Railing Against It
The painted landscape is entirely static, yet seen from a moving vehicle. Ravilious never learnt to drive, he bought a return ticket and shuttled between two stations to keep drawing the view. This would have been a steam train, note the lack of steam or suggestion of movement.
On my train this morning, the actual landscape behind my current picture plane is a combination of horizontal blur, darker towards the ground, yellow highlight at about eye level, sky above, and then clearer focus in the middle distance. The blur is not that unclear, this is a South Eastern train, they don’t go that quickly. Inside, the constant announcements are always preceded by the two tones, more reminiscent of 1970’s children’s programmes than, for example, Italian railway stations of that period: ‘binario uno’ and all.
‘Train Landscape’ was made at the start of 1940, the first year of the Second World War. Not long after Eric Ravillious made this painting, the chalk figures were covered up to prevent them being used to help enemy navigation. Ravilious became a war artist with the Royal Air Force and died during an air sea rescue in Iceland in 1942.
He painted several images of chalk figures besides the White Horse, The Long Man of Wilmington and the Cerne Abbas giant for example. The internal picture plane of Train Landscape shows simultaneous images from different time periods in the different areas of pictorial space. Ravilious divides time up like a cartoon strip, the theme of representing time past, time present and time future, featuring heavily in a heavily contested present.
Symbols of Englishness and defiance, or an evocation of the man-made in a natural setting? Almost on the railway line I use, but not quite, is another white horse. Mark Wallinger’s art commission to mark the Ebbsfleet International station in north Kent.
A giant sculpture of a white horse standing 50 metres high, but it’s not the rearing horse of Kent, this is a static figure. According to Wallinger, Ebbsfleet marks the end of the horse-rearing downland country; this was where the Anglo Saxon heroes Hengist (Stallion) and Horsa (Horse) arrived to fight the Picts around 455 AD.
Wallinger: “I think at the back of my mind I had that Eric Ravilious painting Train Landscape (1940) looking out from a third-class railway carriage at a white horse on a distant hill.”
The man behind has his head against the upright of my seat, he is breathing heavily, rustlings are coming from his paper bag. The woman next to me is busy on her laptop:
“Computer Purchases: QAAS Portsmouth: 1 x Labroud Refrigerator (DMG to quote on mapping for comparison with Labroud on commissioning) etc, etc. “
Sun low in the sky, shadows emphasising the flatness of the ground plane as it marches away from the train. The major commuter train from London on a Friday evening. It is, unusually, almost completely silent. A cough, a sniff, the turn of a page of the Metro or the Standard, but that is all; apart from the constant announcements and the rustling man.