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Living in the Flicker: Eerie England in Eric Ravilious’s November 5th, 1933

1 June 2021

Samuel Love, University of York

One day in 2013, the cultural theorist Mark Fisher went for a walk. He found himself in a landscape which, he said, ‘demanded to be engaged with on its own terms’.[1] Contemplating the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, Fisher was struck by this landscape that ‘constitutes a gap in knowledge’, as ‘the beliefs and rituals […] that constructed the artefacts and buried the ship are only partly understood’.[2] The term Fisher used to describe this sort of place was ‘eerie’, a phenomenon explained by ‘a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience’.[3]

Fisher is not the only commentator to see something eerie in the English countryside. Robert Macfarlane theorises that eeriness permeates England, a ‘traumatised’ pastoral that casts England as ‘a spectred rather than a sceptred isle’.[4] Fisher does not share Macfarlane’s negativity, instead specifying that the ‘eerie’ constitutes a ‘release from the mundane, [an] escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality’.[5] It is this conception of the eerie that I believe persists in modern British art. Examining Eric Ravilious’s painting November 5th, 1933, a phantasmagorical representation of Bonfire Night, I outline the form and function of the ‘eerie’ to suggest ‘Eerie England’ as the untheorised, uncanny double of ‘Merrie England’. That this should be announced with a party is fitting. Festivities have often been regarded as spheres of experience in which events outside normative sociopolitical parameters can occur, with the association between festivity and transgression being laid bare most famously in Mikhail Bakhtin’s familiar concept of the ‘carnivalesque’.[6] Fisher’s ‘eerie’ presents a natural extension of this to which Ravilious responded, transgressing the boundary between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ itself.

Interwar Britain was an eerie place. The mechanised carnage of the First World War triggered, as Jay Winter states, an ‘avalanche of the un-modern’ in British culture, including two intertwined revivals.[7] These were a revival of interest in the English countryside as the romanticised site of ‘Englishness’, worried to have been a casualty of the war, and a concomitant revival of spiritualism that was a product of the war’s actual casualties. The desire for that which could transcend post-war life evidenced in the latter was mapped onto the former, with city-dwellers seeking the numinous in rambling expeditions that could connect them to the ancient mysteries of England. ‘Night trains’ to mysterious countryside destinations for nocturnal explorations were popular, and rambling guides included directions to reputedly haunted rural locations.[8]

Eric Ravilious was arguably perfectly suited to the spirit of his age; he spoke publicly to mythic Englishness and privately to a certain eeriness. The first part is well-known—his lover Helen Binyon records his comment that his greatest ambition was to revive the English watercolour tradition, for example—but the second is not, fitting uncomfortably with an artist whose reputation now rests upon the quaintness of his watercolour landscapes.[9] In contrast to this, Ravilious’s friends remembered that he ‘always seemed to be slightly somewhere else, as if he lived a private life which did not completely coincide with material existence’.[10] Equally, Bonfire Night was the perfect subject to reveal this aspect of Ravilious’s temperament. David Cressy has recorded that Bonfire Night was (baselessly) assumed to be a relatively modern repackaging of ancient, pre-Christian English harvest celebrations.[11] It thus represented an explosion of the magical, compellingly mysterious aspects of England that the post-war generation sought.

The eeriness of Ravilious’s painting is evident. Two fundamental questions, for Fisher, trigger a sense of the eerie: ‘Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?’.[12] November 5th is full of somethings where there should be nothing. Enormous fireworks, the largest being the spectral remnants of a burning wheel, hang impossibly close to the ground; figures stand on rooftops that seem impossible for them to have gained access to. Ravilious’s revellers engender a sense of strangeness which is close to unease. Human figures are uncommon in Ravilious’s oeuvre, and when they do appear, Richard Morphet suggests that they are unconvincing, ‘interpreted in terms of functions rather than personality’.[13] I would argue that their lack of specificity is, here at least, far from a defect. Completely featureless and rendered a spectral white, presumably by the light of the fireworks, they appear to be the answered prayers of ramblers searching for ghosts—the ghosts have come to their back gardens.

Equally, Ravilious’s figures draw our attention to the nothings where there should be something. They are unconvincing as humans, particularly the running figures clustered at the left of the composition, because of their complete lack of solidity. Each cluster of figures seems to float in the sparsely rendered pictorial space, and unusually for a festive image, no group appears to connect with another. The space itself seems deliberately unreal. The figures on the left seem to run from nowhere to nowhere; at the centre of the composition, a mother and child drift down a garden path, seeming to come from nowhere and go nowhere. Doors have been thrown open, leading to chasms utterly devoid of detail. At the right-hand side, a group dances beneath the inexplicable spiral of light. In the only existing writing on the painting, Alan Powers has suggested that they are merely wearing animal masks, although I see no reason to search for such a plausible explanation for these transmogrified creatures in the dreamworld Ravilious depicts.[14] I see no reason not to accept these figures as what they appear to be: remnants of the magical and pre-Christian past Ravilious’s generation wanted to discover and that Bonfire Night was felt to be an example of.

            Ultimately, in looking at Ravilious’s painting, we stand in an analogous position to Mark Fisher looking at Sutton Hoo; its eeriness owes to the same ‘gap in knowledge’. The question of why there is something where there should be nothing and nothing where there should be something remains unanswered and, owing to the apparent lack of archival material, unanswerable. Peering into this lacuna, however, I would suggest that although I cannot explain November 5th, I can offer a term that explains its captivating qualities and connects it to its historical moment. ‘Eerie England’, illuminated by celebratory fireworks, announces itself in Ravilious’s painting, its ghostly beings and pagan spirits glimpsed in the flicker. In capturing them thus, Ravilious reflected his generation’s interests through a painting where the limits of ‘carnivalesque’ transgression are pushed in unexpected directions, preserving a moment at which the haunted nature of England reasserts itself through the ritualistic behaviour of a festival believed to be a revival of ancient traditions.


Sources:

[1] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016), p. 76.

[2] Ibid., p. 77.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Robert Macfarlane. ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, Guardian, 10 April 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane&gt; [accessed 17 May 2021]

[5] Fisher, p. 13.

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[7] J. M. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 54.

[8] Frank Trentmann, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents: English Neo-Romanticism and the Transformation of Anti­Modernism in Twentieth-Century Western Culture’, Journal of Contemporary History, 29 (1994), 583–625 (p. 587, 593).

[9] Helen Binyon, Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1983), p. 43.

[10] Alan Powers, Eric Ravilious: Artist and Designer (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2013), p. 13.

[11] David Cressy, ‘400 Years of Festivities’, in Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night, by Brenda Buchanan and others (London: Penguin, 2005), pp. 63–97 (pp. 67–68).

[12] Fisher, p. 12. Original italics.

[13] Richard Morphet, ‘Eric Ravilious and Helen Binyon’, in Memoir of an Artist, by Helen Binyon (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1983), pp. 7–20 (p. 7).

[14] Alan Powers, Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities (London: Imperial War Museum, 2003), p. 38.

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