The first London show to focus specifically on Eric Ravilious' output as watercolourist – a medium he used to capture the atmosphere of England during times of peace and war.

Ravilious is best-known as a fine wood engraver and designer, but he saw painting as his true vocation. While working as a commercial book illustrator he spent his spare time producing elaborate watercolours for exhibitions at prestigious London galleries. His work was received favourably by the critics; a review from a show of his in 1939 described the paintings as ‘magic, almost mystic’.

Born in London in 1903, Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne where he studied art at the local college before winning a scholarship to the RCA in 1922. Under the tutelage of Paul Nash he was encouraged to explore wood engraving, which lead him into commercial design work for iconic brands such as Wedgwood. During this period – with a young family and living in rural Essex – he used watercolour to depict his tranquil life in the country.

In 1939 Ravilious was appointed as one of the first official war artists. Working with the Royal Navy he travelled Britain capturing docked ships, barrage balloons and coastal defences, before being posted to Norway the following year to document HMS Glorious in action. Although wildly different subject matter, he applied the same style and technique he did to his domestic work, lending these harsh scenes a tender intimacy.

Tragically, while on a mission with the RAF in Iceland, Ravilious' plane crashed into the sea and his body was never recovered. This thematic display of watercolours – produced between the mid-1920s and his death in 1942 – highlights a short but brilliant career in which he spearheaded the revival of English watercolour painting.

Don't miss

Caravans – bought with Art Fund support in 2010 for Fry Art Gallery – is a truly modern piece, drawing on abstract shapes and dry brushwork to reflect the atmosphere of the season.

The caravans were bought by the artist and his wife and towed to this site on the South Downs. The couple were living in one and using the other as a studio, but had to conceal the wagons in the bushes to avoid upsetting the landowner. 

Art we've helped buy

Venue details

Dulwich Picture Gallery Gallery Road London SE21 7AD 020 8693 5254 www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Entry details

£5.50 with National Art Pass (standard entry £11)

Tue – Sun, 10am – 5pm

Closed 25 – 26 Dec, 1 Jan

Book online via the Dulwich Picture Gallery website