Ravilious’s Downland Man- Immersive Watercolours and Captivating History on Show at Wiltshire Museum

by T.B.D Rose

Stemming from an unfinished book of Eric Ravilious’s illustrations (including that of Westbury White Horse) which resurfaced in 2012 and which museum director David Dawson collected for Wiltshire Museum, the Eric Ravilious: Downland Man exhibition has been put together by guest curator James Russell (creator of a previous Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2015) and tells the story of the fascinating man’s life and his iconic portraits of English landscapes.

With 9 years in the works and 4 years active planning, it has already attracted around 700 pre-booked visitors from all over the country.

Featuring loans from a number of National Museums, it’s a marvelous and recognisable sight to see for any southwesterner, with Ravilious’s signature realistically vivid, painstakingly gorgeous watercolours of countryside and landmarks right on the doorstep of Devizes locals.

See it while you can. The Exhibit runs from 25th September – 30th January 2022. In memory of Eric Ravilious (1903 – 1942).


Eric Ravilious: Downland Man

Unique exhibition to open at Wiltshire Museum

Featured Image: The Westbury White Horse © Towner Eastbourne

Finally opening at Wiltshire Museum on 25 September 2021 is Eric Ravilious: Downland Man, something we previewed on Devizine in October 2019, but, sadly, lockdown prevented.

This major exhibition explores for the first time the celebrated artist’s lifelong fascination for the chalk hills of southern England, particularly Wiltshire and Sussex.

The exhibition will feature more than 20 works borrowed from national collections and private collectors, including iconic watercolours such as The Westbury Horse and The Wilmington Giant, alongside other rarely-seen works.  The exhibition is supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.  Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

Central to the exhibition are several of Ravilious’s best-loved watercolours of chalk figures made in 1939 in preparation for a children’s book, Downland Man.  The book was never completed, and for many years the prototype or ‘dummy’ made by Ravilious was believed lost.  When it resurfaced in 2012 this precious item was bought at auction by Wiltshire Museum.  It will be included in the exhibition alongside some of the artist’s watercolours, aerial photographs, annotated Ordnance Survey maps, postcards and books that relate to the Ravilious works on show – material drawn largely from Wiltshire Museum’s own collection.

The exhibition will offer a new view of Eric Ravilious (1903-42) as a chronicler of the landscape he knew better than any other.  From his student days until the last year of his life, Ravilious returned again and again to the Downs, inspired particularly by the relationship between landscape and people.  Watercolours and wood engravings included in the exhibition show dew ponds and farmyards, a cement works and a field roller, modern military fortifications and ancient monuments. 

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man is curated by James Russell, previously curator of the 2015 blockbuster Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery. He said ‘I studied History at Cambridge and I’m always intrigued by the social and cultural context of artists’ work.  When it comes to downland history and archaeology Wiltshire Museum has an unrivalled collection, making this exhibition a unique opportunity to shed new light on Ravilious – an artist who is well-known these days but still little understood. With watercolours such as ‘Chalk Paths’ and ‘The Vale of the White Horse’ on display, visitors are in for a treat.

Heather Ault, Exhibitions Officer said: ‘This is a wonderful opportunity for Wiltshire Museum to exhibit such beautiful works by Ravilious.  The exhibition will be an absolute delight’.

Sophia Weston, Trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “We are delighted that the Weston Loan Programme has been able to support the display of these important works by Eric Ravilious in Wiltshire – an area of the country which repeatedly inspired this much-loved artist. The exhibition will bring his evocative landscapes to new audiences and shed light on material little-known by the public.”

Eric Ravilious: Downland Man opens at Wiltshire Museum on Saturday 25 September and closes on 30 January 2022.  Tickets can be pre-booked online at https://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/prebooktickets/.

The exhibition ends on 30 January 2022.


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Wiltshire Museum; A Gem in our Town

Our rambling reporter, T.B.D Rose, hangs up her walking boots for a moment, to enjoy a guided tour of our town gem, The Wiltshire Museum….

