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Wisden Almanack 2023

Spitstickers and scorpers: Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War – Almanack

Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War
by Margy Kinmonth 15 minute read

Margy Kinmonth’s piece on Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

For many, whether followers of the game or not, the Wisden wood engraving sums up the quintessential Englishness of cricket – it’s so familiar, you can hear the sound of ball on bat. To mark the Almanack’s 75th edition back in 1938, Eric Ravilious was commissioned to create a distinctive device that would appear on the title page of the hardback (and the cover of the softback). He chose the unmistakably Victorian tableau of a batter and wicketkeeper, each sporting a top hat – and the engraving has been an integral part of the book ever since.

Ravilious had achieved great success, primarily as a landscape watercolourist, when in December 1939 he was engaged, aged 36, as a full-time, salaried war artist. Almost three years later, his plane disappeared on a reconnaissance mission near Iceland; his body was never recovered. Since his death in September 1942, he has – after a period of relative obscurity – become regarded as one of the greatest and best-loved British artists of the 20th century. His creations live on in galleries, as well as countless calendars and cards.

No feature documentary about him had been made until 2022, when my film Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War was released. His amazing art transfers powerfully on to the big screen, yet sets a dauntingly high bar for a film-maker. Luckily, I could mine the extensive archive of both Ravilious and his artist wife, Tirzah Garwood. Through letters and works of art, I gained an intimate insight into their life and marriage, and  found a window opening on to a time of great change, as peace turned to war – with catastrophic consequences for both.

I love his landscapes for their seasonality, weather and light. He worked en plein air, and I do too, as both film director and artist. I’m especially drawn to the Wisden image – indeed to many of his wood engravings. They are stark, black-and-white portrayals of English life, created before photography overwhelmed this ancient craft. Taught by the great war artist Paul Nash, Ravilious found in the medium a perfect world for his imagination. He worked at home on the kitchen table, with a leather cushion supporting a block of box – the hardwood used for most engravings – which he would turn this way and that. He whistled as he worked, the family canary perched on his shoulder, hopping down to investigate the chippings that flew off the block.

Most Wisden records were lost during the London bombing raids – and it is assumed the original Ravilious wood block was another casualty. So for my film, I decided to recommission the Wisden engraving, as well as some other definitive images: their re-creation on camera would form part of my story. Printmaker Robin Mackenzie remade several lost blocks: “Eric began the images in pencil, drawn in reverse on to the end grain of the boxwood block. He would have cut and scored the myriad textures and fine lines that make up the light and dark of an engraving. He would switch between tools – known as spitstickers, scorpers and gravers – and the image would appear out of the darkness, one stroke of light at a time. Eric worked rapidly, as the textures and marks flowed from his hand, and the Wisden image maybe took a couple of days. He would take a test print on a piece of thin paper, using a teaspoon to apply the pressure, and then the block was sent to Wisden.”

There were others involved too. Graphic designer and author Robert Harling oversaw the Almanack’s redesign, using his own, distinctive Playbill typeface for WISDEN – to complement the Ravilious artwork he had commissioned. Harling described it as “an ideal graphic introduction to one of England’s most durable publications … Wisden was one of a few traditional publications that got their format right first time. Ravilious focused on the aspects of the England that he knew and relished: villages, fireworks, trains, chalk figures, farmyards.” Full of quirky character and playful charm, the engraving is a classic Ravilious image, perfectly capturing the pre-war era.

In making my film, I was inspired by his love of nature and the countryside – especially Sussex, which I know well from my childhood. He liked foliage, trees, and abstract patterns such as those made by mown grass in the foreground of the engraving. When I was scouting in the South Downs around Furlongs, where he spent a lot of time, I filmed pub signs and cricket pitches – which might have inspired his design.

In his work, Ravilious often used a particular yellow, and he made a note of this in his preparatory sketches for the redesign – the limp editions of Wisden previously had covers of varying colours. His daughter Anne Ullmann told me: “Dad was always very friendly with the people he worked with, so the distinctive Ravilious yellow could well have been his suggestion.”

Eric and his artist friends were keen scrapbookers. They pasted in memorabilia, photos and drawings from magazines as inspiration.  Studying the preliminary drawings for the Wisden piece, I find Ravilious’s attention to detail fascinating. He worked from observations of life, sketched out the positions of the players at the wicket, and toyed with a tented pavilion with its flags (though these do not appear in the final artwork). I discovered in one scrapbook a photo of the 1859 England team on their way to North America, the first overseas cricket tour.

Ravilious enjoyed cricket, both as spectator and player. In 1935, he organised a trip to Lord’s for fellow artist Henry Moore, as well as friends from his days at the Royal College of Art. The same year, Ravilious played for the Double Crown Club – a dining club for book designers and publishers – at the tree-lined ground beside Castle Hedingham, in Essex. He wrote in a letter: “I was not out, hit four balls; I also bowled a few overs and as consequence feel as stiff as a poker.” Just weeks before the outbreak of war, he played again, writing: “I bludgeoned three sixes… one of the pleasures of life, hitting a six.”

Cricket, indeed, seems to have given Ravilious pleasure – and, to this day, this extraordinary artist continues to return the favour.

Margy Kinmonth is a multi-award-winning film director and artist, whose feature documentaries for www.foxtrotfilms.com include Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War and Royal Paintbox, with King Charles.

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