In a perfect world, former Eastbourne resident Eileen ‘Tirzah’ Garwood (1908 – 1951) would be a household name and acknowledged as one of the most original and distinctive figures of twentieth century British art. Instead, as a mother of three children and the wife of the much more famous Eric Ravilious, she is often confined to the shadows of art’s story.
Garwood was born to a wealthy family in Gillingham, Kent and enjoyed a solidly respectable Edwardian childhood which took her to Littlehampton, then Eastbourne, as the family relocated to different postings held by Garwood’s father who was an officer in the Royal Engineers.
It was in Eastbourne where Garwood, nicknamed ‘Tirzah’ by her siblings went to school. In 1925 she went to the Eastbourne School of Art where she met Ravilious who was teaching wood engraving in his first teaching post. Garwood started to make her own wood engravings in 1926. By the following year she was already exhibiting and attracting attention for her accomplished work. Unusually for wood engraving it portrayed people, places and animals often in a domestic setting and caught in a fleeting moment. Notably, she exhibited at the Society of Wood Engravers’ annual exhibition of 1927 and drew acclaim from The Times. Garwood went on to take commissions from the BBC and produced pattern designs for book covers and end papers for the Kynoch, Curwen and Golden Cockerel Presses. She illustrated composer Granville Bantock’s oratorio ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ written for the BBC. In the late 1920s, at the height of the popularity of wood engravings, Garwood 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.
In 1930, despite her parents’ disapproval, Garwood married Ravilious who as the son of a shopkeeper was considered – in Garwood’s words – ‘not quite a gentleman’. Sadly this was the end to her wood engraving and she produced no more work after her marriage. Reasons put forward for this include the domestic and maternal realities of being a wife in the 1930s. It’s tempting to view Garwood’s engraving ‘The Wife’ completed three months before her marriage, in which a lone woman sits on a bed with a pensive expression on her face as expressing possible foreboding about what the demands of marriage might do to her career. But also, as the Great Depression dawned, a drop in demand for this expensive work may have played a role.
In 1931 the couple moved to rural Essex, initially living with the married artists, Eric and Charlotte Bawden, the centre of the artistic community later to be known as the Great Bardfield Artists. The early 1930s saw the couple often returning to East Sussex as guests of artist Peggy Angus at her cottage ‘Furlongs’ near Glynde. With the initial help and collaboration of Charlotte Bawden, Garwood began to experiment with marbled papers during her time at Great Bardfield. These delicate repeating designs on thin paper were used for lampshades and books. Garwood’s stood out for their delicacy and the ethereal design which brought to mind leaves, grasses, flowers and other dream-like natural forms.
In 1942 Garwood became seriously ill and it was while she was recovering from an emergency mastectomy that she received the shocking news of the disappearance of Ravilious. Working as a war artist, an aircraft in which he was a passenger had disappeared over Iceland. His body would never be recovered. Widowed and with three young children to care for, Garwood, now living in the village of Wethersfield near Braintree, turned again to art, this time painting.
Her subsequent oil paintings of natural scenes show figures, insects, birds and flowers in an almost-but-not-quite realistic settings painted in jewel like colours. The enchanted and slightly otherworldy atmosphere of fairy stories have been described by curator, author and lecturer, James Russell as ‘demonstrating … a similar clarity to that seen in Eric’s watercolours, and a similar gaze – at once innocent and a little mysterious, even disturbing.’ At this time Garwood also made intriguing three dimensional models of houses, schools, cottages and chapels from card, paper and leaf prints which were placed in shallow box frames.
In 1946 Garwood married radio producer, Henry Swanzy, but unfortunately she died just five years later aged only forty-two. In 1952 a memorial exhibition was held at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, the town where she had started her artistic journey.
Although, a little like her friend, Sussex artist Peggy Angus, who also had to balance working as an artist with bringing up children on her own, Garwood’s name seems to have dropped out of the canon of twentieth century British artists. In the last few years she seems rightfully to be enjoying a renaissance.
In 2012 Garwood’s autobiography ‘Long Live Great Bardfield & Love to You All’, was edited by her daughter, Anne Ullmann, and published to considerable interest. Intended as a private memoir for her family, it was written in spare moments while recovering from illness in 1942.
In 2017 the landmark exhibition ‘Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship’ at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne shone a light on her life and showed some of her work. Last year, the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden told the story of Garwood and Ravilious’ life and the parallels in their work in the exhibition ‘Mr and Mrs Ravilious’. This was the first time the work of both artists has been presented from an intertwined personal perspective.
By all accounts, despite the sadnesses of her later life, Tirzah Garwood was a cheerful woman who wasn’t afraid to look beyond accepted taste and produce original and unconventional work. Her wood engravings can still raise a smile and her marbled papers and paintings remain unusual and appealing. With today’s growing interest in hitherto neglected women artists, let’s hope her popularity continues to grow.
With grateful thanks to James Russell www.jamesrussellontheweb.blogspot.com
Written by social historian Louise Peskett