The story of the artist who sacrifices her own career to support a more famous husband is clichéd, but all too often accurate. There’s something in the clear-eyed take on domestic life in Tirzah Garwood’s early prints, however, that suggests her marriage to Eric Ravilious would offer something richer and more complicated. The Fry Art Gallery’s 2019 exhibition, Mr and Mrs Ravilious, is the first time significant work from across the lives of both Tirzah and Eric has been used to map their artistic life together, and to suggest how we might think about each artist in relation to the other. (Mr and Mrs Ravilious is at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, from 7th April to 27th October 2019, accompanied by a changing series of smaller exhibitions in the Gibson Room.)
Tirzah’s first encounter with Eric was, of course, as a student at Eastbourne School of Art where, in the mid-1920s, she studied and he taught. Some of her earliest works in the show are impressively accomplished watercolours, painted when Eric led class trips to the nearby Barcombe Mill. These come ahead of Eric’s well-known watercolours, such as The Attic Bedroom, the exhibition suggesting the possibility that his strong but low key colours owed something to Tirzah’s vision. Also amongst the earlier works are some of Tirzah’s consummate pen and ink drawings: a taste for old-fashioned anecdote paired with a very modern precision of line.
When the couple married in 1930, and then, two years later, moved to Brick House in Great Bardfield to live with Edward Bawden and his wife Charlotte, Tirzah’s work in conventional media slowed, but her visual inventiveness found new forms. The presence of an embroidery in the show suggests a retreat to ladylike accomplishments, but the design manages to synthesise an English garden with jazz age womanhood, and the execution is as skilled as ever. It’s a very different garden mood to that in Eric’s joint portrait of Tirzah (preparing vegetables) and Charlotte (enjoying a book) in Two Women sitting in a Garden.
Ravilious family tradition says that it was Bawden who introduced both Tirzah and Charlotte to the practice of paper marbling, and soon the pair were experimenting with complex designs and colour combinations, a trade card in the exhibition demonstrating their commercial ambitions. This was serious production for Tirzah. When the Ravilious’s moved from Bardfield to Castle Hedingham in 1934 it was she who – again by family lore – took the marbling tub with her, and a lampshade cut from marbled paper is one of several pieces from this period on display. Eric’s tailpieces and other designs for the Everyman Library are well-known, but the exhibition demonstrates that some of the decorated end papers used were, in fact, taken from Tirzah’s marbling; the books were a joint decorative project.
Support for the exhibition from the Ravilious family means that some rare examples of Eric’s work, and work in progress, are on display, giving insights into his methods. What looks at first glance like a tachiste abstraction turns out to be a paper on which Eric had tested colours while at work; look again and the tenuous lines of a ship in harbour appear beneath – an early, abandoned drawing for what was to become Destroyers at Night, 1940 held by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. A much more developed, but similarly abandoned, version of another wartime work, Wall Maps, raises the question of why Ravilious restarted the work: the unacceptability of a line in the wrong place is a reminder of the exactness of his and Tirzah’s early woodcuts.
The Ravilious family themselves make a number of appearances in Tirzah’s work, or seem to inhabit her more generic pictures of children. There’s a directness to these representations, often featuring a sturdy pram, which is in striking contrast to the artifice seen elsewhere. John, James and Anne were born in 1935, 1939 and 1941, respectively; Anne just a year before Eric was lost in an aircraft accident whilst on commission for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The exhibition shows Eric’s last, unfinished painting, Demonstrating a Machine Gun, as well as the portfolio he had with him in Iceland at the time of his death, stamped and addressed by officials for return to Tirzah in Essex.
At the time Eric died, Tirzah had already undergone an emergency mastectomy to stop the spread of breast cancer. This surgery proved ultimately unsuccessful, with Tirzah succumbing to the disease in 1951; for both partners, death came tragically early. In the intervening years, however, Tirzah was remarried (to Henry Swanzy) and moved to Hampstead. She also returned to painting, and a number of her late oils and illustrations conclude the exhibition. Some of these are in a faux naif style, but Tirzah went on to develop an idiosyncratic, decorative surrealism with something of the mood of a Grimm fairytale. All these pictures are unlike her earlier work, or anything from Eric’s career, though there is a humour which connects them to her youthful woodcuts.
These can be challenging pictures, especially if looked at through knowledge of Tirzah’s illness. Yet they are also a testament to a determined creativity and a very individual talent, if one whose expression was closely bound to the life she shared with her first husband.