In July, Michael Baron, a friend of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, arranged for his fellow members of the advanced poetry class at Morley College, with their tutor Sarah Wardle, to visit the Eric Ravilious Exhibition. For some people, particularly those based in North London, this was their first visit to the gallery – but it is unlikely to be their last.

Ravilious had a close connection with Morley College as he and his friend Edward Burra painted murals for the College which sadly were destroyed when the building was bombed in WW2. The exhibition delighted the Morley group and several people wrote poems inspired by their favourite pictures, of which the Waterwheel poem reproduced here, is one.

Ravilious’s slightly surreal period style perhaps lends itself to this kind of speculation, linking as it does distinctive representation with an aura of gentle mysticism. We acknowledge the support of the Ravilious Estate, the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery (Powys); and the Dulwich Picture Gallery for this marvellous, eye-opening, exhibition.

Waterwheel image courtesy of the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, Brecknock

Waterwheel image courtesy of the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, Brecknock

The Waterwheel: A Painting by Eric Ravilious

by Sue Verney

A partnership of geology and man

defines landscape here, downland

hills of smooth serge green, lit by

cloud filtered winter sunlight above

the wide valley, with its fast moving

stream circling in an oxbow

with a tributary and narrow dam

feeding the flow to the waterwheel,

a local artisan machine powering

the belt of a knife grinder’s stone,

to sharpen tools for carpenter or farm.

A gaggle of geese paddling nearby

are not yet aware of their destiny.

Graphic lines, ancient or man made,

define shapes which appear settled

in time and space, partly abstracted

implying a life beyond themselves.

Curves suggest melodic expansion,

lyric completion, a cradle of comfort,

or eternal circles like sun or moon,

whereas straight lines point like

swords, or meet with abrupt angles

like the thin skeletal winter trees,

or wooden frame of the waterwheel.

But what delight in texture here –

Ravilious’s wood carving skill

infusing surfaces, shaping

the slightly comic ladle-like

curves and propeller design

of the waterwheel paddles;

and his lithographer’s latticing

highlights stones, a pathway,

furrows on the sage green island,

or ripples on the stream flowing

around it. Above the ground bass

and tenor layers, watercolours

resonate softly and clearly like

English folk songs, with reticent

intensity and optimistic calm,

quietly defying the fascist threat

of the period with an almost

transcendent trust in natural

beauty, national ingenuity,

and the history and mystery

of harmonious design.