Film-maker Margy Kinmonth’s earlier career involved current affairs programmes, drama and documentary for television; she has latterly directed a string of engaging investigative biographical films centred around the arts in the UK, Europe and the US, garnering a lengthy string of nominations and awards along the way.
Her latest, feature-length, documentary Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War, looks set to further that trend, having already won a nomination for a Master of Art Film Festival award with the footage still only receiving its first public screenings. In fact tonight’s outings, at Edinburgh’s Cameo and Glasgow’s Showcase, represent Scotland’s first chance to see this biography of an English artist whose name is largely unknown, but whose work testifies to a genius for technique, beauty and communication.
Written and directed by Kinmonth, the documentary is set to bring Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942), to much-warranted greater public attention; focusing on the affection in which he and his art are privately held, it features interviews with admirers such as artists Ai Weiwei and Grayson Perry, and writer Alan Bennett, who offer insightful observations about his technique and the impact of viewing his work.
Bennett, for instance, notices that despite its static or cool quality, there is a detectable latent energy to his work, waiting to act, like a coiled spring. That the work is readily likeable, he says, does not diminish its enduring subtle quality, and while very English, it is never ‘cosy’. Weiwei points out the palpable impression of childish innocence, in the shapes of the cars, aeroplanes and figures that populate his pictures – sometimes sparsely, as it is often the vast, almost overwhelming landscape that really motivated Ravilious, whether the rolling chalky Sussex downs where he grew up, or the rocky volcanic wastelands of Iceland. And Perry admires the suitably stark and punchy graphic quality of Ravilious’ print and earthenware – the art of encapsulation and economy.
The skill and technique in Ravilious’ hands is one aspect explored in some detail – close-ups of wood-blocks being cut for printing, the clunking mechanics of the platen press, and the peeling-away of paper from block to reveal a shining black ‘pull’, are followed by the gentler swish of watercolours mixed by brush on palette. Occasionally, objects such as barbed wire, aircraft or even human figures are gently animated to add dynamism.
Where the film excels though, is in the way it brings to life the story of Eric’s relationship with his wife, Tirzah Garwood – already a promising artist herself when they met at Eastbourne College of Art. It does this through sustained interviews with friends and family members, chief among them their daughter Anne, who volunteers memories harmonious and difficult – early photographs show Eric and Tirzah working jointly on projects such as a mural in the Midland Hotel in Morecambe Bay, but two affairs are mentioned, underlining his popularity among women, seemingly evident from the outset.
By the time he was signed up by the War Artists Advisory Committee, becoming a war artist and captain in the Royal Marines, the affairs appeared to be behind him, though they must have cast something of a shadow over the couple’s married life as they faced the more overwhelming challenges to come: Ravilious began a series of extended trips with the Navy, often in dangerous theatres of war. While for him the fast-moving action of deployment was an exciting direction for his creative energies, life at home for Tirzah and their children was troubled and anxious-making. The remainder of the film concentrates on the plentiful correspondence between husband and wife – affectionate letters voiced by actors (credits include Tamsin Greig and Jeremy Irons) from his trip to Iceland. While she was troubled about his and the family’s safety, he, at first excited by the challenge of documenting war’s dynamism and enjoying its camaraderie, was taken aback at the helplessness of witnessing first-hand the appalling losses of life. By the time he went missing, after joining an aerial search for an allied aircraft off the coast of Iceland, she had contracted cancer.
The film is patently a labour of love for Kinmonth, whose choice of subjects has found her a special place in the affections of art enthusiasts (her last feature was 2017’s Revolution: New Art for a New World, which examined the avant-garde of Revolutionary Russia). She has achieved a balance, sustained over the course of the film, skilfully maintaining the fascination in his genius for picture-making, his technical prowess, achieving a probing insight into his personality, and touching us with the brush of humanity’s tragedies in wartime.
A second Edinburgh screening takes place at the Cameo on Thursday 7th July at 12:00.
With thanks to Maureen Murray, Charles McDonald and Wayne D’Cruz and the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.