CHANCES are most Sussex residents are at least vaguely aware of Eric Ravilious’s work.

His stylised portrayals of the South Downs, to name a small section of his portfolio, are instantly recognisable – his uniqueness makes it difficult to place him in any particular artistic scene or time. That is until now with Towner Art Gallery’s extensive exhibition showing previously unseen pieces and documents – over 400 of them – by Ravilious and his contemporaries.

Having sculpted his craft at Eastbourne Art School the artist went to the Royal College of Art, where he became acquainted with a number of great artistic minds, none of whom would ever achieve the profile of Ravilious; Paul Nash, Barnett Freedman, Helen Binyon and Tirzah Garwood (who he would marry) to name a few. Towner’s exhibition marks the 75th anniversary since Ravilious’s disappearance in Iceland while working as a war artist. It acts as a visual companion to Andy Friend’s recent biography of the same name; Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship, English Artist Designers: 1922 to 1942.

“We’re shining a light on some incredible talented artists who remain slightly out of the public consciousness,” Friend says ahead of the display’s opening tomorrow. “We are exhibiting work that has never been seen before. The task has been considerable – it’s five or six years in the making.”

Towner has had help from nationally renowned galleries, Tate Britain and tha National Portrait Gallery among others, as well as 20 regional art venues in collating the display. Friend is “not of the art world” – he’s worked for the Australian council as well as in the City of London – but became infatuated with Ravilious’s work while living away from the UK.

“I was missing the English landscape when I was in Australia so enjoyed looking at Ravilious’s paintings. When I came back to England I lived in Lewes and one day I stumbled across a place I recognised from his painting The Greenhouse: Tomatoes and Cyclamen (set in Firle), which features in the show. That got me interested in what parts of Sussex he had selected to portray as an artist.”

In his path to national recognition, Ravilious was aided greatly by government loans; a far cry from today when any budding artist must incur decades of debt if they wish to study their craft at university. The family business went bust after an economic downturn in 1907, but Frank Ravilious recovered some prosperity by making blinds when the clan moved to Eastbourne.

“[Eric] Ravilious went to a municipal boys grammar school because of a scholarship from the council,” says Friend. “They then supported him to go Eastbourne School of Art and then the RCA. Today, people who come from less well-off backgrounds who want to study art would find it very difficult.”

Friend points out that most of the artists in his exhibition ventured into commercial practices to make money (Ravilious produced designs for arts and crafts businesses). “I think it was a necessary move but not a reluctant one for these artists,” says Friend. “They were all pretty adaptable.”

The 1920s is now considered something of a “golden age” of art schooling. Yet while the RCA was a meeting of minds, it would be incorrect to say the collected artists who studied there constituted a movement; the work was just too diverse. “They weren’t a circle, in that they didn’t revolve around a central figure,” says Friend, “although Paul Nash is considered the artistic grandfather at RCA. They weren’t a group in that they didn’t have a conscious manifesto.

“These were people who enjoyed life but they were modest; they didn’t shout about or over-intellectualise their work.” This description rings true with assessments of Ravilious’s character. He enjoyed tennis, dancing and pub games, and was a cheerful presence. “I never saw him depressed,” his friend Douglas Percy Bliss from the RCA remarked. “He was never submerged by disappointment. Cheerfulness kept creeping in.”

Yet Ravilious was not exempt from the sense of looming dread that pervaded British life between the wars and particularly in the years before 1939. He lamented “this terrible feeling of waking up every day as if something has gone wrong” in one letter. There are a few documents of Ravilious’s time as a war artist during the Second World War, including the log book of the plane he flew. “It holds the last of the many misspellings of his name,” laughs Friend.

The curator adds that there is a “gender story buried in the exhibition”, with works from women that weren’t given much exposure at the time because of “the structure of the market and expectations on those who were married”. The work of Ravilious’s wife Tirzah Garwood is displayed, as is that of Helen Binyen – a “marvellously varied artist” according to Friend.

While Ravilious wasn’t known for his bold statements he did have one burning ambition: to play a part in reviving the English watercolour tradition. The exhibition in his hometown demonstrates how he did exactly that, and plenty more besides.

Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship, English Artist Designers: 1922 to 1942, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, until September 17