Rye Harbour inscribed with colour notes pencil and watercolour 42.3 x 51 cm. (16 5/8 x 20 in.) Painted in 1938
Provenance: Edward Le Bas, from at least 1948 with Anthony D'Offay, London Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited: London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Recent Watercolours by Eric Ravilious, 11 May - 3 June 1939, no.2 (18 gns.) London, The Arts Council of Great Britian, Eric Ravilious 1903-1942: A Memorial Exhibition of Watercolours, Wood-Engravings Illustration Designs etc, 1948-1949, no.14 Sheffield, Graves Art Gallery, Eric Ravilious, March 1958, no.27 London, The Royal Academy of Arts, no.252 London, Anthony D'Offay, British Drawings and Watercolours 1890-1940, 20th January - 6th March 1982, no.56
Literature: Freda Constable, The England of Eric Ravilious, Lund Humphries, Hampshire, 2003, p.24 (ill.col.pl.13) Alan Powers, Eric Ravilious Imagined Realities, Imperial War Museum Exhibition Catalogue, London, 2003, p. 41
Described as 'arguably the greatest watercolourist of the twentieth century' (see Frances Spalding, Introduction to Ravilious in Public, Norfolk 2002, p. v), Rye Harbour demonstrates why the artist is worthy of such praise and acclamation. Painted in 1938, this was the period Ravilious produced some of his very best work, 'It was the late thirties that Ravilious reached the fully ripe stage of his painting career. From 1937 [...] fine pictures follow one on another.'(see Constable, F. Op. Cit, p. 29).
Rye Harbour is a painting that is consummately balanced. The colour tones are in equal harmony with the delicate shading; the division of space, while very structured and graphic, compliments the controlled use of colour and light. All these pictorial elements are controlled by the artist - the master-composer - to form a sophisticated and harmonious work. Watercolour is a relatively unforgiving medium, requiring great mental and physical control and Rye Harbour displays the artist's exquisite skill in both capacities. The use of a 'starved brush', with little paint, was learnt from Paul Nash, Ravilious's tutor at the Royal College of Art. Other techniques Ravilious learnt from Nash included the use of structured brushstrokes, stippling and exposing the white of the sheet. Ravilious was a perfectionist and frequently tore up works which did not meet his high standards. Consequently very little preliminary or secondary work is seen.
The modernist division of the picture plane and the vanishing horizon create an extremely sophisticated composition. The sense of design in Rye Harbour is paramount. Space is effortlessly constructed and divided up. The theme of recession is a constant in Ravilious's work and the present work is no exception. Space is treated with a rhythmic and almost mathmatical perception. The golden section seems to be intuitively deployed by Ravilious - the eye of the obvserver is drawn dramatically along the harbour wall, towards a climactic - and literally - vanishing point on the horizon, which lies somewhere in the hazy atmosphere that is part sky, part water. 'Ravilious's sense of space and the solidity which he implies in the air between his objects are very obvious to anyone looking at his paintings, and this is particularly so in the pictures he made of south coast harbours and lighthouses.' (see Constable, F., Op. Cit, pp. 23-24)
A serene and still composition, man's presence is inferred in the very precise strokes of the watercolourist's brush and also felt through the formalised structures of the composition, not least the harbour and the lighthouse. The only activity on observing the painting takes place in the eye and mind of the viewer, as Constable has commented, there is a paradox between very still water and 'the rushing movement the eye makes down the channel to the far distant horizon out at sea.' The lighthouse, for Constable, seems 'perfectly poised for taking off like a skyrocket'. (see Constable, F., Op. Cit., p. 24).
The 1939 exhibition at Tooths, in which the present work was shown, was Ravilious's last solo exhibition. Ravilious died in 1942 while serving as a war artist in the Royal Marines.