Eric Ravilious was one of the first official War Artists to be appointed by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in December 1939. Established by the Ministry of Information, the WAAC was a government body which commissioned artists to record the events of the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1942, Eric Ravilious produced spectacular watercolours, lithographs and drawings featuring ships, aircraft and coastal defences, 50 of which are now in IWM’s collection.

Born in Acton, London, in 1903, Eric Ravilious spent his childhood in Eastbourne in East Sussex and was awarded a scholarship to attend the Eastbourne School of Art in 1919. Three years later, he enrolled at the Royal College of Art in London where he studied under Paul Nash, a War Artist during the First World War and later in the Second World War.

In the following years, Ravilious established his reputation as a book illustrator in wood engraving and lithography, a painter of watercolours and murals, and a designer of pottery for Wedgwood.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, he immediately signed up for the Royal Observer Corps based at his home in Castle Hedingham in Essex. Ravilious continued this role until he started his appointment as an official War Artist allocated to the Admiralty in 1940 with the rank of Captain.

Discover seven artworks created by Ravilious during the Second World War.

A Warship in Dock, 1940

A view of the bow of a camouflage painted warship in dock from ground level looking upwards. A worker is standing on the deck of the bow. There is a dockyard building to the left and a crane and further buildings to the right. Three men are walking up the gangway to go onboar
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 70

A Warship in Dock, 1940

In February 1940, Eric Ravilious was posted to Chatham Dockyard in Kent to document the factories and buildings at the naval barracks. In A Warship in Dock, Ravilious presents the bow of a destroyer in a flooded dry dock tied into position with numerous ropes.

A man on deck holds one of the ropes while three other men board the ship via a gangway on the port side. Shown from ground level, the warship looks menacing with its angular marine camouflage and intimidating colossal scale.

In the background, there are numerous structures, including a ship crane and a factory with a smoking chimney.

Despite the scene’s calming elements - the stillness of the water in the flooded dock and the vivid blue of the sky overhead - there is no doubt that preparations are underway in a country at war.

HMS Glorious in the Arctic, 1940

A large ship steaming on a calm sea with small aeroplanes flying in the sky above. The sun shines down from the top left corner of the composition, casting a path of bright rays down onto the sea. In the distance another ship can be seen sailing on the horizon. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 283
IWM Art.IWM ART LD 283

HMS Glorious in the Arctic, 1940

After Germany launched an invasion on Norway in April 1940, seizing the capital, Oslo, and the main ports, the Allied forces attempted to counterattack on land but were poorly equipped and outnumbered.

On 24 May, an evacuation of troops from the Norwegian port of Narvik was authorised, known as Operation Alphabet. Aircraft carriers HMS Glorious and HMS Ark Royal left Scapa Flow in Scotland on 31 May to assist with the withdrawal, escorted by five destroyers, including HMS Highlander.

In this scene, Ravilious depicts HMS Glorious from on board HMS Highlander. The carrier is shown under the Arctic light, its dazzle-type camouflage mimicked in the sea in the foreground.

Hawker Hurricanes and Gloster Gladiators, RAF fighters from No. 46 Squadron and No. 263 Squadron respectively, fly in the sky above preparing to land on the flight deck of HMS Glorious having evacuated from Bardufoss Air Station, their Norwegian air base. Taking place on 7 June, this was a risky operation as Hurricanes had never landed on an aircraft carrier before.

The next day, HMS Glorious set off to return to Scapa Flow but was attacked by German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and was sunk. Over 1,500 souls lost their lives.

Coastal Defences, 1940

A view looking down into a wide bay from the cliff tops. The curve of the land stretches along the left side of the composition, and a searchlight beams up into the sky further along the coast. Several small boats are seen motoring out to sea from a jetty in the centre ground of the composition.
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 5662

Coastal Defences, 1940

Over September and October 1940, Ravilious was posted to Newhaven in East Sussex to paint coastal defences.

The port was targeted as part of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain by the German forces, and was consequently heavily fortified.

In this scene, Ravilious depicts the semi-circular curve of the coastline in dark greens and blues, colours which are repeated in the sea and sky.

In contrast, the searchlight on the left-hand side is stark white, cutting through the night sky on the lookout for enemy aircraft, and a row of boats speeding out to sea at the centre of the scene leave a stream of white as they move through the water. These elements reinforce the constant threat to Newhaven from both above and below.

