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This year interest in Tirzah's work as an artist has grown as a result of the part she was seen to play, as the wife of the Second World War artist, Eric Ravilious. To mark the 80th anniversary of his death, the documentary film, 'Drawn to War' was met with success when it was shown at selected cinemas around the country this summer. Nevertheless, within the film, her work as a gifted artist in her own right was still overshadowed by the role she played as a wife. (link)
In fact, her work as a professional artist began as a wood engraver when she was nineteen in 1927 and three years before she married Eric. It was was praised in both 'The Times' and the 'New Statesman' and was followed by commissions from the Curwen Press, the Golden Cockerel Press, the Kynoch Press and the BBC. By the end of the 1920s she was considered to be a rising star in the world of wood engravers, but that side of her work appears to have gone into abeyance and after marriage she describes herself making chair covers and cushions. She did, however, work in painting partnership with Eric when they produced a mural which he had designed for the wall of a tea room of a hotel owned by Midland Railway in Morecambe.
She switched now her attention to producing pattern papers before, at the age of twenty-six she was pregnant with he first child in 1934 and in the next seven years of he life was taken up with raising her three children and her life was progressively blighted by the effects of her breast cancer. It was after the death of Eric in the War, in the last seven years of her life, in which she was married to Henry Swazy, that were marked by a final burst of creativity in which she had successfully turned to oil painting and making model houses set in box frames.
Except as the wife of Eric Ravilious, Tirzah was almost forgotten. She has no place, for instance, in Albert Garrett's 'British Wood Engraving of the 20th Century'. Patricia Jaffé's Women Engravers reproduces 'The Dog Show', but does not mention her in the text. Only Joanna Selborne in her ;British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940' describes the 8 prints completed by Tirzah for an unpublished Curwen Press calendar, to be titled 'Relations', as : 'Probably her finest wood engravings and among the most vivid portrayals of 1920s middle-class life by a contemporary practitioner'. After being neglected for eighty years, her work fully deserves the recognition that Eric's has now received.
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Tirzah was born in the spring of 1908 in Gillingham Kent, the third child of Ella and Frederick. The family lived in neighbouring Chatham, where her father, who was an Army captain in the Royal Engineers, was temporarily based. She acquired the nickname 'Tirzah' a year later, when her grandmother wrote enquiring after 'Little Tirtia', a reference to 'Tirzah', one of the five daughters of Zelopherad, a Hebrew name which appears in the Torah, meaning 'she is my delight'. Tirzah said that she was pleased when her mother reading to her from 'The Song of Solomon' said : 'Thou art beautiful, O my love as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners'.
She remained in the Medway Towns until she was six years old and in 1914, the family, now comprising six children, moved to Glasgow, where her father, now 'Colonel Garwood, was based with the Engineers. Hers was a favoured, upper middle-class childhood, bathed in Edwardian affluence. There was money on both sides of the family, with her mother, the daughter of John Corry who ran the London branch of the prosperous, Belfast-based, 'Star Line' which ran sailing ships to India and Australia. As a result, the children were supervised by the lived-in governess and tended to by the lived-in nurse.
In an early reference to her artistic bent, she recalled the day she was given a text to paint titled, 'Jesus Loves Me' and said : 'I finished it quickly and said : "Can I have another with 'I love a sailor' on it ?" She said : 'I used to have trouble getting the stripes the right way on their collars. To teach me Margaret (her elder sister), sent me a postcard pretending that a sailor was proposing to marry me on Wednesday. I took the quite seriously and was worried that I wouldn't be grown up enough by Wednesday'.
With the outbreak of the First World War her father was ordered to join the 7th Division at its camp at Lyndhurst in Hampshire and the children were transported to Uncle Herbert's farmhouse on the outskirts of South Croydon. Tirzah revealed her sensitivity to her surroundings as a child when she reflected that : 'The thing that I chiefly associate with these early Croydon days was the change of smell. The oak trees and bracken on Shirley Common had a very strong smell and occasionally the horse trough at the corner of the road used to smell more foully than I can remember anything ever since. The Common land was shingle and we often found fossils there. The trees were not tall and were in consequence very good for climbing'.
She now attended Croham School and said : 'It was a Quaker school and it was lovely from my point of view because we were encouraged as much as we liked and any homework or essay could be illustrated. I still remember the pleasure I got painting Absalom in a royal purple cloak ; the royal purple was Mummy's idea'.
