Musing over a solitary walk through Dorset in 1936, the naturalist H. J. Massingham (1888-1952) reflected that he had discovered something more than the proverbial greenness and pleasantness of the English countryside. Among the still-perceptible remnants of prehistoric civilisations, Massingham was struck by the “strangeness of the setting … It seems to be the land of the living dead”. The disquietude of the landscape was emphasised by the presence of what he terms a “monster” in its hills- the Cerne Abbas Giant, an enormous, naked, club-wielding figure carved into the chalk earth of the downlands. Three years later in 1939, the watercolourist and engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-42), linked to Massingham by a shared social netw0rks of artists, writers, and archaeologists, would walk this strange landscape too, and many others that were similarly peopled by mysterious chalk giants and horses that are unique to the English countryside. The series of paintings of these figures that resulted from his ramblings, executed in the earliest months of the Second World War, would focus on scenes that were not merely disquieting but profoundly disquieted by the threat of annihilation. In this essay I examine Ravilious’s chalk figure cycle as an expression of these fears, exploring the artist’s understudied interventions into the iconography of these apparently ancient carvings to demonstrate how they dramatise the psyche of a nation on the brink of war. At the heart of my argument is an interrogation of what I hold to be an oxymoronic tendency permeating Ravilious scholarship, the notion that Ravilious was simultaneously a quintessentially English painter and an apolitical one. An interest in the deepest recesses of English myth and national icons could not, I argue, avoid engaging with urgently felt political questions over national identity. While this is arguably true at any point in history, it is particularly vital to remind ourselves of this at the uniquely charged historical moment Ravilious found himself in when he travelled through the downlands.
The art historian Alex Potts has noted that periods in which “the ‘outside’ world appeared particularly threatening” breed a proliferation of images of rural England “to celebrate an English essence, enduring safe and beautiful, a home, a haven, and at the same time England’s glory”; tellingly, Potts refers to the southern English countryside around which such images coalesce as “Constable country” in deference to the importance visual art can have in shaping the relationship between England and the English. Just as in Potts’s work, studies of the relationship between visual art, landscape, and Englishness often focus on the period between the First World War and the Second World War precisely because the interwar years were bookended by traumatic ruptures in social life in which the world beyond England’s shores had rarely seemed more threatening and the idea of the countryside gained significant political power. As the historian Jay Winter memorably stated, “an old nation either unaware of or untroubled by fundamental threats does not have to define who or what it is… That British privilege was a casualty of war”. The answers to these existential questions were sought in the English countryside, reinvented between the wars as the spiritual home of national identity in works such as Ravilious’.
Aged fifteen at the date of the Armistice, the England Ravilious came of age in was one that envisioned the countryside as an holistic and stable antidote to the fragmented bodies and landscapes of the First World War. Imbued with a mythic sense of stasis in answer to the chaos of modernity, the darkest recesses of which were felt to have been exposed by the mechanised carnage of the conflict, historians have been quick to recognise the conservatism that is supposedly inherent in the sense of Englishness that an enthusiasm for the countryside provided throughout the interwar years. Winter has noted that this ‘ruralism’ was seized upon by right-wing commentators, and Martin J. Weiner’s unparalleled study of the modern relationship between Englishness and the countryside argues that the nostalgically imagined national identity engendered by this even led to a veneration of the halcyon days of aristocratic feudalism. It is perhaps because of this accepted narrative that the work of Ravilious, an artist who was and is conceived of as quintessentially English, has been relatively absent from such politically-minded discussions. If Ravilious’s work is invoked at all in such contexts it functions as little more than window dressing, its apparent quaintness being unquestioningly accepted as evidence of this backward-looking tendency. As I show here, Ravilious’ relative aesthetic conservatism did not translate to its political equivalent; rather, a closer examination of Ravilious’s chalk figure paintings than has previously been afforded reveals a frank and thoroughly modern engagement with the threat to Englishness that the Second World War posed. Before analysing Ravilious’s work, I will elucidate how a network of influences – social, artistic, and political – including H. J. Massingham were at play in his practice by 1939, demonstrating how they manifested themselves in a cycle of images that highlight the ideological malleability of the most ancient myths of the English countryside.
RAVILIOUS IN 1939: POLITICS AND MAGIC
In writing about Ravilious, Alan Powers claimed that “it is impossible to avoid the question of Englishness”, and the tendency began almost immediately after Ravilious’s death. In a 1947 obituary the publisher Noel Carrington stated Ravilious was “a very English artist… devoted to the English countryside”. What being a very English artist means, however, is unclear, and seems to refer to little more than the fact Ravilious rarely left England and painted its landscapes. Freda Constable ventured that it means his work is “an expression of English moderation”, itself a vague remark that supports possible misreadings of Ravilious’s work through its connotations of conservatism or apoliticism. Indeed, even a recent biography characterises Ravilious as an artist who was “by nature… inclined to escape into the newest P. G. Wodehouse” rather than read his friends’ Left Book Club publications.