Opened in 1873, Wiltshire Museum, on 41 Long Street Devizes, isn’t much to look at from the front but holds a nationally renowned world of wonders in its walls.

Walking me through the basics of the museum’s most famed collections was its director of over 12 years, David Dawson.

David often finds that although the museum is the major attraction for visitors, the reception with locals is a different story: they often take a “oh yeah, I went to the museum 30 years ago, there’s not much there, it’s not for me” attitude, and that it’s as simply “a tiny museum full of cobwebs and it’s stuck in a part of town they don’t go to.”

As the age-old adage goes, it’s easier to look at the outside than it is the inside.

The Assize Court

For these reasons and to save another treasured part of local history, the museum is working with Assize Court Trust in a long-term plan to make the abandoned Devizes Assize Court the new home of Wiltshire Museum.

Following a consultation this time last year, a hundred-page report of what could engage visitors was produced. It doesn’t differ much from the current set up of the museum but will probably make it worth £2,000000 to the local economy, more than twice it’s worth currently.

Although he sees the enormous potential once the museum moves to the Assizes Court, David wants people to visit the museum now and hopes to reach our local readership.

So on to the museum!

Stonehenge and the Bronze Age

Having started our interview in a part of the building that was once a Georgian grammar school, it turns out the museum is in fact five buildings knocked together, including two Georgian town houses and a link building.

We begin on the ground floor covering the Bronze Age which was once a 1980s art gallery extension, the floor having originally been converted into the museum in 1872.

David gives me the rundown.

“What we’re best known for is our prehistory collection, particularly the Bronze Age, so that’s the time from about 2200 BC to 1500 BC, and what everyone thinks of at that time is Stonehenge.” The world-famous monument that needs no introduction.

For people looking for something closer to home, “Stonehenge seems a long way away, we do have objects from a burial on top of Roundway, Roundway down, which has the largest copper dagger ever found in Britain. And that’s a much earlier burial that’s about 2300 BC. And we think he, the chap who was buried there, probably grew up on the continent. But came across and was buried here.”

The objects he was buried with are currently in a traveling exhibition in the US, having been at four venues so far it will eventually be going to New Zealand and Australia.

“At the moment we’re also lending to two exhibitions in Germany, and that’s Stonehenge and the Bronze Age. And come early next year we’ll be lending some of our stuff to the British museum for a major exhibition about prehistoric Europe, because we have the best Bronze Age collection in the country.”

“So other museums have to come to us to cover the Bronze Age.”

As it’s important to note, David eloquently explains away a common misconception about our ancestors: “Most people think people at the time were like Fred Flintstone bashing each other over the head with clubs, no! These guys were really, really sophisticated.”

I won’t spoil it any further for you but this part of the museum is certainly the place for archaeology buffs.

The Kingdom of the Saxons

Here you can learn all about the Saxon people and the coming of Christianity and the branches of the Church, the most often noted one founded by St. Nicholas and brought to our shores by St. Augustine.

In addition to this often-referenced part of our religious development, David points out a less commonly known factor, “what everyone forgets is that the Irish Church survived from the late Roman period and there were missionaries coming across from Ireland, and so in Malmesbury for example there was an Irish monk who founded a monastery, before the St. Augustine type of missionary arrived.”

Among many other colourful characters, you can also learn the life story of a Christian woman of high status, who may have been an Abbes and possibly even the daughter of a King of Wessex.

The Story of Devizes

An aptly named section which, as David put it, “does what it says on the can.”

Beginning from, well, the earliest beginning to prehistory and the Romans (there having been Roman settlements here) through to Medieval town and castle, and a wonderful quirkily constructed model by John Girvan (our local tour guide, history buff and ghost walk host) of what the town may have looked like.

And also on show is a book of charters given to the town and made in the Tudor Period, which you’ll see is beautifully illustrated.

