A Warship In Dock, 1940, Eric Ravilious. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 70

Between 1940 and 1942, Eric Ravilious produced many spectacular watercolours, lithographs and drawings.

50 of his works, depicting ships, aircraft and coastal defences, are now in IWM's collections. In July 2022, a selection will feature in the new full length feature documentary Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War, a Margy Kinmonth film.

In December 1939, Ravilious was one of the first official War Artists to be appointed by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). Established by the Ministry of Information, the WAAC commissioned artists to record the events of the Second World War.

Born in Acton, West London, in 1903, Ravilious spent his childhood in Eastbourne, East Sussex. In 1919, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Eastbourne School of Art.

Three years later, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London where he studied under Paul Nash. Nash was a War Artist during the First World War and again during the Second World War.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Ravilious immediately signed up for the Royal Observer Corps based near his home in Castle Hedingham in Essex. He remained in this role until he began his appointment as an official War Artist in 1940. He was allocated to the Admiralty with the rank of Captain.

In February 1940, Ravilious was posted to Chatham Dockyard in Kent to document the factories and buildings at the naval barracks. In his painting, A Warship in Dock, he presents the bow of a destroyer in a flooded dry dock tied into position with numerous ropes.

A man on deck holds one of the ropes while three other men board the ship via a gangway on the port side. Shown from ground level, the warship looks menacing with its angular marine camouflage and colossal scale.

In the background, there are numerous structures, including a ship crane and a factory with a smoking chimney. Despite the calmness of the water and the vivid blue of the sky, there is no doubt that preparations are underway in a country at war.

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Another of Ravilious’ paintings, HMS Glorious in the Arctic, depicts HMS Glorious taking part in an evacuation from a Norwegian port in June 1940. Hawker Hurricanes and Gloster Gladiators fly in the sky above, preparing to land on the ship’s flight deck.

Following its part in the evacuation, Glorious set off to return to Scapa Flow but was attacked by German battleships and sunk. Over 1,500 souls lost their lives.

In September 1940, Ravilious was posted to Newhaven, East Sussex to paint coastal defences. The port was targeted as part of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain by the German forces, and was heavily fortified.

In Coastal Defences, painted in 1940, Ravilious depicts the semi-circular curve of the coastline in dark greens and blues. These colours are repeated in the sea and sky. In contrast, the searchlight on the left-hand side is stark white, cutting through the night sky on the lookout for enemy aircraft.

A row of boats speeding out to sea at the centre of the scene leave a stream of white as they move through the water. These elements reinforce the constant threat to the town from above and below.

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In the autumn of 1941, Ravilious arrived at the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) in Dundee. He was immediately taken with the amphibious bi-plane the Supermarine Walrus. He declared, ‘These planes and pilots are the best things I have come across since this job began.’

In his painting, RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, three Walrus aircraft float on the river outside the station’s sick bay window. Ravilious presents the interior of a room which is purely functional. The only items of furniture are a bed and a chair.

Neither the bed nor the chair look overly comfortable. Yet the blue and white bedding with anchor motif conveys a sense of homeliness in an otherwise stark environment.

During his time at the RNAS, the pilots allowed Ravilious to fly in the aircraft with them, enabling him to sketch from the air. After this, he successfully transferred from the Admiralty to the RAF.

In March 1942, Ravilious’ wife Tirzah Garwood, a fellow artist, developed serious health problems. This expedited his return to the south of England. From May, he was based at RAF Sawbridgeworth, an airfield in Hertfordshire, which was relatively close to their family home.

Shortly after his arrival, he wrote to Tirzah: ‘my hut is I think made of cardboard and the bed, iron hard with no pillow, looking glass for shaving, chair, or towel.’

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RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, 1941, Eric Ravilious. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1719

Despite his living conditions, Ravilious enjoyed documenting everyday life on the airfield. In Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, he depicts five Supermarine Spitfires at the base. However, this scene is wholly fabricated. Spitfires were not present at the site until August 1942.

Perhaps Ravilious had heard of their impending arrival, or he was eager to illustrate the famous fighter in detail - the answer remains a mystery.

With Tirzah’s permission, Ravilious travelled to Iceland in August 1942. He flew to Reykjavik, and then travelled by road to the airfield of RAF Kaldadarnes, where he arrived on 1 September. The next day he flew with four airmen on a rescue mission in a Lockheed Hudson and was lost off the Icelandic coast.

Ravilious was one of three War Artists who lost their lives in action during the Second World War, along with Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards. The former had been one of Ravilious’ close friends.

Today, Ravilious is remembered at the Chatham Naval Memorial, just over a mile away from the dockyard where he spent his first posting as a War Artist.

80 years on from his tragic death, Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War, featuring Ai Weiwei, Alan Bennett, Grayson Perry, Robert Macfarlane with Freddie Fox, Tamsin Greig and IWM curators, will tell the story of his life and work.

Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War is in cinemas from 1 July 2022.

Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, 1942, Eric Ravilious. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 2125