Story of doomed war artist Eric Ravilious told in new film | Painting

The letter was dated 30 August 1942 and posted from Iceland. Eric Ravilious, one of the official war artists, wrote to his wife, Tirzah (“Tush”), of “an unbelievable lunch of caviar, paté and cheese”. He then described the island’s lunar-like craters before ending: “Would you like a pair of gloves, sealskin with fur on the back? Draw around your hand on writing paper so I can get the size. Goodbye darling. Hope you feel well again.”

The letter is read out by his one surviving child, Anne Ullmann, in Eric Ravilious: Drawn To War, which goes on general release – a rarity for an art film – on 1 July. His “Goodbye darling” was tragically apposite as, three days later, Ravilious’s plane went down over the sea. The letter reached his wife after his death.

A toddler when her father died and now 81, this is Ullmann’s first broadcast or filmed interview. She reveals moving letters between her parents, and how in the 1980s she discovered an unknown hoard of her father’s works, including many depicting submarines, in the bedroom of his best friend, the artist Edward Bawden.

This find began a resurgence of interest in Ravilious, who after the war was virtually forgotten for half a century. As Alan Bennett remarks in the film: “Now he is so loved. By developing, he is a shared secret.”

White horse carved into hillside in Wiltshire
Ravilious’s artwork The Westbury Horse has an evocative Englishness. Photograph: Towner Eastbourne/

It was seeing a poster of Ravilious’s Train Landscape at school that transformed Bennett into a devotee. Decades on, he reminisces about the evocative Englishness of other 1930s works such as Tea at Furlongs and The Westbury Horse.

Grayson Perrywhose childhood was spent in the same part of Essex where the Ravilious family eventually settled and where their neighbor was Bawden, said: “He takes simple subjects and turns them into masterpieces.”

The film’s award-winning director, Margy Kinmonth, who made previous TV documents about LS Lowry and Prince Charles’s paintingssaid: “Yes, some might struggle over Ravilious’s name, but when they see his work, it is so recognisable.”

Known initially for his pastoral settings, Ravilious became one of the first second world war artists in a scheme established by Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery. And it is Ravilious’s war letters that, largely because of his death – he was the first war artist to perish – have such resonance. Some of Tush’s survive too. All were left to their three children.

Ravilious wrote from near Norway in April 1940 of “bitter fighting” and “how the sun has not shone much by day or night”. Tush responded about “how terrifying it must be witnessing real war”. She told him that HMS Glorious was sunk in June 1940 with 1,500 British sailors drowned. “I’ll be so relieved to have you back,” she wrote, adding that their son John “was almost hit by a bomb in a field.”

By summer 1940, Ravilious was on a submarine, which he loved to draw and paint despite the cramped conditions. Based on the south coast, he sent several letters to Tush amid the German bombardment: “It’s pandemonium with all the shelling and yet I feel a stir in me that it really is possible to like drawing war activities.”

Tush gave birth to Anne in April 1941, but later that year wrote of a lump on her left breast. Ullmann said: “My father asked to be transferred from Yorkshire, where he was then based, to Essex. My mother needed a mastectomy and then an abortion as it was not felt safe to have another child.” She had become pregnant when Ravilious had been on leave to see his newborn.

Despite her problems, in mid-1942 Ravilious was posted to Iceland. The film tells how Tush felt she could not stop him, though she knew her husband might never return. “I lifted Anne up to wave a final goodbye,” she wrote in her diary. It proved to be a “final goodbye”, as Ravilious died on 2 September. Ullmann recalls in the film being told later “by the lady who lived down the lane, of her coming to my mother with a parcel of his effects. Included were his red spotted handkerchiefs. My mother was weeping her eyes out.”

Tush then had to write 49 times over two years to the War Office to get a widow’s pension before it was accepted that her husband was not just missing but formally dead. It was all the more awful because she had been left with three youngsters and deteriorating health. She died in her 40s of cancer in 1951.

“Somehow we then got on with our own lives,” said Ullmann. But as she and her brothers grew up, and, after the death of their stepfather (Tush had remarried in 1946), they wanted to find out more about their father. Ullmann wrote in the 1980s to Bawden, still residing in the same house in Essex. “He sent a very nice letter back.” Amazingly, Bawden told her that he had kept a large cache of Ravilious’s works under his bed.

After the discovery, the children began resurrecting their father’s career. Exhibitions were mounted, culminating in a large show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2015while prices for his work sourced.

“Being a war artist was not a soft option,” Bennett said. “Painting was Ravilious’s active service – and he gave his life for it. Not quite a martyr’s death, but it preserves and elevates him.”

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