It is my contention that one cannot be so overtly concerned with national identity – Ravilious once remarked that his greatest ambition was to revive the English watercolour tradition, for example – while producing work that remained apolitical, and that this was particularly true of the interwar period. As we have seen, interwar England was a place fraught with existential questioning as to foundational issues of nationhood and identity, and Alexandra Harris has explored how these concerns led to a rediscovery of England’s traditions and landscapes among the generation of artists to which Ravilious belonged. In doing so, England’s modern artists were in step with broader trends in English culture. The 1924 election saw Stanley Baldwin take office for the first time – he returned between 1935 and 1937 – which meant putting in office a man who fretted over “what England may stand for in the minds of generations to come if our country goes on … in seeing her fields converted into towns” in a speech which included the rhetorical flourish of stating that “England is the country, and the country is England”.
The interwar years saw a proliferation of domestic tourism to the countryside and these tourists went looking for more than diverting views. Rather, as Martin Weiner records, they saw in the countryside a restorative stability which was at odds with modernity and expressive of the true nature of Englishness, which could be spiritually accessed by exploring its landscapes. Frank Trentmann’s masterful study of this revival of interest notes the “demand for mysticism” that motivated these excursions, pointing to the popularity of night trains that would take Londoners to unspecified rural locations for nocturnal explorations and guide books that provided helpful information for “Ghost Hunter’s Rambles”. Few people understood this better than H. J. Massingham. His influence is felt in Ravilious’ reinterpretations of the chalk figures of ancient England, and Massingham’s prolific output of books concerning the southern English countryside both informed – and was informed by – this culture of popular mysticism. In English Downland, Massingham observed that a renewed interest in the countryside was symptomatic of a culture “which has developed a passion for the country out of the disillusion bred by the Industrial and Machine Ages”, sending city-dwellers looking to pastoral landscapes as “a ticket-of-leave from Progress and an introduction to the simpler and deeper emotions of our being”. The downland landscapes in which the chalk figures are found were singled out by Massingham as being particularly potent spaces for reacquainting oneself with the irrational, numinous forces of the English past that stood in opposition to the threat of Progress. Sounding much like the writer of a ghost-hunter’s guidebook, Massingham tantalisingly told his readers that “if ever there was an abandoned country, left to the ghosts and the fairies, it is downland”.
This was an England haunted by echoes of an enigmatic national past of which the chalk figures, mysterious in their possibly ancient origins and imbued with folkloric associations, were conspicuous representatives. Coinciding with this spiritual quest was a flourishing public interest in archaeology and prehistory which intensified in 1939 with the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasures. The chalk figures, combining these two interests, invited renewed speculation and investigation, something Ravilious participated in. His ‘Preface by the Engraver’ in the Lanston Monotype Company’s 1929 Almanack, a book for which he provided engravings including a depiction of the Wilmington Long Man, is his only published writing and segues quickly into his theories over the origins of this figure. Ravilious’s theory, linking the Wilmington Long Man to an image of Virgo in a fourteenth-century Italian fresco, is an idiosyncratic one, although his comment that this would mean “the sex of the ‘Long Man’ is mistaken: he should be the giantess” attests to his genuine interest in attempting to understand these carvings.
Furthermore, contemporary accounts from Ravilious’s friends suggest an often unelucidated sympathy to such mysterious things as the chalk figures lying beneath the apparent quaintness of his canvases. Helen Binyon offered glimpses of Ravilious’s curious and somewhat ethereal temperament, informing us that on a rambling trip he woke his companions with his “loud laughter in his sleep – so entertaining were his dreams”. She also recorded a conversation between Ravilious and the artist Edward Bawden that Ravilious concluded with the bizarre, unprompted comment “I should like to spend a whole night walking towards the moon – good night”. Binyon, who noted Ravilious’s ability to “abstract himself in spirit”, was echoed by another of his friends who remembered Ravilious “always seemed to be slightly somewhere else, as if he lived a private life which did not completely coincide with material existence”. This peculiar, numinous tendency found expression in his work, with Richard Morphet seeing easy comparisons to be made between Ravilious and the visionary Neo-Romantic Cecil Collins. Few critics and biographers have failed to note the influence of Paul Nash, Ravilious’s tutor at the Royal College of Art and lifelong friend, whose landscape paintings fused Romanticism with Surrealism. Attempting to reconcile English tradition with this continental influence, Nash wrote in 1937 that surrealism was “a native of Britain… The genius of Shakespeare, the vision of Blake, the imagination of Coleridge, the inspiration of Carroll and Edward Lear, all belong to surrealism”. It would be a mistake to overstate Ravilious’s indirect debt to surrealism, although the claim that any of its residual practices filtered into Ravilious’s work through the lens of Nash’s defence of its Englishness is noteworthy. It would equally, however, be a mistake to ignore Ravilious’s interest, shared not only by the surrealists but by the English public who flocked to the countryside to feel a sense of national belonging and spiritual wonder, in the inexplicable and the magical.
