Tag Archives: Ravilious: Train Landscape

 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


Eric Ravilious: 'Train Landscape', 1939. Watercolour on Paper

The seating now, cramps the viewer/ passenger into a right angle view, it is restricted by upright seats and reflections, the glass is angled and catches the light in ways that make seeing the landscape difficult.  The windows must lean in at about 3 or 4 degrees, double glazed, they could be designed to catch everything inside, the overhead lights, reflections of self; staring blankly. Which means that I can concentrate on making the grey plastic table really squeak and listen carefully to the woman opposite detailing her night out, up to the point where ‘we drunk another go of them drinks’.


J.M.W.Turner: 'Rain, Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway', 1844

Turner’s: ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway’ might claim a place here, but the impulse is fundamentally different. In Turners world we are in and of the landscape, we are outside the carriage, we are a pure experiencing being. This was one of the first works of art about the artist’s direct experience of landscape. A strand that will come to dominate art about land from Turner onwards, modernity or not. Turner is supposed to have leant out of the carriage window with his sketchbook to draw the storm…

“As for the manner in which “The Speed” is done, of that the less said the better, only it is a positive fact there is a steam coach going at fifty miles an hour. The world has never seen anything like this picture”

From a Lady Simon:

“In the coach seated opposite her, was an elderly gentleman, short and stout, with a red face and a curious prominent nose. The weather was very wild, and by and by a violent storm swept over the country, blotting out the sunshine and the blue sky, and hanging like a pall over the landscape. The old gentleman seemed strangely excited at this, jumping up to open the window, craning his neck out and calling to her to come and observe a curious effect of light”

Notice the hare: speed. Notice the plough: from the old country dance “speed the plough”

It would be impossible to stick my head out of the window I am looking at.  Above is a narrow band of glass that can be tilted inwards for ventilation, thick and heavy square section better suited to a tank. Below is a broad glazed band, I’m intrigued to know why the bottom un-opening part of the window has a stick on shaded element surrounding it. Smaller black dots successively giving way to larger, then a black border. It has no obvious function as device for keeping out sunlight. Squashed into a two seat berth, parallel to the window, knees jammed against the seat in front. Turning the head through 90 degrees to look through the window squarely is uncomfortable. So, one looks at a 45 degree angle just where the upright reflection of the window seat in front bisects the view. I can just catch the reflection of the man opposite, working on his computer, balanced on the little table sticking into the six seat bay. His phone is balanced on the machine and his coffee is between his knees; a worrying placement.

Ravilious constructs his pictorial space so that we appear to be just off a central axis of symmetry, sitting on the near seat on the right. The window on the door shows a slight area of the jamb indicating the position of the viewer. But, the landscape looks, to me anyway as though we are exactly perpendicular to it, It is certainly planimetric, the downs on the horizon and the plough lines in the foreground, running parallel to the horizontal elements of the framing window.

On my morning train, a short man got on to our crowded carriage, wanting to sit in the middle seat of the six bay arrangement. He was carrying his neat black computer bag, a full length suit bag, a newspaper and a cup of coffee. His movements, as the train swayed through points and curves, were elegant, but he missed his intended seat, almost landing in the lap of several of the suited seated men. They neither looked at him, nor moved. It took some time; at last he sat and grinned happily. Throughout this choreography no one spoke or acknowledged his feat.

Eric Ravilious: 'Train Landscape', 1939. Watercolour on Paper

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.

Eric Ravilious: 'Train Landscape', 1939. Watercolour on Paper

Does sitting in the carriage now, have the same evocation, either of Englishness, or future collapse? Perhaps the increasing disintegration of capitalism and the re-introduction of feudalism, or so it feels reading the morning paper? Listening to the suited and booted man in front discussing his meeting schedule with someone, clearly his junior, merely makes me glad we are not in the old two bench dog carriage. The clue to the difference between painted image and life on the 7.16 am is in the relationship to the exterior. In the Ravillious we are parallel to the internal picture plane, in a semi private world. In the modern train we are not. Ravillious’ world perhaps owes a debt to earlier imagery.  In John Tenniel’s: ‘Alice on the Train’, From ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’

John Tenniel: 'Alice on the Train' wood engraving, 1872

or Leopold Egg: ‘The Travelling Companions’, 1862 both of which use the same frontal format, parallel to the picture plane, symetricality etc.

Augustus Leopold Egg: 'The Travelling Companions',1862 Birmingham City Museums


The carriage is now a public space, focussing down a tubular formthat enforces the single viewpoint perspective aspect, reinforces the notion that we meaningfully speed towards our destination. Unlike the steam era images that often stress the privacy of the first class carriage. Compare this with, for example, Daumier’s Third Class carriage, a density of rumpled lines and close tones, raw humanity.

Honore Daumier: 'The Third Class Carriage', 1863-65. Oil On canvas. Metropolitan, New York


Train Landscape is a third class carriage, you can tell this by the letter three on the door. But the number seems very big, it stands out. Earlier Cubists had used text to stress modernity, although this doesn’t look quite like that.

Eric Ravilious: 'Train Landscape', 1939. Watercolour on Paper

“That idea you came up with was a meerkat holding a table, but I can’t draw meerkats, so I thought about a pig wearing a hat…or, maybe a turkey”

An earlier train than usual. I am greeted as I board, by a beaming businessman, in a very fine suit with two quarter bottles of white wine on the table in front of him. He has drunk one and is starting on the other; the world looks good.

Trapped in my narrow 2 seat bay, I realise that everything this side of the picture plane is shiny, the seat backs, from this position all seat coverings are more or less hidden the ceiling, the window glazing, light fittings etc. Apart from my fellow passengers in their dark suiting and white shirts, the interior is reflective and reflected in the picture plane/ window. Texture and colour is banished behind the glass, we are in a world of restricted palette, greys, off whites, usually a purple upholstery (depending on the rolling stock), a cold fluorescent lighting and dark clothing, these commuters for the City are not even given to brightly coloured ties.

There are two aspects about the picture plane to consider here.

1. The internal picture plane within a work, Ravilious is evidently aware of this, framing the view as a ‘landscape’

2. The picture plane seen from an angle, rather than the perpendicular. Notice that both Eric and Tirzah appear to actually locate their internal landscape as parallel to the picture plane, despite the angle of the presumed viewer. Incidentally, a painting by Hopper: ‘Compartment C, Car 193’ from 1938, locates the both viewer and the landscape at the same acute angle.

Edward Hopper: 'compartment C, Car, 193'. 1938 oil on canvas

One of the platforms we stop at is full of young men in sportswear, thin bony men with short hair. Nothing unusual in that, except that they are all appear to be  Eastern European and with bundles of fishing rods.

The horizontal blur in the foreground effectively flattens pictorial space and makes the picture plane (the grubby, greasy double glazed window) more evident. But there is a tension, the reflections, mostly obvious in darker passages, create a foreground depth. An angular, octagonal space, bounded by the reflection of the reflective, greasy grubby glass on the far side of the carriage. This all makes for a contested foreground.

Beyond that, a mid ground whose tonal contrasts are simplified by the glass. A mid ground that, in this often rural area of Kent and at this time of year, tends to feature ploughed fields and full apple orchards. Those agricultural features run at right angles to the tracks, in the early evening light the shadows lay out the ground plane, accentuating the plough lines and structuring the quasi fictive landscape in a series of horizontals and verticals. Poussin/ Claude, calm and gridded; mannered. The succeeding hedges in neat patterns on flat lands running up to the Downs and a blue stained horizon. It is the landscape around Het Steen.