(Image credit: Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne )

I’ve just returned from viewing the exhibition Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship at the Towner Gallery here in Eastbourne. I’d love to post some images but the Towner not only forbids photography but they don’t even share any images in their press releases etc. I tried their Facebook page and it’s full of images of children playing – they appear more intent to tell people they are running a creche than an art gallery. A shame as it’s a wonderful exhibition. (SEE ADDENDUM BELOW)

Among the paintings was one of the coastal defences at Newhaven in 1940. The info panel said Eric Ravilious during his assignment as a war artist had stopped off here in his former home of Eastbourne en route to the port. Ravilious went to Eastbourne Grammar school, taught at the local art school where his wife, Tirzah Garwood, had been one of his students. He wrote to her about his brief September 1940 visit back to the town, saying:

“A bad dream… like the ruins of Pompei, the town all but empty, sixty thousand people have left.”

That was in September 1940, two months after the opening of my novel, The Chalky Sea, with the first bombing of Eastbourne in July 1940. On Tuesday September 10th a proclamation was posted in the town to recommend that all those without essential duties evacuate the town. Most people left on the Wednesday and Eastbourne was soon reduced to a population of about thirteen thousand people. On the following Friday  – the ominous Friday the Thirteenth – a terrible weekend of devastation took place, turning large areas of the town to heaps of rubble. Again this features in The Chalky Sea. When Ravilious passed through on his way to Newhaven, it was probably soon after this terrible assault on the town.

When the siren finally sounded the all-clear, the group emerged from the bowels of the building to a scene of devastation. The almost continuous afternoon of bombing had taken its toll on the town. Trees were uprooted and lying across what was normally a busy thoroughfare, their branches tangled with bricks, broken glass, roof tiles, rubble and lampposts. The building opposite, its facade blasted off, revealed its shattered interior, like someone surprised in their underwear.”

The bombing didn’t stop in 1940. Eastbourne continued to be pummelled until the last conventional bomb fell in March 1944 – with further attacks by V1 flying bombs, the infamous Doodlebugs, until August of that year.

Eric Ravilious, Boy Birds-Nesting, 1926. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

Eric Ravilious didn’t survive the war. His war artist duties took him to Iceland in September 1942, to RAF Kaldadarnes. On the day he arrived he went up on a mission with RAF Coastal Command to search for a missing Lockheed Hudson, but the plane he flew in never returned. My own father was stationed at the same base in Iceland where he too served with RAF Coastal Command, doing weather reconnaissance.

Image credit: Phyllis Bliss, Portrait of Eric Ravilious, c. 1929. © Prudence and Rosalind Bliss

The exhibition is definitely worth a visit. As well as a comprehensive display of Ravilious’s own work – war paintings, woodcuts, downland paintings, illustrations etc, it features a vast collection of his friends’ work including Paul and John Nash, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx, Helen Binyon, Barnett Friedman and more. I was drooling over some of the beautiful book covers. But wake up Towner. If you can take photos without flash in the RijksMuseum, the National Gallery and the Tate, why not here? It would enable visitors to spread the word. I wouldn’t mind if they did a good job themselves on social media but it’s pitiful! At a time when they are facing massive cuts in their funding they need all the help they can get.

ADDENDUM – The Towner Art Gallery have kindly given me access to some images from the exhibition and explained that their no photography rule was a result of some of the 82 lenders to the exhibition having strict no photo policies. Accordingly I have added a couple of images with credits.

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