Employed as a War Artist from 1940, Eric Ravilious created delicate yet striking watercolours and drawings of ships, aircraft and coastal defences. In May 1942, he was posted to RAF Sawbridgeworth, an airfield in Hertfordshire
Over May and June, he produced a series of watercolours that provide a flavour of everyday life at RAF Sawbridgeworth, from the types of aircraft stationed there to the recreational activities which took place.
The Operations Room is one of these important paintings and was acquired by IWM in 2020, with generous support from the Art Fund. The artwork complements IWM’s existing collection of Ravilious’ work from his time as a War Artist during the Second World War.
The watercolour depicts the interior of the airfield’s ‘mobile’ operations room. It is decorated with light yellows and blue-greens, colours synonymous with functional buildings such as this in the Second World War.
A relaxing colour palette was purposefully-selected to be easy on the eyes for those working inside for long periods of time. Large windows enable a panoramic view of the airfield and a sector clock hung on the wall helps to track the movements of aircraft. Beneath the clock are two tables covered in RAF-issued blankets with several communicatory objects on the top, including a bell and a telephone, shown in outline form.
Studying Ravilious’ rendering of the windows reveals that the scene is unfinished; these areas are sketched in pencil, yet to be painted with watercolour. A large arrow can be seen through the left-hand window and airfield markings and the vague shape of an aircraft are shown through the right, both accompanied by handwritten annotations by Ravilious – handy notes to assist him in completing the work at a later date.
The central window is dominated by a detailed drawing of a stationary Westland Lysander aircraft. In 1942, Lysanders were operating from RAF Sawbridgeworth on reconnaissance duties and were used for training pilots.
In The Operations Room, Eric Ravilious has welcomed the viewer in to an environment devoid of the human figure. However, it is the essence of human activity which gives an impression of the type of work undertaken in this space; the pinned notices underneath the sector clock, the writing pen and ink on one table, and the blue reference folder on the other – there is nothing in this room which does not need to be there, it is purely functional.
During his time at RAF Sawbridgeworth, Ravilious wrote of his experiences to his wife Tirzah Garwood, a fellow artist.
On 9 May 1942, he stated, “the weather gets finer all the time but I feel bored of pictures of planes on the ground and want to go flying. At the moment I am having a shot at these very nice interiors but it is too early to say too much about them.”
The site is now defunct as a military base and few of the original buildings exist, many subsumed by modern industrial buildings and farmland, making The Operations Room an invaluable first-hand record of what the airfield was like during the Second World War for generations to come.
After leaving RAF Sawbridgeworth, Ravilious travelled to RAF Kaldadarnes, an airfield in Iceland. On 2 September 1942, he flew with four airmen on a rescue mission in a Lockheed Hudson from No. 269 Squadron and was lost off the Icelandic coast.
He was one of three War Artists who lost their lives in action during the Second World War.