Railing Against It

 I have spent some time on commuter trains in Southern England recently. Apart from hearing one side of many phone conversations

“Have you still got all your biscuits left?…I haven’t coughed for two weeks, I eat an onion every night that’s whats done it…Friday tomorrow, how good is that?’

it has prompted further thought about our physical relationship to the picture plane. There is a fine image by Ravillious of a carriage that illustrates what I mean.

Eric Ravilious: ‘Train Landscape’, 1939. Watercolour on Paper

 A watercolour view from the corner of a railway carriage; the very old type without corridors, with slam shut doors and a flat, vertical sliding window. A landscape is joined up behind the three frames of the train windows, in the left hand pane, the Westbury Horse, a chalk figure carved into the Sussex downs. In the other two windows the shapes made by the hedges echo the patterns of the seat upholstery. There are possibly 4 zones here, the three windows and the empty carriage itself. The central leather strap is the key to this painting, in these old trains this belt holds down and closes the window. Above each window pane, are blind pulls that can be pulled down to entirely block out the scene. These closed windows make a distance between the artist and the view, he is secluded in this carriage and can see ancient Britain in the left hand pane; from a mechanical form of transport he observes the old method, the horse. The other two windows show Britain then but the locked window keeps it out. What it also locks out is how much Britain was changing in the first half of the twentieth century; urbanisation for example. The heavy wooden surrounds of the train windows stress privacy and the past.

We live in a different world; the young woman opposite me is half way through a long story about how her duvet caught light when she was seven. “I didn’t smoke then, still don’t now” and how her mum didn’t believe she could smell smoke. The recipient of her call clearly doesn’t believe it either, the story takes much repetition to get the details right. I leave as she is going through the look on the neighbours face when her and mother pushed the burning bed clothes out of the bedroom window.

Eric R’s painting, made just after the start of the Second World War, apart from the combination of the past (the White Horse) and a slightly romantic view of the present (the fields and the Sussex Downs) doesn’t include the war. Should art always show what is happening at the time? if yes, how should this be done, if no what are the various functions of art that we can see happening in this painting?

“Hello…Yes…On the train…Did you say Queen Mary?…No, no, no, no… If it was the Queen Mary I would have done it…no, goodbye”

Ravilous was a wood engraver and made designs for Wedgewood Pottery, engraving and pottery designs demand a hard line and sharp edged shapes. You can see this in his approach to this image, for instance on the cross hatching on the door, an engraving method to indicate tone. But there is more to it, if you look into Eric R’s life a bit you will find that he married one of his students from Eastbourne college, where he taught wood engraving. Eileen Lucy Garwood, called Tirzah, Eric taught her wood engraving and she was exhibiting her work in London galleries within a year or two; they are interesting, witty images. Sadly, she seems to have stopped completely when they got married in 1930, meaningful in itself, but there is more. One of her engravings, is called, ‘The Train Journey’ it has some strong similarities to her husband’s later image, and differences, the occupants is the most obvious comparison. Tirzah’s engraving is detailed, about human relationships and their relationship to us. The girl turning to us is thought by Olive Cook to be Tirzah.

Tirzah Garwood: ‘The Train Journey’, Wood Engraving, 1929-30

See Olive Cook


And also Adventures in the Print Trade


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