Ravilious grew up in Sussex, in Eastbourne, where his parents had an antiques shop, studying first at the Eastbourne School of Art (1919-22) and then the Royal College of Art (1922-25), where he met his life-long friend Edward Bawden. Though Ravilious and Bawden lived and worked in Great Barfield, Essex, it is with Sussex that Ravilious’s work is indelibly linked. His childhood association with Sussex was reignited by an invitation in 1934 from the artist and polymath Peggy Angus to stay in her shepherd’s hut, Furlongs, on the South Downs. In August of the following year, Bawden suggested a painting trip to Harwich but, uninspired by their initial choice, they settled upon a stay at the Hope Inn at Newhaven, a harbour town within walking distance of Furlongs. Newhaven was distinguished by a distinctive breakwater and seawall with lighthouses perched at each end. Ravilious’s predilection for the nautical was shared by many of his contemporaries, including Paul Nash, Tristram Hillier, Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth, as a theme replete with unusual objects, organic and man-made, found in unexpected juxtapositions.
A monumental storm engulfed Newhaven upon Ravilious’s arrival and he ventured out to the lighthouse at the end of the jetty: 'The spray from the breakers crashing on the weather-side of the breakwater was a quite extraordinary sight – I got very wet and think now it was almost a dangerous walk out there, but worth it. The scene was like one of those extravagant and formless pictures of Turner’s' (Eric Ravilious, quoted in Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious Memoir of an Artist, The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, 1994, p.80). At least three views of the harbour specifically were included in Ravilious’s second solo exhibition with the Zwemmer Gallery in 1936, including the present work Newhaven Harbour (cat. no.9), Channel Steamer Leaving Harbour (cat. no.32), and Lighthouses at Newhaven (cat. no.18), later used by Ravilious as his contribution to the Lithographs for Schools project. All three were exhibited at the World Fair in New York in 1939, and Newhaven Harbour still bears the label from this trip across the Atlantic on the brink of the Second World War.
Newhaven Harbour is designed with deliberation: the lighthouse, one of Ravilious’s preferred motifs, is seen through a lattice of ropes, draped across the composition. Echoed verticals of the lighthouse, a further lighthouse, signalling mast, and picket fence punctuate the horizon of the seascape, and are intersected by the diagonals of ropes. A complex internal structure of interlocking shapes is precisely fashioned: such consideration underscoring the latent strangeness present in Ravilious’s most memorable imagery. Unusually for Ravilious, a solitary figure is included, surveying the harbour from the lighthouse’s lower viewing platform, binoculars in hand. His face is featureless, as was Ravilious’s custom for the rare occasions he populated his scenes. Despite, or perhaps enhanced, by the presence of a lone figure, the work retains Ravilious’s customary quietness and stillness – cloudless blue skies replace the stormy introduction to Newhaven. Jan Gordon, critic for The Observer, wrote of Ravilious’s 1936 exhibition that Ravilious combined 'decorative wit…with a curious aloofness' (Jan Gordon, quoted in Alan Powers, Eric Ravilious Artist & Designer, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2013, p.80). In Newhaven Harbour it is the ‘decorative wit’ that brings about the ‘curious aloofness’, producing a picture of crisp architectonic structure and alluring reverie.
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