“We also talk about the story of The Battle of Roundway, and we’ve also got some cannon balls found in the town, musket balls found in the battle site,” etc.

There’s also a section on the old Prison (the museum even has one of its thick wooden barred doors) and the Asylum.

“There’s going to be a Channel Four program that’s going to dig up bits of the Prison from people’s back gardens,” says David, that the museum is involved in, which will start essentially in the second week of September.

Then you can see the majestic mayoral robe from the 1880s, we probably had our first mayor around 12000.

Fun fact if you’re a Devizes School Student: you’ll see a mourning ring in the cabinet beside the robe, it contains a lock of hair from the lady in the portrait that hangs in the school entrance.

In the next room David told me the heart-warming story of a boy and his toy submarine (now on display in the cabinet), made by prisoners of war who had befriended him while they were in Swindon building houses.

“This toy submarine was made by guys in the camp and given to a young lad in Swindon. The guys in the camp were being taken to Swindon to help build houses and they made friends with this lad and they gave him that as a present.”

The Library

With over 20,000 books and 20,000 archaeological journals, 30,000 photos and lots of archival material, and working with “over 30 postgraduate researchers every year and over 10 universities,” it’s not only a Library but also a research hub.

For anyone wanting to look through the archive, “pretty much everything we’ve got is searchable through our online database, it’s got images of everything, I think we’ve got about 15-20,000 images.”

The library’s archive of books, some donated by authors and others bought by the museum, covers the entire county.

I bid David adieu and thanked him for the informative tour: Bear in mind this was only a tour of the highlights, there’s far more in store for visitors.

Wiltshire Museum is funded by £12,780 in grant from Wiltshire Council and £4,000 from our Town Council, but they’re worth 3 quarters of a million pounds to the local economy, because as David illustrates, “when people come here, most of our visitors are making a special visit to Devizes to come to the Museum. Then of course they’re staying in B&Bs or hotels and spending money in pubs and shops and restaurants.”

Believe me, it’s not the boring, fuddy-duddy cobwebby museum you may remember. So, I for one reckon it’s time to show our support and appreciation for Wiltshire Museum!

Us locals ought to pay our prized museum a visit now and then, especially families so our kids can engage with the exhibits and have a sense of their history.


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Zoom Like an Egyptian: Wiltshire Museum Half-Term Activities!

Bangles not required, entertain your saucepans over the half-term with some Egyptian themed art and craft activities at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, which is linked to their current Out of Egypt exhibition.

Tuesday 27 October and Wednesday 28 October you could find out about the Ancient Egyptians through their artefacts? Find out about mummification then create a mummy mask, a golden amulet and hieroglyphic bookmark to take home. Finish your session with the chance to see some of the amazing real artefacts from the Out of Egypt Exhibition.

The museum ensures it is Covid-secure, by putting a number of measures in place; details on their website.

And on Thursday 29 October – 2pm, you can zoom like an Egyptian with a digital event for curious kids. The Museum are offering Curious Kids the chance to engage with the museum and get creative as a family, via Zoom!  The session will also be inspired by their “Out of Egypt” Exhibition from Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Ideal for children ages 2 to 5 (including reception aged children) the session will last 30 minutes and will be broken up into short sections, to focus on your interaction, rather than attention to the screen.

Other craft activities you can do yourself with advice via videos created by local artist, Emma Kerr, is to make your own Egyptian mask using household items such as milk-bottles or from natural ingredients. Visit the website for more craft ideas for all the family.

Details and booking from the website. General entry to the Museum:

•             Thursday, Friday and Saturday – 10am to 4pm (closed 1pm to 2pm)

•             OPEN Sunday 25 October and Sunday 1 November – 11am to 3pm.

Pre-book to ensure entry, as they are continuing to limit numbers.

The exhibition, featuring genuine Egyptian artefacts, including scarabs and mummified animals, mummy masks and wrappings, shabti (a figurine found in many ancient Egyptian tombs) figures and jewellery, Out of Egypt closes on November 1st.