Firing a 9.2 Gun, 1941

A gun position set on a hillside. A group of figures stand on the right, behind the camouflaged structure that houses the gun. There are enormous yellow flames billowing into the air from the nose of the gun. Delicate white flowers lie in the grass in the foreground, and across the rolling fields there is a view to the coast in the distance.
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1585

Firing a 9.2 Gun, 1941

In this painting, Ravilious illustrates the moment a 9.2-inch naval gun fires from the front-line port of Dover in Kent. The gun blasts out a burst of fire akin to that of a dragon towards the coastline, an imagined and exaggerated portrayal of a firing gun, but one of spectacle and awe.

The group of five artillerymen are shown as ghost-like figures, pale in comparison to the luscious greens of the landscape in the foreground. Ravilious spent the summer of 1941 in Dover before moving to Dundee in Scotland.

RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, 1941

The interior of a wooden cabin with a long window running the length of the wall. An iron bed and wooden chair stand underneath the window. The bed has a blue and white cover with a nautical styled pattern. Two seaplanes can be seen through the window, and the mast of a boat evidently moored just outside the building. © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1719
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1719

RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee, 1941

“These planes and pilots are the best things I have come across since this job began.”  

Ravilious arrived at the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) in Dundee during the autumn of 1941 and was immediately taken with the Supermarine Walrus, a seaplane “with a strong personality like a duck”, as he described to Edward Dickey, WAAC Secretary.

In this scene, three Walrus aircraft can be seen floating on the river outside the station’s sick bay.

Ravilious presents the interior of a room which is purely functional; the only items of furniture are a bed and a chair, indicating that this space was for convalescence alone.

Neither the bed nor the chair look overly comfortable, but the blue and white bedding with anchor motif conveys a sense of homeliness in an otherwise stark environment.

During his time at the RNAS, the pilots allowed Ravilious to fly in the aircraft with them enabling him to sketch from the air. After this, he successfully transferred from the Admiralty to the RAF.

De-Icing Aircraft, 1942

Ground crew clear snow and ice off a DH Dragon Rapide standing on a runway. The tail of a second plane is in the foreground.© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1856
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1856

De-Icing Aircraft, 1942

In March 1942, Eric Ravilious was based at RAF Clifton, an airfield in York. He enjoyed flying around the city, observing York Minster from above, and spotting abbeys and ruins over Yorkshire. In De-Icing Aircraft, Ravilious depicts the airfield under a blanket of seemingly never-ending snow.

Three men are seen scraping a layer of ice from the wing of a de Havilland Dragon Rapide (referred to in military service by the name de Havilland Dominie), a twin-engine biplane used for transporting passengers and training purposes. Each engine has a bespoke cover for protection against the harsh temperatures.

In the foreground, the tail of another aircraft is also covered in ice and snow, yet to be addressed by the hardworking ground crew. At the bottom of the tail fin, rust can be seen through cracks in the paint, a patent indication of why this work was so crucial.

Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, 1942

A view of five Spitfires on an airfield. The two Spitfires in the foreground stand side by side, with a brick wall between them.
© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 2125

Spitfires at Sawbridgeworth, 1942

In March 1942, Eric Ravilious’ wife Tirzah Garwood, a fellow artist, developed serious health problems expediting his return to the south of England. From May, he was based at RAF Sawbridgeworth, an airfield in Hertfordshire, which was relatively close to their family home.

Shortly after his arrival, he wrote to Tirzah: “my hut is I think made of cardboard and the bed, iron hard with no pillow, looking glass for shaving, chair, or towel. I shave by touch alone and dry my face on a shirt...I live with the RAF regiment who are very nice people indeed and am brought a thick brown ‘gunfire’ [tea] in the morning at 7.”

Despite his living conditions, Ravilious enjoyed documenting everyday life on the airfield over May and June, including aircraft in flight and recreational activities. In this watercolour, Ravilious has depicted five Supermarine Spitfires at the base, however, this scene is wholly fabricated. Spitfires were not present at the site until August 1942. Perhaps Ravilious had heard of their impending arrival, or he was eager to illustrate the famous fighter plane in detail - the answer remains a mystery.

With Tirzah’s permission, Ravilious travelled to Iceland in August 1942. He flew to Reykjavik, arriving at the airfield of RAF Kaldadarnes by road on 1 September. The next day he flew with four airmen on a rescue mission in a Lockheed Hudson from No. 269 Squadron and was lost off the Icelandic coast.

Eric Ravilious was one of three War Artists who lost their lives in action during the Second World War, along with Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards, the former being one of Ravilious’ close friends.

Today, Ravilious is remembered at the Chatham Naval Memorial, just over a mile away from the dockyard where he spent his first posting as a War Artist.