Ravilious’s depictions of rural life often include elements of the growing industrialisation in the countryside. In Drought, machinery dominates the skyline - a steam-driven road roller, used for levelling and maintaining road surfaces, with its pump and accompanying caravan for the workers. The traction engine had revolutionised agriculture and road haulage in the late 19th century and although by the 1930s, when this work was executed, production was in decline due to the increasing use of engine-powered tractors, steam-rollers continued in commercial use in some parts of England into the mid-1960s. Ravilious was particularly interested in the shapes of these majestic machines. Farm Implements, painted the year before, focused on two traction engines used to saw wood, while in 1933, the same year Drought was painted, these man-made forms appeared in a mural he painted for the Midland Hotel in Morecambe.
Ravilious has chosen a low view-point which focuses our attention on the trail of vehicles and equipment on the barely visible road dissecting the composition. Here we are witnessing the advance of the man-made road network as it makes its way through the arid countryside in the heat of the summer, though it is not certain whether this machinery is in use; perhaps it has been abandoned at the side of the road for the combustion engine, certainly the heavy-duty blanket could give this impression, or has the steam-engine succumbed to the heat of the day and broken down? Whatever the explanation, the dominant presence of these vehicles adds a mysterious dimension to the work. The delicacy of line, detailed depiction and luminous colouring of the engine, roller and the pump are in contrast to Ravilious’ lighter and more impulsive treatment of the surrounding countryside. It is this masterful handling of the watercolour medium which evokes so compellingly the stillness of the day, the heat and dryness of the earth. The bowl of the waterless pond is delineated by carefully placed strokes of watercolour covered by a subtle wash in which areas of the paper are left bare to enhance the effect of the cracking parched earth. The ghostly figure lugging the two buckets back to the engine is at first barely visible in the landscape. Figures often creep into Ravilious’ compositions at this time, and as in this work they are busy working or going about their business within the scene. This painting, like others from Ravilious’ oeuvre, captures everyday English rural life in the inter-war years. The timeless depiction of rustic living is tinged with a sense of unease with the dominating presence of machinery. This was a theme which Ravilious was to develop as an official war artist when he depicted the machinery of war.
Drought was painted in 1933, and was included in Ravilious' first one-man exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery, a gallery renowned throughout the war years for its promotion of European art. In 1935 Zwemmer held the first show of Moore’s drawings and it was to exhibit major exhibitions of Picasso and De Chirico amongst others. Drought was purchased from Zwemmer by the present owner's parents and has been in the same private collection ever since. Indeed, until recently the work had been down as 'lost' in the family records. Ravilious only had three solo exhibitions in his all too short life: another at Zwemmer in 1936 and one at Tooth’s in 1939, before he was tragically lost in an air-sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland whilst working as an Official War Artist. The exhibition of 1933 contained a body of work Ravilious had been working on whilst staying with Edward Bawden at Great Bardfield. The location therefore is most likely to be inspired by the Essex landscape around Bardfield and by the end of the exhibition, twenty of the thirty-six paintings had been sold.
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