The Garwood children in 1915 from left to right : John, Tirzah, Betty, Margaret and Billy. Of the children only one, John, the eldest and only son, was expected to have a profession and Tirzah, as one of the four girls, her parents considered her only ambition to be - to make a 'good' marriage.
Her mother, in particular, would have disapproved if she had known, as Tirzah said of herself and her sisters in Glasgow : 'We all loved sailors and would talk to them, when we could. I wanted, when I was grown up to be a school mistress and marry a sailor'.
In 1918 when, at the end of the War and Tirzah was ten years old, her father was in Mesopotamia and was ordered to India for five years to finish his foreign service and the she would not see him again until she was fifteen.
As a result, the family moved yet again this time to 'Elmwood', a large house on the salubrious Arundel Road in Eastbourne, East Sussex. She wasn't there for long because when her mother decided to join Tirzah's father in India, she went with her two younger sisters to stay with aunts in Kensington in London. While there, visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and said : 'This I loved doing and made drawings, always being grateful that I was unobserved while doing them. I didn't like being watched'.
When her mother returned from India and then returned again, Tirzah, at the age of twelve became a boarder at West Hill School in Eastbourne. She reflected that the girls there : 'Were middle class and their politics, like those of their parents were conservative and had I known at the time that I was going to marry a 'muny boy', as we called them, I should have been the most awfully upset'. Despite the fact that, as he said she was : 'Better than other girls at drawing, tolerably good at mathematics, very bad to languages and hated French and Latin', she rose to become Head Girl at the school.
As a teenager she said : 'I fell in loves with a film star called Richard Barthelmas and with another girl wrote to him a fan letter, to which he replied with a photograph of himself. He was wearing an overcoat with a fur collar which, had he been an Englishman, I should have condemned as being very common and even as an American, I didn't like it'.
In the 1923 her father returned from India with the rank of 'Lieutenant Colonel' and she said that, for the children, at first, he was : 'A stranger to us'. Now, a teenager and with her adult character emerging she said : 'My brother was still my favourite of the family. He taught me to ride his motor bicycle and later on, when I was old enough to have a licence, to drive a car. I remember how proud I felt when he said : "For a girl, you're really very efficient". I preferred the 'Boy's Own' comic to the 'Girl's' and hadn't much interest in pretty clothes or jewelry'.
Tirzah left school at the age of seventeen and was enrolled at the Eastbourne College of Art where she first met the artist, Eric Ravilious who was a Teacher of Design at the College and who, over the next seventeen years, until his death in active service as a War Artist in the Second World War in 1942, was to shape and change her life. She said that Eric, who, like her, was strikingly good looking, was naturally flirtatious with the women in the
College and said : 'I quickly spotted that he wasn't quiet a gentleman and as he took no particular notice of me, conceited as well. He flirted with most of the girls in turn, but he never went so far as to kiss any of them'.
She recorded that she made friends with him on one of his sketching parties, mostly of female students, where they enjoyed themselves, but did very little work. She recorded : 'We lay back to back with one another on the Downs in our bathing suits and were photographed in this position by another student while we were dozing'. She omitted to include herself when she said that : 'One or two girls were badly in love'. As part of their friendship she said that she : 'Commiserated with him on the trials and embarrassment of having to teach'. The key point in her development as an artist was that : 'He liked the drawings and engravings of people that I made which he loved. He liked my work because it was personal and didn't imitate his own'.
As a student Tirzah formed a relationship with Bob, the son of parents who were fiends of her parents and and they all clearly thought, that in terms of marriage, they were 'a good match'. She said that they went for a walk in in the park and she got kissed in an ornamental rock garden. Then : 'Looking up I saw Eric Ravilious watching us from a tennis court. I apologised next time I saw him. but he said : "Why ? You looked charming, like Krishna and Radha in an Indian painting". Tirzah said "No" to Bob's proposal of marriage, but promised to write to him when he was posted with his job to Nyasaland. She recorded that she : 'Loved him dearly' but 'had a sudden feeling that I could never marry him. I didn't tell him this, I couldn't make him more unhappy than he already was'.
