Let’s visit The Beauty of Transport’s art gallery again. The last time we caught up with the Art Nouveau of Alphonse Mucha, all whiplash curves and idealised beauty. The contrast with this week’s art movement couldn’t be greater. This is Magic Realism, as embodied in the works of transport artist / war artist / artist Eric Ravilious.
Ravilious was born in 1903, and studied at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1920s.
He is famous for his woodcuts and his later watercolours. He painted many subjects, but was particularly attracted to views of the English South Downs, close to the town of Eastbourne where he grew up. By the early 20th Century, the work of the Impressionists in the previous century had made it acceptable to paint “ordinary” scenes. However, there is none of the visual urgency of Impressionism in Ravilious’s work, which is much more considered. It is clearly the result of long, painstaking hours of either woodcutting or watercolour painting.
Magic Realism is a term you more often hear applied to literature than the visual arts, in particular the works of Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Laura Esquivel. I strongly recommend Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate if you’re interested in finding out more. It’s one of my favourites, and includes such notable moments as the one in which a character is inflamed by passion to such a degree that the heat they give off sets fire to a wooden shower stall in which they are attempting to cool off. Hence Magic Realism, stories in which impossible things happen but the world is recognisably ours, not a fantasy world.
Applied to the visual arts, Magic Realism is something slightly different. According to art critic Franz Roh (see the first paragraph via this link), it’s the depiction of ordinary objects or landscapes in such a way as to hint at something uncanny or strange lurking under the surface. There is a sense in such works that something is slightly off kilter without there being any clear evidence as to what that is.
You can see it very clearly in Ravilious’s woodcuts like the one above, where the dramatic contrast of black and white gives a character to the shadows, a sense of something lurking behind the benign landscapes or domesticity on show. Perspectives which are slightly off add to the vague unease which permeates many of his woodcuts.
He seems always to have had an interest in depicting transport amongst his other subjects, and painted several wonderful railway pictures. The first is his “Train Going Over a Bridge at Night” of 1935:
However, his interior of a third class Great Western Railway carriage is my favourite of his paintings, with its beautiful detail (you can feel the cushioning of the seats) and sense of mysteriousness in the mundane; the idea that lurking just out of frame must be the passengers. Where are they going, and why?
The chalk figure in the background is the Westbury White Horse, a subject he painted more than once, and in fact “Train Landscape” is the mirror image of an earlier painting, “The Westbury Horse” of 1939, which has the horse in the foreground, and the train passing by at the foot of the hill. Chalk hill figures were a perfect foil for Ravilious’s Magic Realism, themselves objects of mystery and speculation, yet at heart nothing more than scratches in the ground. He also painted the Uffington White Horse, the Long Man of Wilmington and the Cerne Abbas Giant.
He wasn’t only interested in railways, though one of his several ship paintings has a close connection. This is the S.S. Brighton, one of the Southern Railway’s cross-channel ferries:
“Wiltshire Landscape” of 1938, meanwhile conveys perfectly the experience of inter-war motoring, but also exemplifies the sense of otherness that can be found in Ravilious’s work.
Through his work for the Curwen Press, which printed much of the London Underground’s publicity, and a long-standing friendship with artist and established contributor to Underground posters/advertisements Edward Bawden, Ravilious too found himself working for Frank Pick’s London Transport. This was all part of Pick’s ambition to integrate art and design with the operational elements of the public transport network he was in the process of forging. Unusually, however, you won’t recognise Ravilious’s works from London Transport’s poster art. Ravilious produced two poster designs of Greenwich, neither of which were used (you can see them here and here). It’s not clear today why, but it’s possible that his restrained designs weren’t as immediately eye-catching as some of the bolder designs London Transport was commissioning from artists such as Cyril Power.
However, Ravilious’s woodcut skills were employed to brilliant effect by London Transport in publicity for its Green Line coaches operation. In 1935 Ravilious produced a series of stock illustrations which could be used to illustrate black and white newspaper advertisements for Green Line. These often took the form of some educational text about a potential destination, a Ravilious illustration below, and then standard text about how to get hold of the Green Line Coach Guide at the bottom. So it was that over a woodcut of a severely dressed woman clipping her hedges and overshadowed by a disconcertingly grasping tree, you might be exhorted to visit Great Bookham in Surrey (“a good starting point for rambles”). Alternatively, over a woodcut of a farmer and three of his sheep, you could be implored to enjoy the “plenty of good places for tea” in Crawley, which unfortunately seems to have lost this bucolic character somewhere along the line during the last 80 years. Ravilious also produced front cover illustrations for three editions of Country Walks, guidebooks publicising the out-of-London destinations Green Line coaches reached.
These woodcuts are absolute gems, but Ravilious’s work for London Transport has been overshadowed by greater interest in the company’s poster art, and he isn’t as well-known for it as those who did produce posters.
He returned to transport as a subject when he produced the patterns for what became a very famous series of dinnerware items from ceramics company Wedgwood, called “Travel”. It illustrated several modes of transport including an aeroplane, a train, a bus and an ocean liner.
It appeared in 1953, yet illustrated transport from the 1930s in an almost picture-book idealised manner. The Travel dinnerware series embodied a sort of near-immediate nostalgia for the comforting security of the pre-war world. The reason the designs featured pre-war travel was that they had been commissioned before the war, but production of the dinner service did not commence until afterwards.
And Ravilious himself wasn’t around to see it. He was killed in the war. He had taken up a role as a war artist, producing many fine paintings of the British military in action. He volunteered to go along on a search and rescue mission near Iceland in 1942, a mission from which never returned.
I think it’s fair to say that Ravilious isn’t one of the most famous artists of the 20th Century, and Magic Realism isn’t one of its bigger art movements, quickly overshadowed by the more obviously unreal works of the Surrealists. However, he is a favourite of quite a few art enthusiasts in the transport industry, and you’ll find his works referenced from time to time. Rarely, however, has that been done quite so spectacularly as on a special bus in the fleet of south coast-based operator Brighton & Hove. One of three buses specially redecorated to celebrate local highlights as part of a campaign called “Get Bus(y)”, bus 490 publicises the South Downs National Park which surrounds Brighton and which is served by several Brighton & Hove bus routes.
Outside it is covered with beautiful Ravilious woodcut-style illustrations of places and wildlife of the South Downs, repeated inside on seatback vinyls which replicate the Green Line advert concept of illustration, explanatory text, and travel information at the bottom:
The Long Man of Wilmington decorates the stairwell surround on the upper deck:
Compare to one of Ravilious’s original woodcuts:
The Ravilious bus is a lovely piece of on-bus promotion, although the seatback vinyls have been prone to damage through wear and tear. Nevertheless it’s a very welcome tribute to an artist who saw the magic in transport (much as I suspect you do, if you’ve read this far), and who deserves to be more widely known.
Further reading and bibliography
Mainstone, Tim [editor], 2006: Away We Go! Norwich, Mainstone Press (link here)
Here’s a video all about Brighton & Hove’s Ravilious Bus, and the inspiration behind its redecoration (strongly recommended):
…and anything linked to in the text above
Many thanks to the Wedgwood Museum (homepage here) for their help in sourcing an illustration of the Travel dinnerware set.
Many thanks to Carole Richmond, marketing manager at Brighton & Hove Buses for her patience in answering questions about the Ravilious bus, and for helping me find it so I could take some photos (perhaps if they read this, the perplexed other passengers will now understand what I was doing…)