When I think of pictures of the English countryside, of course, I think of Constable. Then perhaps Turner, William Holman Hunt, John Sell Cottman, and a few others, but first Constable. The purpose of an exhibit, A Picture of Britain, at Tate Britain until September 4, is to give us some other pictures to associate with Great Britain. I got interested in the exhibit by reading an article by Christopher Andreae (Painting 'as a child paints', July 28) for the Christian Science Monitor, on one of the works in the show, Eric Ravilious's watercolor of the Uffington White Horse. He painted The Vale of the White Horse around 1939, and although it seems to acknowledge Constable and the tradition of the English landscape, it does as much to subvert that tradition as honor it:
The appeal of these chalk figures to Ravilious is obvious. He was a wood engraver - a skilled contributor to the early 20th-century revival of this printmaking technique. Engraving involves cutting into the surface of a boxwood block, each cut resulting as a white mark or space in the final print. The Uffington horse is like a gigantic "cut" into the surface of the landscape.The Tate owns six works by Ravilious, including the marvelous, awful Shelling by Night (1941). I was sad to learn that the National Gallery of Art owns none, nor does the Met, not even an engraving, his preferred medium. (In that sense, Ravilious is much more the inheritor of William Blake than Constable.) If anyone knows a museum in the United States that owns a Ravilious, that's why Ionarts has a comments section.
Ravilious was a book illustrator. He knew the difference between realism and stylization. His watercolors are not photographic. They are re-creations in terms of line, texture, tone, and color, and make no effort to disguise the fact. This English artist's linear exactness is not unlike that of the Precisionists in America. He was similarly fascinated by the complex structures of buildings and machinery. Everything is precisely edged. Ravilious could bring his style to bear on the shadowy undulations of a high, bare landscape, infuse it with atmosphere, and suggest with striations and crosshatching the sparse grasses up there as well as the imminence of rain - or sunshine.