When it became clear that, at the age of eighteen, Tirzah's relationship with Eric was now more than merely that of tutor and student, her father, in particular made it clear that he didn't like Eric at all and hoped that she would marry Bob. At the age of eighteen and after a family row in which her father had first ordered and then wrestled he out of the room, she said : 'This made me more determined that ever to go to London to earn my own living if I could. My father was particularly against my going and bluntly said : 'Before we know where you are, you'll start living with that fella Ramvillas'.
At the age of eighteen, Tirzah’s first two wood-engravings, in 1926 were ‘March’ and 'Spring' as part part of her ‘Four Seasons Series’. Together with 'Summer', 'Autumn' and 'Winter', the following year they rewarded her with her first professional recognition.
She recalled : 'I had sent some of my wood engravings to the 1927 'Exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers'
and they had been liked by the Committee of which Eric was a member and 'The Times' had given them a kind review'.
Apparently, it was this that convinced her family that they should let her go. She said : 'They thought my subjects hideous and that Mr Ravilious was perverting a nice girl who used to draw fairies and flowers, into a stranger who rounded on them and did drawings that were only too clearly caricatures of themselves'.
Her 1927, 'Barcombe Mill Interior' was an example of her virtuosity in the use of water colours and her 'Penny for the Guy', in ink drawing. Having left the Eastbourne College of Art and gone to London she said : 'I was installed in an attic room at the top of a very tall house in Hornton Street, Kensington. It was a 'Ladies' National Club', I was surrounded on all side by relations and there were eighty-five stairs to climb to reach my room'. Eric became a frequent visitor and to continue her studies, she enrolled in a life drawing class at the Central College of Art which she didn't enjoy. What she did enjoy was that : 'Through being introduced to the Curwen Press by Eric, the BBC started giving me work : wonderful, wonderful evening, when I was asked to do my first job, I danced round the room with joy. I managed to earn enough money not to feel that I was costing my parents any more than that it had been at home'.
The work for the BBC consisted of her producing a new rendering of their coat-of-arms. She said that the reaction of her parents was that her success was less to do with her talent and more to do with the influence of Mr Ravilious. In 1928 she also illustrated composer Granville Bantock’s oratorio ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ written for the BBC Orchestra and Choral Society. Her three engravings were 'The Dream', 'The Defeat of Apollyon' and 'Vanity Fair'. In the late 1920s, at the height of the popularity of wood engravings, Tirzah was considered one of the most promising, skilful and original practitioners of the day, with her work feted for its sense of humour and touch of eccentricity.
Tirzah's 1928 wood engraving, 'Cat Into Wife' might well have featured Eric. In 1929, at the age of twenty-one, she returned to Eastbourne to have her appendix removed and as part of her convalescence she went with Bob's sister, Barbara, to a little village, Lanvallay, in Brittany and said : 'Our bedroom was large and square with yellow wallpaper, green shutters and maple wood furniture. I did a picture of myself and called it 'The Wife'. It was one of a series of engravings I was doing called 'Relatives' for a calendar for the Curwen Press'.
Her 1929 engraving, 'High Street Kensington' show her crossing the road behind one of her London aunts and clutching her suitcase, bearing her initials. About this time, she said, that when she wrote to Eric and told him that she had decided to marry Bob and had better not see him any more she said : 'When I got back to London, he was, quite naturally furious'. However, the 'friendship' resumed and as she said : 'Love making resumed'. What Tirzah meant by this, in the 1920s was at this stage in their relationship, a physical embrace. However, when Bob returned from Africa she said : 'It was as though Bob stood for my family's idea of life and Eric for my freedom and independence'. When she told Bob that it was over she said : 'We spent the morning weeping on my bed, till we were utterly exhausted'. When it came to sex, when Tirzah became engaged to Eric and were duly photographed together in the garden. She said : 'Now that Bob had gone and we intended to to get married, there wasn't any reason for my refusing any more'. She noted that, when they visited the family home at 'Elmwood' in Eastbourne that Eric : 'Seemed to recede into his clothes and sat in our chairs with the apprehensive expression of a shitting dog'. They were married, when Tirzah was twenty-two, in the summer of 1930 and settled in Hammersmith in a flat which overlooked the River Thames and socialised with Eric's close circle of friends from the Royal College of Art and struggled with the cooking. Tirzah had failed to get her Domestic Science Badge and the Girl Guides and Eric could only manage boiling potatoes and making custard and omlettes. In this year Tirzah made her last engraving to be published, when she supplied the frontispiece for the novel 'The Big Man' by L.A.G. Strong, which was published in 1931. It was not to last. The following year, Eric and his friend Edward Barden, wishing to get away from London, took to their bicycles and searched for a quiet base to rent in the Essex countryside and found it in the shape of the Georgian, 'Brick House' in village of Great Bardfield. They now moved in with Edward and his fiancé, Charlotte Epton. Tirzah captured the 'Brick House Kitchen'.
