Published in 1983 posthumously, Helen Binyon penned the first extensive biography of Eric Ravilious entitled ’Eric Ravilious Memoir of an Artist. The account of the life and work of Ravilious is detailed, yet nowhere in the 139 pages is there a mention of the fact that they were lovers!
Binyon was born in 1904 at Chelsea in London, she was the daughter of the notable poet and scholar Laurence Binyon. Binyon studied at the Royal College of Art between 1922 and 1926 where she was taught by Paul Nash and her fellow pupils included Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, Douglas Percy-Bliss, Barnett Freedman, Enid Marx and Eric Ravilious.
Ravilious once remarked that he and Binyon were only really on hat-raising terms at the RCA, Binyon living at home. Sometime around 1930 Binyon had a joint exhibition, with Bawden and Ravilious, at the Redfern Gallery in London.
Helen Binyon: Woman Standing at a Window. The Flower Show. The Ste Cecile Cafe.
Between 1931 and 1938, Binyon taught part-time at the Eastbourne College of Art and at the North London Collegiate School. With her twin sister, Margaret, Binyon established a travelling puppet theatre, Jiminy. Binyon’s interest in puppetry continued throughout her life and she wrote two books on the subject.
In 1930 Ravilious was married to Tirzah Garwood but had long-lasting affairs with Helen Binyon and with Diana Low, neither of which had any enduring effect on the marriage, and the two women remained close friends with Tirzah.
In 1935 Binyon was a visitor to Peggy Angus’ cottage Furlongs, nestled amongst the hills near Firle in the South Downs. Peggy (known as “Red Angus”) was active in the Artists International Association, and shared these politics with Binyon, with whom she also shared a London flat.
Helen Binyon and Eric Ravilious at Furlongs by Peggy Angus.
Back in her student days, and from a privileged background, Helen had been presented at court. Peggy’s favourite put-down of her was to say: ‘Now Helen, don’t be a lady
Extra-marital affairs ‘a la’ the near-by Bloomsbury group were far from unusual amongst the friends and in 1935 Helen and Eric became lovers, a relationship that lasted more than two years during which time Tirzah became pregnant, gave birth to John, and also discovered the affair.
In her fabulous autobiography ‘Long Live Great Bardfield’ Tirzah writes: ‘He came back to Hedingham late one evening after having been away for about a fortnight and he didn’t appear to want to talk about what he had been doing. I didn’t ask thinking it was because he was tired. When we woke up in the morning I asked him again and he suddenly turned with such dislike in his voice and said ‘You know very well I’ve been making love to Helen’……….I jumped out of bed and went into the next room to weep and feeling indignant, because the shock had made my baby give such a jump in my inside. Eric was very repentant but still determined to continue making love to Helen’.
‘I knew that under the same circumstances I should in all probability have behaved in the same way and I couldn’t blame Helen for taking him away from me, because Diana [Low] had already done so.’
Binyon was a talented artist and book illustrator and in 1937 Ravilious recommended Helen as an illustrator for Pride and Prejudice, a series of Penguin Illustrated Classics. On New Year’s Eve 1938 Helen wrote: ‘My Darling I am so excited; I got a letter from Robert Gibbings this morning asking me to do ‘Pride & Prejudice’ – isn’t that lovely. It’s got to be done by the end of March which will be a sweat, sweetie thank you so much for suggesting me’.
One of many illustrations for children’s books by Binyon. I was fortunate to find a copy of the 1938 Pride and Prejudice on Ebay !
However, late in 1937, the affair was ending as Helen found a new partner in John Nash. Binyon met Nash in 1936 when she and Ravilious were staying with Percy and Lidia Horton at Assington in Suffolk.
A Corner of Assingham by Percy Horton.
Ronald Blythe a friend of John Nash recalled the easy-going John and Christine Nash morality: ‘They both had affairs – it was a big thing in those days. People didn’t divorce in that generation, they had affairs. There was a tottering stack of letters by John’s chair including letters from Helen Binyon, for anyone to read. John and Eric Ravilious shared Helen. She was known as Fair Helen’.
During World War II, Binyon worked for the Admiralty drawing hydrographic charts. Later in the conflict she worked on the preparation of photographic exhibitions for the Ministry of Information and served in the ambulance service.
A final meeting between Helen and Eric took place at the beginning of July 1942 seven weeks before Eric’s tragic posting to Iceland in 1942.
Helen recalled: ‘He had been sent to draw at an RNA training station at Westonzoyland, on the Somerset coast……. we walked over the hills outside Bath and had a picnic in a valley near Charlcombe’.
After the War, Binyon taught at the Willesden School of Art and then at the Bath Academy of Art from 1949 to 1965. Binyon is fondly remembered by Bath pupils as a caring, inspirational teacher. In her later years she lived with her sister Margaret in Chichester, where she wrote her memoir.
‘An Outbreak of Talent’ was the expression used by Paul Nash to describe the remarkable collection of artists who studied at the Royal College of Art in 1923/4, when he was employed there as a part-time tutor in the Design School. It is now good to see the lesser known artists in that group and indeed the wider Ravilious/Bawden circle now receiving the recognition they deserve for their talents.
Bibliography: Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend. Thames & Hudson, 2017 ISBN 050023955X, 9780500239551
Eric Ravilious: Memoir of an Artist by Helen Binyon. Published by Lutterworth Press (1983) ISBN 10: 0913720429
Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood, Persephone Books. ISBN 9781910263099