People and place: an outstanding archive of rural Britain

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

In 1970 I wandered around an unfamiliar part of West Devon. Down a grassy lane I came across a farmyard in which stood three circular hay stacks, each beautifully thatched. It resembled a picture by the 18th-century painter George Morland. There was nobody about and the yard had a haunted air. In a pub a few miles away, I discovered that the settlement was called Riddlecombe.

Two years later James Ravilious started work for the Beaford Centre, recording the society of this inaccessible and largely unchanged part of Devon. Seventeen years and 75,000 photographs later the project was closed. Ravilious’s pictures now form the major part of the archive, a unique record of the everyday life of the area. Nothing is missed: farming; schools; church and chapel; vicarage teas; hunting; tramps; weather, especially snow; doctors visiting — in fact everything that gave life, and to a degree still does, to this small rural enclave.

James Ravilious was born in August 1939 to the artist Eric Ravilious and his wife Tirzah, herself an accomplished artist, to be followed by John and Anne. In this biography Robin Ravilious, James’s widow and daughter of Laurence Whistler, the glass engraver, tells the story of James’s early life and their subsequent life together simply, directly and affectionately. A more intense and lyrical approach comes when she writes of the West Devon countryside that is part of her being.

Eric Ravilious waved to his son as he left the family’s Essex home as a war artist. James’s only memory of him was of waving back. Eric was lost in a plane near Iceland. There followed a childhood disrupted by his father’s death, by war and lack of money. It improved after his mother remarried the kindly Henry Swanzy, but that too came to an end with Tirzah’s death from cancer in 1951. Swanzy’s brother and sister-in-law, a kindly and reasonably prosperous Warwickshire couple, became the children’s guardians. Materially the children were secure, but were sent to a variety of schools, so that they were frequently on the move. Everyone was kind, but it was not an ideal childhood.

With an assortment of ‘O’ levels, Ravilious was put into an accountant’s office, but with the encouragement of old friends of his parents he applied to St Martin’s School of Art, using an assumed name so as not to be recognised as Eric’s son. The ruse did not work. Like so many children of famous parents, he found it hard to escape from his father’s shadow. Photography was to give him that independence, while St Martin’s gave him a reverence for the great masters of the past.

Archie Parkhouse, with ivy for sheep, Millhams, Dolton, 1975Archie Parkhouse, with ivy for sheep, Millhams, Dolton, 1975

Following a solitary year in a cottage on Barra, he returned to London, undertaking part-time teaching, and in 1969 met Robin Whistler. Her mother’s family owned the Halsdon estate in West Devon, where she spent much of her childhood. That year was momentous for James in other ways: he visited the London exhibition of the work of Cartier-Bresson, where he was overwhelmed by that photographer’s skill and concentration on the subject matter of ordinary life. He saw that it was transformed into art. More ominously, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he kept at bay for 30 years.

Two years after their wedding in 1972, the compulsory purchase of their London flat forced a move and they decided to live in Addisford, a small, thatched cottage belonging to Robin. Fortuitously, John Lane, the prescient director of the Beaford Centre, inspired by artists such as Thomas Hennell and the writer H. W. Massingham, offered James the post of photographer for the Beaford Centre’s archive. As recorder of an old-fashioned, traditional England, Ravilious was an inspired choice. Emulating Cartier-Bresson by using a Leica camera for black and white images, he produced natural, unsentimental pictures, each of which is a work of art.

He achieved this by being part of the country society he photographed, Robin and he being as poor as most of their neighbours, and by his heredity. He was diffident but would talk with anyone, and his honesty and likeable charm won trust and hearts. A picture of a French family exemplifies this: he had met them for the first time just a couple of hours earlier, yet he was invited home and took the photograph as if he were invisible. Conversely, he would wait for hours to obtain the right picture; patience brought great rewards.

Despite their naturalness his pictures show a debt to other artists: Morland, Peter Breughel and Samuel Palmer. Like Palmer, Ravilious makes a paradise, not just of landscape but of human normality within it and that is his mastery. The camera can lie, however, some of the rough edges being absent; a video of some of his subjects demonstrated the ubiquity of four-letter words. No camera can show that.

These two books complement each other: The Recent Past displays beautifully reproduced photographs by Ravilious, while his widow’s biography is a moving tribute which details the technical as well as aesthetic side of his work. A nit-pick: why are the same pictures published so frequently? No doubt there are reasons of ownership and copyright, but it would be good to extend the variety to include more of those he classified as ‘best’.

Cancer returned to Ravilious and he died at the early age of 60 in his beloved Devon. Other photographers have followed his style and methods, but he remains the master.

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