She wrote in her autobiography : ' We were very happy and we both worked away at different jibs. Eric was illustrating 'Twelfth Night' for the Golden Cokerell Press and I helped him cut away white backgrounds and make prints and I made chair covers and cushions'. He was still very much her tutor and encouraged her to visit museums and look up books.
Eric was now commissioned to paint a mural decoration on the walls of the tea room of a hotel which he designed in Morecambe for the Midland Railway and he enlisted Tirzah's help with the painting. She said : 'We were annoyed when we discovered that we couldn't start work as the wall hadn't yet had the three undercoats of white paint that it should. We should have to wait a whole week in this sad town that was only meant for visitors in the proper seasons ; now it lay like a sluttish prostitute who hadn't yet bothered to get out of bed and paint her face'.
Tirzah said that : 'Eric fumed at having to waste so much time when he was longing to to paint watercolour pictures and be away from this ugly place, but nobody seemed to care when we complained that the painting hadn't a hope of lasting, so long as it looked alright on the opening day, that was all that mattered'. In 2013 it was faithfully re-painted by the artists, Jonquil Cook and Isa Clee- Cadman as part of the hotel's restoration.
It was now that Eric began the first of his affairs with Charlotte's friend, Diana Low. Tirzah recorded : 'I had been used to Eric being in love with other girls at Eastbourne, but this the first since our marriage and I felt rather strange, but not unduly disheartened'. She also said that she didn't hate him : 'But didn't have again that part of being part of him and that four years had been precious and I realised we'd been lucky to have loved each other as long as four years'.
The artist John Aldridge, came to Great Bardfield in 1933 and Tirzah said that he wasn't at all interested in either the pictures of Edward or Eric pictures and couldn't tell the difference between them. Her own work now centred on the design for patten paper papers and she said : 'I was learning how to marble by a new method of using petrol which Charlotte and Edward had discovered'. Six years later she would work with John to make wallpapers from linoleum blocks. Her delicate, repeating designs on thin paper were also used for lampshades and books and her work was noted for its delicacy and it was said that her ethereal designs brought to mind leaves, grasses, flowers and other dream-like natural forms. Her needlework and wool embroidery, 'The Vegetable Garden', also originates from this period.
It was on one of his visits to 'Furlongs' the house of the artist, Peggy Angus that Eric met his second lover, the artist Helen Binyon. He had previously written to Tirzah about the impact that Furlongs had on his work. (link) Eric and Tirzah now moved into their own rented, 'Bank House' in the village of Castle Hedingham in Essex. Now pregnant with their first child, Eric told Tirzah about his affair with Helen and she said : 'Eric was very repentant, but still determined to continue making love to Helen. He said they couldn't refuse to have this wonderful experience, it would be like denying life itself. He continues to sleep with me at home from habit and sense of duty, till the baby arrived.' After her first child, John, was born in 1935, she told Eric that she was in love with John Aldridge and said : 'During that summer, John made love to me every two or three weeks. We made love so perfectly together, that it was impossible to think of it as wrong or harmful to anyone else'. 'I would have liked to have a baby by him, but Eric would not allow this and I saw that it wasn't really a good idea, but I longed to give him something back for the happiness he had given me, but Englishmen don't usually accept a present of a baby with gratitude'.
When Tirzah broke up with John and he wrote to her : 'People like you are a dark menace to ordered lives'. She discussed it with Eric and he said : 'I suppose you really are a menace to him, while to me you're just "the good old beast". By this time Eric himself had started his new affair with the artist Diana Tuely.
