Monday 9 January 2023

Guest review by Penny Dolan: LONG LIVE GREAT BARDFIELD! by Tirzah Garwood


"Tirzah’s unique voice is a large part of the Long Live attraction: she writes in a clear-eyed and personal style, without any idea of intended publication or any need to impress." 

Penny Dolan
works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on The History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and can be found on Twitter @PennyDolan1.

My choice for Writer’s Review could be called “My Life as the Artist’s Wife” although the author, writing about her experiences during the first half of the 20th Century, would feel far too independent and unsentimental to employ that description herself.

Long Live Great Bardfield! is the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, the wife of Eric Ravilious (1903 -1942). He is known for his English landscape paintings, which have an airy, dream-like and solitary quality, and for his work as an official War Artist.

I am very fond of his paintings, which is why, in 2015, I visited the Dulwich Gallery’s stunning Ravilious exhibition, where I came across the name Tirzah Garwood. There, among his paintings, and their rare vestigial human figures, were a few small, well-designed woodcuts that definitely rejoiced in people. I saw a collection of small social scenes and domestic interiors, each one sharpened by a strong sense of movement, humour and fun and the name beside them was Tirzah Garwood. I wanted to find out more about him and about her, these contrasting artists.

In 2018, Persephone Press, who specialise in books by early twentieth century women writers, published Tirzah’s memoir as Book No. 119. The manuscript had been prepared after Tirzah’s death in 1951 by her daughter, Anne Ullmann, with the addition of extracts from the letters of family and friends. The title, Long Live Great Bardfield! was Tirzah’s own comment on her life and experiences. 

Long Live arrived soon after the Dulwich exhibition, war anniversaries and a touch of nostalgia had revived interest in Eric Ravilious and in the other young people from the Royal College of Art’s Illustration and Design course. From what I have read, there was an element of class about this particular course at the Royal College of Art. These students were not “fine artists”, expected to teach more art themselves and/or have an income of their own. These students were trained to be useful to publishers, printers, manufacturers and business. They were artists of the then-modern century, whose skills would re-invigorate British design, making their mark, as Ravilious did, in the world of decorative ceramics, printing and book design.

After being praised for her drawings at school, Tirzah studied at Eastbourne College of Art. She specialised in woodcuts, illustrations, pattern designs and marbling techniques although gradually, as her memoir shows, her own work gave way to all that was involved in running a home. She was very much involved in Eric’s work and career, recognising the “stunners” that would sell well at exhibitions, recording, packing and posting his work to the London galleries and often influencing his work. One of his most popular images, Train Landscape, was created by Tirzah making a careful collage of two of his paintings.

Tirzah’s unique voice is a large part of the Long Live attraction: she writes in a clear-eyed and personal style, without any idea of intended publication or any need to impress. She started writing her memoir “for her descendants” in 1942, while convalescing after an operation for breast cancer, giving her own account of their slightly unconventional life together.

The memoir moves, in a kindly, almost gossipy style, from mundane circumstances through to painful incidents and partings. For the reader, the experience is rather like listening to an indiscreet and friendly aunt who is never afraid to mention an intriguing or medical matter or to describe another’s appearances in too-observant detail, even though, at times, you may have heard part of this story before.

In her telling, Tirzah makes it clear how differently she and Eric were brought up. Her father was a Colonel in the Royal Engineers; she describes a comfortably respectable middle-class family, living in various homes in Sussex, surrounded by relatives, siblings, pets and plenty of space. Her education came through relatives, personal tutors, private day schools and at a boarding school. By contrast, Ravilious, who taught part-time at Eastbourne College of Art, was “not quite a gentleman” socially. His father was a failed antique shop-owner turned chapel preacher and Eric had attended what was then called the Municipal School. School. Tirzah, in her memoir, is very aware of class differences and snobbish attitudes, including her own responses. Although honest, they are not always comfortable reading. 

Although, after marrying in 1930, Eric and Tirzah enjoyed life as part of the London art scene, with Eric working on paintings for commissions and exhibitions, he was restless, wanting new landscapes to paint. In 1932, along with fellow artists Edward and Charlotte Bawden, they moved to Brick House in Great Bardfield, a village in Essex not far from Saffron Walden, and became part of the artistic community that developed in that area.

In Long Live, Tirzah is telling her grandchildren about the joys, interests and enthusiasms of that part of her life. While Eric and Edward explore the countryside and coast, collecting ideas and inspiration for their work, Tirzah and Charlotte are designing and producing marbled paper and managing their homes. If your interest is in history or in the role of women, Long Live is a brisk reminder of the rural conditions of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Tirzah, who had grown up with servants, describes a time when, outside towns and cities, buckets of water were still hauled from wells, coal and logs were needed for fires, and how unendingly hard all the care, cooking, laundry and domestic work could be, whether in peace or during war-time.

Tirzah does not hide the fact that, although she and Eric remained fond and supportive of each other, their personal lives were complicated by other relationships. Eric often returned to London or to the Sussex downlands, staying at Furlongs, an isolated farmhouse rented by a friend. Although Tirzah did visit him there, describing it as a happy place, and appearing in his painting of tea on the lawn, her own life is mostly back in Essex.

She recognises that Eric’s priority would always be his art, and is unsentimental about his achievements and failings, and her own. Yet in her memoir, she makes it plain that:

“If we believed that people should be free to love whom they liked, it wasn’t because we were ceasing to be good ourselves but because we realised the truth of the fact that you cannot stop people loving each other.”

Eric and Tirzah still spend time together. She finds happiness in motherhood, describing, in somewhat stark detail, the arrival of their sons James and John, and their move to another home in Castle Hedingham. Eventually, the threat from Germany becomes war. Eric signs up as an official War Artist and is posted to different naval sites and airfields around the country In 1942, as their daughter Anne is born, Eric leaves for Iceland, eager to paint the North Atlantic convoys and the frozen landscape.

Tirzah’s memoir pauses somewhat after her apparent recovery and changes in style, before being completed through her own and others words. Tirzah married Henry Swanzy, a BBC producer, in 1946, took up oil painting and illustration again, and lived a cheerful and contented life until her death in 1951, at the age of 42.

Re-reading Tirzah Garwood’s writing for this review, I found her words and her positive spirit a great antidote to pessimism, while her tales of domestic life in rural Essex have reminded me that a little less heat in my home is not absolute hardship, and that circumstances are worse, elsewhere, for others.

Best of all is Tirzah’s inspiring attitude, and her admirable wish to find the best in everything.

“I want to write my life while I am still happy. If I read an autobiography, I don’t like to think of the author as a poor old doddering person with one foot in the grave. Two months ago I nearly died myself. I’m sorry to have to mention such an unpleasant subject but I must be truthful . . . The convalescence following it I very much enjoyed and it has made it possible for me to write this account of my life which otherwise I should never have had time to do . . . I am so happy sitting here that I find it very difficult to write at all. The smell of the May wafting over the orchard wall from the outside lane is so strong and lovely that I feel it should be doing me good in some way!”

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Foxtrot Films' 2021 film, Eric Ravilious - Drawn to War, written and directed by Margy Kinmonth, was nominated in the documentary category of the Big Screen Awards in November 2022, and was awarded Best Documentary at La Femme International Film Festival in Los Angeles. The film will be shown in selected Picture House Cinemas around the UK over the New Year period and is also available in DVD format.


Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds wonderful! I went to that Dulwich exhibition too - marvellous.

Linda Newbery said...

I missed the Dulwich exhibition, but there was another marvellous one quite recently: RAVILIOUS AND FRIENDS, at Compton Verney (and elsewhere, I think). That included works by Tirzah.