Eric Ravilious; the Downland Man

For the very first time Wiltshire Museum will be borrowing from major National Museums to bring an international standard art exhibition to the County. They’ve confirmed important loans from the Tate and V&A, as well as private lenders. They are also liaising with the Imperial War Museum, British Museum, National Museum of Wales and the prestigious Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, as well as private lenders, to secure a significant range of evocative watercolours for the display.

This ground-breaking exhibition celebrates watercolour artist Eric Ravilious, and his fascination with the sweeping downland landscapes of Wiltshire and Sussex. His watercolours have such a spirit of place you can almost feel the wind on your cheeks and hear the birds above. Wiltshire Museum say, “it will appeal to art lovers across the country and to local people who love the iconic local landscapes.”

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The exhibition is masterminded by guest curator, James Russell. James created the enormously successful Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2015. He will also write an illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition.

The importance of the downlands to Ravilious is well documented, but this exhibition will be the first to be dedicated solely to this subject. It will explore this area of his work and relate it to the national fascination with downland landscapes, mythology and archaeology, which gripped Britain between the wars. The exhibition will include darkly menacing war-time views of the coastline, including the famous ‘White Cliffs’ of Dover.

Items from the museum’s designated collections will be included in the exhibition. A highlight will be a sketch book Ravilious created in 1939 for the ‘Puffin’ series of children’s books. Although never published, it contains delicate pencil drawings of chalk hill figures, ancient monuments and prehistoric earthworks in Wiltshire. The idea behind the series of books was to promote patriotism in the youth of England as the Second World War loomed.

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Though Wiltshire Museum need your help to bring this important exhibition to life. You can support the appeal by clicking here. donations will provide invaluable match-funding for grant applications to make the exhibition possible. They have already had donations from private individuals and are seeking commercial sponsorship.

We will also be organising an events programme linked to the exhibition. If you are interested in bringing a group to see the exhibition, having a guided tour or a lecture to your group, then please get in touch with the museum.


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Snakes in a Museum

Yes, it’s a cross between Night at the Museum and Snakes on a Plane, except neither Samuel L Jackson or Ben Stiller will be there, neither any real snakes, which may be no bad thing. This is Devizes, home to the wonderful Wiltshire Museum, where two snakes have slithered up the outside of the Museum building! The snakes were made by Wiltshire Young Carers at a workshop held in the Museum during February half-term.

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This Secret lives of Snakes, family-friendly exhibition opened yesterday. No real snakes, but the exhibit contains lots of interesting facts and details about these fascinating creatures. There’s lots of wonderful photographs, skeletons and taxidermy to highlight the world of these secretive creatures.

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Interactives for children include a snake trail around the Museum. Also, relating to the exhibit, the Saturday morning club for 7-14-year olds, Young WANHS have, “Sssnakes …” – snake-themed craft activities for on 9 March, from 10.15am – 12.15pm. There’s no annual fee, but pre-booking is essential to help the Museum plan the sessions. Each session costs £5 per child.

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Then, on Tuesday 16th April, there’s a Jonathan’s Jungle Roadshow for younger children, suitable for age 4 and over. Children will have the amazing opportunity to find out about, handle and touch a diverse selection of fantastic live animals, including snakes. There are two sessions, 10.15am or 11.30am, each one lasts an hour and is again, £5. Accompanying adults free. Booking is essential as it’s only 15 children per session.

snakes2x533h3The exhibition runs until 28th April, normal Museum admission charges apply, but children and WANHS members are free. The Museum is now open Monday to Saturday – 10am to 5pm and Sundays – noon to 4pm. Bank Holidays may vary, check their website.

 
Yes, there’s stuff for the grownups too, such as lectures; Identity and Ideology during the Beaker period, by Chris Carey, University of Brighton on 30th March, is the only one not sold out. But none of them have got snakes in them! Where’s the fun in that?!

 

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