The graphic designer, Robert Harling, described Tirzah at the age of thirty-one and said : 'From the moment I first glimpsed Tirzah Ravilious, she seemed to me to have stepped straight out of one of those brilliant, brittle yet poignant novels by Michael Arlen. For starters she looked the part : a slim extraordinarily pretty heartbreaker, somehow touched by sadness. A gleam of fateful gaiety seemed always to attend her enchantingly fey persona'. When he got to know her better he said : 'This impression of carefree sadness was enhanced by her vivacious chitter-chatter, well-laced with zany throwaway lines, wholly captivating to listeners, especially more susceptible males'. Her friend, the artist, Olive Cook, said of her : 'Light boned and quick moving, she had the figure of a Botticelli angel, a pale, mobile, rather long face framed in wavy brown hair, a wide mouth and dark vivid eyes, shining with intelligence and full of half mocking humour”. Just before the Second War broke out in September 1939, Tirzah's second child, James, was born. Eric had been enlisted as one the artists enlisted by the Government to cover the War and was frequently away from home and wrote to her when he was promoted to the rank of captain. (link) Meanwhile, Tirzah who had discovered a lump in her breast was pregnant with her third child, Anne, who was born in February 1942. She now moved with the children, out of Bank House which was often cold and sometimes flooded and moved to Ironbridge Farm, Shalford, Essex. She was four months pregnant with her fourth child when she was told that a mastectomy was urgently needed and when she was told that she may not stand up to another pregnancy, she had an abortion.
While she was recovering she received from the Admiralty reporting that Eric was missing while flying with the RAF over the seas around Iceland. Three weeks later she received the details that Eric was in one of the three planes sent up to search for a missing patrol plane. She recorded : 'Someone offered to take Eric and so without asking his commanding officer, had accepted and went to sea in an air rescue craft to patrol 300 miles of coast and sea'.
Tirzah said : 'I found myself walking about the house crying and had to pull myself together to stop because it would have been so awful for anyone passing to hear' and 'I did feel he wasn't dead while I could vividly remember him and because in living with him for so long and being influenced by him, I was in part just like him, so he would always be there'. 'I never felt unfaithful to him if I loved other people because so long as he knew and approved of them, there was no necessity. The good thing about our marriage was that we had at any rate been truthful towards one another, even though we owned to hating each other which we had at times'.
In the evenings she continued to write her autobiography, 'Long Live Great Bardfield', which was published in 2012, sixty-one years after her death. She said she wondered whether she ought : 'To start working again at designing, because it was doubtful if I should be given enough money to look after the children'. It was not until September 1943, a whole year after his death that Tirzah had been finally recognized as the widow of an officer and was given a widow's pension.
In 1944 she left Ironbridge and moved with the children to Boydelis Farm, near Wethershield, Essex. It was now that Tirzah restarted her career as a professional artist, made her first oil paintings and became engrossed in making houses set in box frames which were a mixture of 3D, collage and print and inspired by houses in Essex. She exhibited this new work at the annual 'Pictures for Schools' exhibitions run by Nan Youngman. Their aim was to improve, by example, the aesthetic awareness of children.
She met and became engaged to Henry Swazy and they married when she was thirty-six in 1946. He worked at the BBC at Bush House where, form 1946-54, he produced the radio programme, 'Caribbean Voices' which sponsored young West Indian writers. In the spring of 1948 her cancer returned, she was treated at the Royal free Hospital and nearly died. In the summer of 1950, secondary cancer of the spine was diagnosed and she died suddenly and without pain at the age of forty-three on Easter Monday 1951.
During her last twelve months, she was sometimes in bed and often in pain, relieved by deep ray therapy and testosterone. Despite this she completed no fewer than twenty small oil paintings like 'Hornet with Wild Roses' and 'Springtime of Flight'. She continued to amaze her friends by her determination, courage and unquenchable gaiety in what she declared : 'The happiest year of my life'.
Originally made in 1929, Robert Harling, at the Shenval Press, re-released Tirzah's 'The Dog Show'
in 1950. Similarly her 1939 and her evocation of 1930s privately educated school girls, walking together in 'The Crocodile'
in the following year.
Tirzah had recalled that once, in the midst of a Garwood family row, when she was eighteen and had been working on a wood engraving and as she said : 'Was in that rather tense and irritable mood that one is in if you are trying to concentrate in a room full of conflicting noise'
and when her father had ordered her to leave the room, she had defied him a stayed where she was :
'Fearing for the safety of my wood block, which at that state of gestation was a precious to me as a foetus in my womb, its birth, that magic moment when I should lift the Japanese paper on which it would be printed'.
and for Eric :
Does Britain, after all these years, finally recognise its brilliant Second World War Artist, Eric Ravilious ?