Ravilious’ Ark

Today a look at the art of official war artist Eric Ravilious. Having been researching his fascinating artist, I’ve found it very hard to know what to focus on, so here I’ve limited the post to one aspect of his war work, his watercolours of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.


First is entitled: ‘HMS Ark Royal in action’ and the version above is from the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) collection, here: © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 284. The IWM caption reads ‘a night scene of the aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, firing her guns. In the distance four other ships lie on the horizon.’

It’s always been a favourite of mine since I came across it some years ago in a set of war artworks. Interestingly, another version is shown online here which is much lighter and gives quite a different impression than the one above. The IWM link actually gives for different scans of the artwork on their link, again here. (I’m not sure if it’s simply the quality of reproduction, or a different tonal quality, print, but note the evident detail in the close waves below to the IWM example’s solid black.)


A colour palette matched IWM scan:



It’s a simple, powerful image, and like a lot of Ravilious’ best work, has no humans, or, in this case, human scale to it. If you know the subject you can see the lights are the muzzle blast of the Ark Royal’s main starboard gun armament firing. They can be seen pointing out alongside the aerial masts in this powerful image of the Ark as she was having her crew abandon ship after she was torpedoed.

HMS Ark Royal was unusually the single ship of her class, and thus unique in her looks. Ravilious was obviously fascinated by the shape of the aft end of her deck and stern, as can be seen in the image below.


As well as some studies held by the IWM here, but not digitised for online viewing, Ravilious also made one other known watercolour of the Ark Royal, below. Unlike the previous print, I find it much more impressionistic, and much less of a successful work. Ref: © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 285)


Neither the Ark Royal nor Ravilious survived the war. The carrier was torpedoed by a German U Boat on 14 November 1941. Ravilious was posted as ‘missing’ after he chose to fly on 28 August 1942 with a search crew in a Lockheed Hudson from RAF Kaldadarnes, Iceland, trying to find another Hudson that had previously failed to return. Ravilious’ Hudson simply disappeared, making him one of the remarkably few officially recognised and gazetted war artists to perish on active service. Despite his early death, he left a fascinating body of work I’m sure we’ll return to in due course, and that I’ve touched on already at Vintage Aero Writer here.

James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer.

For more on Ravilious, see this excellent 2011 biography and review here and 2013 catalogue review here. Also this Country Life 2015 exhibition review here the Also there are paid/registered articles on the families of the Hudson crew members here, and a request to search for missing artworks of Ravilious here.

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