreground for you.

Cuckmere Haven (1939) by Eric Ravilious Credit: Bridgemanart.com

Other places were home to Ravilious, and also claim him: Hammersmith, briefly, and Great Bardfield in Essex, where he lived for some years. He painted assiduously there, too, but the darker, more uniform green of Essex bothered him.

He needed to return to base, and it was light, as much as anything, that drew him. It was no coincidence that his most passionate affair, with Helen, was conducted in the Thirties at Furlongs, the flint shepherd’s cottage owned by a friend at the foot of the Downs, where they wandered together through what he called “the extreme brightness of everything”.

He loved the bleached-out look of the Downs in winter, and the translucent glow of crops on their slopes in summer; he once described them as “the very colour of tea”, which meant, to his mind (ever cluttered with teapots, boiling kettles and the paraphernalia of brewing up), the colour of refreshment and continual delight.

The spare, flowing lines of the Sussex hills also thrilled him with their simplicity, their design “so beautifully obvious” that it seemed to teach him how to paint all over again. Working up on the heights was sometimes hectic, his paper barely staying on the board and his hat “in lovely ascending spirals” blowing off; at Beachy Head, where the Downs fall precipitously to the sea, he set up camp right at the edge, on a piece of cliff “about four yards square”, mesmerised by “an immense bar of light on the sea… [that] is splendid and must be done”.

A decade earlier he had drawn a cartoon of himself (though he insisted it was not himself) musing like a stylite on a pillar of chalk high above the lower lighthouse, as a buxom Venus rose to greet him out of the moonlit waves.

Chalk, living and light-filled, is Ravilious’s stone par excellence. Like paper or canvas, or white bone, it underlies the land, shining through the thin skin or earth or turf. Often it breaks through, kicked up by rabbits into a rubble of bright stones, combed bare by harrows or scraped out into quarries, gaping bowls of white like the entryways into ancient ruins.

Walkers tread out white paths across the Downs, the same paths of light that led John Bunyan’s Christian to the Eternal City; and it is always a pleasure to come home with well-daubed boots, as if you have been not merely wandering through whitewash, but also treading grace. Ravilious painted such tracks incessantly, sometimes deliberately pairing their time-worn smoothness with modern fencing or barbed wire.

They might run in recognisable places, such as under Firle Beacon or beside the snaking, sluggish river at Cuckmere Haven; or they might wind across imagined hills, steeper and more tortuous than the real thing, but still undoubtedly Sussex hills in their tinting and their forms. The bloom and translucency of his colours are the natural indicators of the light beneath it all, as present and striking within the earth as in the glowing sky above.

The Lighthouse at Beachy Head (1939) by Eric Ravilious Credit: Bridgemanart.com

In certain places, larger-than-life-size men or horses shine out of the landscape, where the turf has been cut open to expose the stone. Ravilious sketched and painted these figures all across the south of England, having been commissioned to record them before they were camouflaged, at the beginning of the war. But his favourite figure lay close to home, on the north-facing slope of Wilmington Hill, east of Alfriston, a striding giant with two staves as tall as himself.

His origin is lost in time; and often, approaching him on foot or rattling slowly past in the train between Berwick and Polegate, he seems on the point of vanishing back into the grass. Ravilious thought this figure might be a goddess (why not?); some think he is a god of sun and harvest, ancient as the tumuli on the high ridge above. To me, he – or she – appears to open the gates of the hill to a whole horizon of sparkling southern sea, a great shout of light.

For those unfamiliar with it – such as the Chinese tourists crowding the upper deck of the same No 12 bus – East Sussex light is almost painful in its intensity, to be kept at bay by putting on sunglasses and sitting on the shaded side. For newcomers such as myself when I first took possession of a top-floor flat in Brighton overlooking the sea, it is an intoxication. Light does not merely fill landscape and seascape here; it outlines every object, then clothes it in radiance, as if it has newly created it.

Beachy Head today Credit: Piero Romoli

This, too, Ravilious appreciated. In his favourite manual of his craft, Alfred Rich’s Water Colour Painting, he had read that to faithfully depict an object was to place around it “a halo of light”. This itself seemed an echo of William Blake’s “great and golden rule of art, as well as of life”: “That the more distinct, sharp and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art … for every Line is the Line of Beauty.”

That quiet, sinuous line seemed to bound every object Ravilious drew, from the pencilled egg cups and teapots of his school homework to the submarine tackle, water pumps and abandoned cars he painted in maturity. And the same principle seemed naturally to dominate his wood engravings, where the burin smoothly and delicately carved lines of light across the boxwood block. He wondered once, in notes for a project that has disappeared or never happened, whether an engraver’s thoughts might be angels, and his hands and tools their instruments.

That thought, though, was rather mystical for him. As a young man at art college, he was one of the first to appreciate the spiritually charged Shoreham paintings of Samuel Palmer, which were exhibited properly for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1926, almost a century after they had been created.

Having seen them, Ravilious at once walked 20 miles or so to Shoreham with two friends, eager to see the place of inspiration. He picked up much about light from “Sam Palmer”, especially the effect of massed dark trees against pale skies and the way wheat and grass could glow, numinously, in a low sun. But he picked up none of his rather fervid religiosity.

Nor did he record his own struggles with light, as Palmer did endlessly in his notebooks: worrying about the best kind of paper, the best kind of paint, and how chiaroscuro actually worked. Agonising was not Ravilious’s style. At most, he worried that his efforts to keep his paper wet, so that light shone through the paint, made his pictures look too “washed out” – as, indeed, they can still look, if they are badly reproduced. He reckoned, too, that only one in three or four was any good, and tore the rest up into small squares, wishing devoutly to bury them as his cat would.

The Long Man of Wilmington, East Sussex Credit: Kevin Eaves/Alamy

More often, though, his attitude to light was playful, and not only for the thrill of the chase (a chase that once saw him take a five-bar gate “a bit close” in chalk country, cruelly ripping his breeches on a bit of wire). Light was almost another character in his paintings, the sole occupant of empty rooms, the pure white invader of creepered greenhouses, the wanderer across the fields and, beamed from the lighthouse at Beachy Head, the great constructor and deconstructor of the night-time scene.

He loved fireworks and bonfires (a Sussex obsession anyway), the flaring matches that lit his cigarettes, car headlights raking a bedroom. Rather guiltily, he admitted that he loved watching the bright yellow blaze of shelling off the South Coast in the war.

He played his own tricks, too, with light, responding to the multifarious tricks it played on him. In his engravings he sometimes substituted stars for leaves, or drowned his stars in Downland dewponds. He liked to substitute night for day, and vice versa. His silhouetted birds reversed from black to white as they left the hills and skies for the trees. And his human figures, too, morphed into light, or melted into it, as if – to echo the passage from the 17th-century poet and theologian Thomas Traherne’s Praises of the Body he once copied out for Helen – they truly had “arteries filled/ with celestial spirits”.

As I walked in his footsteps through the astonishing light of the hills between Brighton and Eastbourne, I became aware of the range of its subtlety, beauty and trickery, as well as of the mysterious interplay of light within and without: the light of the sun, and that of the eye, combining to create the world.

This is an edited extract from Ann Wroe’s Six Facets of Light, published by Jonathan Cape (£25)