Ravilious’s chalk figure series therefore reflected a widely-felt interest in the countryside’s mythic qualities that characterised contemporary understandings of authentic Englishness. However, it also reflected newfound anxieties along these lines. Just as the First World War had catalysed the rediscovery of the English landscape, the coming of the second prompted fears over its destruction. In traversing the downlands to paint the chalk figures, Ravilious’s activities paralleled the state-sponsored Recording Britain project to which many of his friends contributed, a project that aimed at preserving in paint the beauty of the English countryside for fear of bombing or invasion. The chalk figures were particularly loaded subjects, not only for their perceived links to England’s ancient roots but also for their recent disappearances – by the time Ravilious travelled to paint the Cerne Abbas Giant in December 1939, it had been turfed over so enemy bombers could not use it to navigate the terrain below. Evoking the damage already done to the English countryside by the threat of war, painting the chalk figures brings Ravilious’s oeuvre into close proximity to a crisis in Englishness when it was needed more than ever before to support the war effort. The art critic Herbert Read’s comment that an exhibition of paintings from the Recording Britain project “shows us exactly what we are fighting for” is indicative of the existential weight on images of the English countryside at this moment.
That Ravilious’s chalk figure paintings reflect political anxieties should not be surprising when we consider another growing tendency in the artist’s life – his increasing engagement with left-wing politics. Ravilious’s friendship with Paul and John Nash connected him to figures from a generation who had served as Official War Artists in the First World War, and who expressed their disgust and frustration at the outbreak of another. Ravilious’s contemporaries, including Royal College of Art friends Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Peggy Angus, and Helen Binyon, were all active in the left-wing Artists International Association (AIA) by the mid-1930s and convinced him to join too. Even before active membership of the AIA, Ravilious was attending lectures about the Spanish Civil War, and the threat of an impending European war, in 1936. Although he wrote that he and his artistic friends could “pledge ourselves to fight in the event of a class war here like the one in Spain”, he felt that the more immediate way to help was to “assist by designs and drawing for the rather bad leaflets and such that are produced, and this I mean to do”. Ravilious was thus considering the political potentialities of visual art by the late 1930s and had become a surprisingly committed member of the AIA, an organisation that stood “for Unity of artists against Fascism and War”. Ravilious sold works to raise funds, sat on its exhibition hanging committees, and even volunteered to take in a refugee fleeing fascism. Tellingly, at its first Congress in 1937, the AIA also expressed “disgust at the continued ruin of the natural qualities of the countryside by vulgar erections and signs… Congress suggests that all government bodies seek the assistance of artists and architects in decisions regarding such material”.
I contend, therefore, that Ravilious was certainly not an apolitical artist by 1939, and that if he was a very English artist it was owing to his ability to interpret and express the numinous qualities of the English countryside that were so central to national identity. This appeared to have been apparent to both the military, who initially selected the chalk figures as subjects for Ravilious to paint (although they had covered them by the time he reached the sites), and by Noel Carrington, the publisher who would later call Ravilious a very English painter in his above-quoted obituary. Then the editor of Puffin, Carrington discussed the possibility of a book about the chalk figures with illustrations by Ravilious in 1941, although Ravilious had been considering this as early as 1939, likely reflecting his interest in the AIA’s mass-audience Everyman Print series. While the book remained uncompleted, Ravilious produced a dummy copy and correspondence with Carrington reveals that none other than H. J. Massingham was Carrington’s first choice of writer, who had speculatively planned to take the name of Massingham’s 1927 book Downland Man for Ravilious’s project. Ravilious had previously collaborated with Massingham on an edition of the writings of Gilbert White the year before he painted the chalk figure cycle, and his enthusiasm for Carrington’s project attests to the notion that he likely shared, or was at least familiar with, Massingham’s theories about the chalk figures. It is unclear whether the two men met, but they had many friends in common – including Paul Nash – and Massingham’s respect for Ravilious is evident, stating in a letter that he had “shown everybody who comes to see me the Ravilious wood-engravings [for Selborne] and they are unanimous in being enchanted with them”. Turning now to the six paintings of Ravilious’s cycle, I argue Massingham’s theories provide the key to understanding Ravilious’s interpretations of these ancient symbols of the English landscape, allowing us to decode the meanings behind their often unusual treatments.