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Shopfront nostalgia: The timeless illustrations of Eric Ravilious

Posted on 24 Feb 2022

We sat down with Gill Saunders, Senior Curator of Prints at the V&A, to chat about Eric Ravilious’s classic ‘High Street’, exploring surreal cheesemongers, visual puns, the lasting impact of the Blitz, and the legacy of this quintessentially English artist.

Cheesemonger (detail), © Victoria and Albert Museum

Thames & Hudson: Originally published in 1938, High Street pairs Eric Ravilious’s illustrations with text by architectural historian J. M. Richards. How was the idea for the book conceived?

Gill Saunders: The book seems to have been the idea of Helen Binyon, daughter of writer Laurence Binyon and a student contemporary of Ravilious at the Royal College of Art. The original idea was a pictorial alphabet of shops, with Ravilious doing the illustrations. That proved a bit difficult, though, and the original publisher that Ravilious took the idea to wasn’t interested in pursuing it. He ended up talking to Noel Carrington at an imprint from Country Life books, and slowly the idea took shape that it would simply be a picture book, ideally for children, of different kinds of shops that you would find in the high street.

A lot of the shops in the book, even in the 1930s, wouldn’t have been in every high street. You would not have found a shop selling gear for submariners, for example! And nor would you have found an amusement arcade, perhaps, but the others – cheese shops, butchers, grocers, fishmongers, chemists – all of those obviously would have been found in most high streets, and so Helen and Ravilious had great fun selecting them whenever they were going out and about.

Baker and Confectioner, © Victoria and Albert Museum

TH: What was the process of selecting and sketching the shops, and where did the project go from there?

GS: Ravilious was living in a little village in Essex, but he travelled around, and the shops he chose to include were either unusual, or particularly typical or they had very attractive shop fronts. He started making sketches of some of these shops, and he found places in London as well. Ravilious would do often a quite detailed pencil sketch, and to some of those sketches he would add watercolour, so that he would have a sense of what colours to use when it came to making the prints.

In the end, Ravilious had amassed quite a collection and, in conversation with Noel Carrington at Country Life books, they decided on a title: High Street. There were earlier or even contemporary models for this kind of thing – for example, there were various French children’s books which illustrated shops. So it wasn’t an entirely new idea, but Ravilious made something very charming and I think distinctively English out of it.

Public-House, © Victoria and Albert Museum

TH: Can you tell us about the bombing of the Curwen Press during the Blitz, and how this affected the book and its future?

GS: Yes, it was a sad story. Only 2,000 copies of the book had been printed before the war, and during the Blitz, part of the archive was destroyed and the plates for High Street were lost. It was only many years later that the idea of doing a facsimile of this lovely book came about. The illustrations are very charming, and now, with the passage of time, they’ve got such strong nostalgic appeal. Interest in Ravilious himself has gone up and up and up since post-war, and he has now become a much more familiar name, so it was decided that this would be a very appealing subject to do a facsimile of.

I assume the only way that it could have been reproduced would be to photograph the illustrations from an original copy of the book and then use photolithography to transfer the imagery to new plates to print it again.

TH: We know our high streets have faced significant challenges in recent decades. It’s interesting, though, that J.M. Richards was already mourning the British high street in his introduction to the book from 1938. You mention in your afterword the impression that this was ‘an obituary for an endangered species – the independent shopkeeper’. Can you tell us about this atmosphere of the time, and how it influenced the book?

GS: Yes, Ravilious was part of a group of friends and artists who were very interested in antiques and curios. They were collectors of Victoriana, and loved to live with those kinds of things: old crockery and china and glassware. I think there was a kind of interest and nostalgia even then, in the 1930s, because a lot of these shops were disappearing. A lot of these kinds of retailers just were ceasing to exist, and the demand for the products was declining. So I think there was almost a sort of documentary kind of impetus behind the book.

One of the reasons I was asked to write the afterword was because I had done a lot of work on a collection of watercolours and drawings which is held by the V&A, called Recording Britain. It was a project set up at the beginning of the Second World War, which commissioned artists to make watercolours and drawings of buildings and landscapes that were thought to be under threat, either from development and demolition or from bombing and invasion. There was a very similar kind of reasoning behind Recording Britain and behind High Street: let’s make a record of these lovely things before we lose them.

TH: High Street was originally envisioned as a children’s book, which makes sense as Ravilious’s style can be very playful. Can you tell us about this?

GS: Yes, the book has a slightly humorous element, I think. If you look at the picture of the shop selling hams, and the way they’re all piled up in this great abundance, there’s something that makes you smile. Or the picture of the cheesemonger, Paxton & Whitfield, with that lovely delivery van outside the front window. It’s obviously not properly to scale, so it looks almost like a little toy that a child could drive around in. In few of the pictures that have figures in them, the figures are slightly caricatured. They often don’t have faces or features and are quite simplified, rather the way you would find in children’s illustration even today.

Cheesemonger, © Victoria and Albert Museum

TH: On the other hand, you mention in your afterword that there is ‘a hint of the Surrealists’ influence’ in Ravilious’s drawings: ‘Underneath the playfulness and charm… something unsettling and mysterious.’

GS: Yes, there definitely is, in some of the ways he chooses to represent his subjects. If we look at the submariner supplies shop for example, you’ve got the diving gear and the helmets in the window, and it’s quite dark and mysterious. He doesn’t use many bright colours in that one, and it will always remind me of the story of Salvador Dalí coming to London to give a lecture, and wearing a diving helmet.

There are little touches, I think, of quite surreal imagery. For example, in the illustration of the theatrical properties shop, there are all those heads of animals – elephants and what could be a rabbit or a kangaroo – and they’re really absolutely wonderful. Ravilious smuggles in all sorts of little visual puns.

TH: We heard that High Street once had an unexpected royal reader?

GS: Yes, when I was looking through the book again, I remembered that the wedding cake shop is interesting because the figure in the long coat and the fur stole at the centre is actually meant to be Queen Mary. The shop is Buzzards, which was on Oxford Street. There was actually a record of the royal family ordering cakes from that shop, and apparently Queen Mary bought a copy of High Street!

Wedding Cakes, © Victoria and Albert Museum

TH: What do you see as Ravilious’s impact on British art and visual culture today? What is his legacy?

GS: Ravilious’s legacy overall rests on two things: his illustrations of the British landscape – the English landscape in particular – and his war pictures. He died quite early in the war, but his war pictures are very kind of direct and matter-of-fact, and they’re all the more moving for that reason.

As regards High Street, I think Ravilious was very much engaged with his own time and with his surroundings. He just made so many pictures of the locations he lived in, whether that was in Sussex or Essex. He was looking at the places he lived and so he was in a sense an artist of local subjects, but those local subjects speak to a larger kind of national identity. People do talk about Ravilious as being a very English artist, and I think that’s manifest in so many of his subjects and the way he presents them.

High Street (Victoria and Albert Museum)

J. M. Richards, Eric Ravilious