Matrix – The Art of Tirzah Garwood

The cover of Matrix 10, Winter 1990

This article, written by Olive Cook, first appeared in Matrix 10, published by The Whittington Press in Winter 1990. It is reproduced here with permission.

Olive Cook was a close friend of Tirzah Garwood and this beautifully written short biography is a one of the few detailed references to an artist who is often overlooked in the history of English art and design. As the wife of Eric Ravilious, she was somewhat overshadowed by his reputation but nevertheless produced a large body of work that is accomplished and significant in its own right. Her son, James Ravilious, was also a noted artist and photographer, referenced elsewhere on this site.


Despite three retrospective exhibitions, one at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne in 1952, a year after her death, followed by another at the Arts Council in St James’s Square, London and a third more comprehensive show at the Towner Art Gallery in 1987, the name of Tirzah Garwood is still little known beyond the circle of her family, surviving friends and a few passionate admirers. Her achievement has been overshadowed by the fame of her brilliant husband, Eric Ravilious.

The exotic name by which she was always called came from Tertia, given her because she was a third child; but she was christened Eileen and, curiously, this was as expressive of one aspect of her personality as Tirzah was of the sense of adventure, of rare distinction and of faint, intriguing aloofness felt in her company. After an absence of close on forty years her presence remains extraordinarily and poignantly clear. 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. Her sharp awareness and relish of human oddities and foibles, the caustic wit and occasional dottiness which delighted her friends were combined with qualities more characteristic of Eileen than of Tirzah the most disarming simple heartedness, absolute integrity and a surprising regard for propriety. It was not altogether unexpected to learn that this enchanting creature had been head girl at West Hill School, Eastbourne.

Tirzah was born in 1908, the daughter of a retired lieutenant-colonel of the Royal Engineers who had settled in Eastbourne. In 1925 she became a student at the Eastbourne School of Art. Her masters in painting were Reeves Fawkes and Oliver Senior but for most of the three year course she worked as a wood engraver under Eric Ravilious. The date of her first engraving, 24 November 1926, is recorded in her father’s diary. A series of engravings, The Four Seasons, was shown at the Redfern Gallery, London as early as 1927 and in the succeeding year work included in the annual exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers was praised in The Times. Among these engravings were two illustrations of fables of La Fontaine, Cat into Wife and Women and Secrets, the temper of which, wise and sardonic at the same time, must have been particularly congenial to the young artist. Cat into Wife was published in 1930 in The New Woodcut, a special number of The Studio. An outstandingly original engraving, Yawning, appeared in The Woodcut for 1929, edited by Herbert Furst, and was singled out in a review in The New Statesman.

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