Eric Ravilious was a talented watercolourist, wood engraver, lithographer and designer. He adored the Sussex Downs and tirelessly recorded its changing rural scene. He visited Sussex and the Downs regularly staying at his friend Peggy Angus cottage Furlongs.
Eric Ravilious painted his chalk figures series in the period before and after the outbreak of the Second World War and they can be interpreted as symbols of Englishness and defiance, as well an evocation of the man-made in a natural setting. As with so many of Eric Ravilious’s landscapes they are devoid of humans but filled with the impact of humans in the landscape such as fences, trains and even the chalk figures themselves, which should soon vanish without regular maintenance.
Eric Ravilious’s first chalk figure was a woodcut used for the Lanston monotype almanack in 1929 featuring the Long Man of Wilmington. Ten years later he came back to the Wilmington Giant and began panting a series of watercolours featuring chalk figures whilst on leave from his war work at Castle Hedingham. His series also included the Uffington White Horse, the Cerne Abbas Giant, and the Weymouth and Westbury horses.
The Westbury Horse features in two watercolours one of the horse with a train in the background and one entitled ‘Train Landscape’ where the chalk figure is glimpsed thought the carriage window. Interestingly this piece had originally featured the Wilmington Giant, but Ravilious was unhappy with the composition and added the new image over the top.
The white horse of Uffington is the oldest chalk figure painted by Ravilous and has been dated to the Bronze Age, circa 1000 BC. The Wilmington Giant and Cerne Abbas Giant are of a more in determinate age. Some say the Wilmington Giant is of great antiquity, and represents a Celtic god, similar to the Roman god Janus, who stands at the doorway to the celestial year. However, recent excavations at the foot of the hill suggest a much more recent date in the late 16th or early 17th century. Both the Weymouth and Westbury horses are more contempory and date from the eighteenth century.
No matter how old they may be the chalk figures still have a huge impact on people who see them and the purpose of many still remains a mystery to this day. The Uffington white horse has inspired the art of Henry Moore and the poetry of Chesterton and even appeared on the Nirvana In Utero album cover.
Eric Ravilious had intended to use his chalk figures as a children's book for series of Puffin Picture Books, but sadly this project was never realised as he died in 1942.