James Ravilious

James Ravilious

Every now and then I come down with a bout of homesickness, and my most recent episode was brought on by the research I had been doing for a lecture about the photographer James Ravilious.
Ravilious was born in Eastbourne in 1939, and both of his parents were artists: his mother Tirzah Garwood was a wood engraver, and his father Eric was famous for his watercolours of the South Downs.
Having ditched his original plan of becoming an accountant, Ravilious studied at St Martin’s before working as an art teacher at Hammersmith College. He married Robin Whilstler – daughter of the renowned glass engraver Laurence Whistler – in 1970, and the couple moved to the village of Dolton in North Devon.

Ravilious got a job teaching printmaking at nearby Beaford Arts Centre, and was commissioned by its curator John Lane to create an archive of life in this comparatively unchanged corner of the English countryside. By the time of Ravilious’s death in 1999, the Beaford Archive contained around 80,000 of his photographs.

I first came across Ravilious’s photographs in 2009, at a modest exhibition in the foyer of the National Theatre, and was struck not just by their beauty and their humanity, but by a wave of nostalgia for my own childhood: my parents moved to North Devon at around the same time as Ravilious, and I spent the first few years of my life in a small village not far from Dolton and Beaford – this particular photograph depicts the same maternity ward on which I was born.
Obviously Ravilious’s work reminds me of the Devon countryside of my youth – of the narrow lanes with grass down the middle, the flocks of sheep in the road, the high hedgerows, the rolling hills, the blackberry picking and the muck spreading – but another thing that makes it so special is that Ravilious got to know his subjects over long periods of time, something that allowed him to capture for posterity the minutiae of their everyday lives.
One particular character – the farmer Archie Parkhouse – crops up again and again, most notably in what is perhaps Ravilious’s best known photograph…
…but also in many others, in which we see Parkhouse both at work…
…and at home.
Ravilious’s technique was deceptively simple: he shot in black and white, and more often than not from head height. His preferred camera was a Leica M3…
…which he used in conjunction with a 35mm (ie. comparatively wide-angle) Leitz Elmar lens.
Modern lenses have a coating that makes for sharper photographs and prevents lens flare (or ‘Lionel Blair’, as it is still referred to in Cockney rhyming slang by film and TV cameramen), whereas older lenses – including the Elmar – are uncoated.

The irony is that Ravilious had a fondness for shooting into the sun, so while his Leica equipment produced images that are soft, low in contrast and have a wonderful painterly quality, in order to reduce flare, he had to attach a handmade lens hood to the camera. This looked a bit like the inside of a toilet roll painted black, and is described by his wife Robin in the documentary James Ravilious: A World In Photographs (which as far as I know is occasionally repeated on Sky Arts, and can be purchased on DVD via the producers Banyak Films).

Ravilious experimented with various developing techniques to achieve the look he was after, and while I don’t profess to understand these particularly well, as explained in this blog, he used ‘film rated at 400asa, exposed at 200asa and under-developed in order to allow the shadow tones to become a little more lifted in the image’.
These days, such tinkering would be done in Photoshop rather than in the dark room, although it is probably fair to say that Ravilious’s photographs – reproduced here, I have to confess, entirely without permission – are as good an argument as you will find for the superiority of film over digital photography, or at least for film as a fundamentally different medium.
I gave my lecture on Ravilious to a small audience of English-speaking locals last Saturday evening, and at the end, one of them made a very interesting point: if Ravilious’s brief was to produce an archival – and therefore documentary – record of life in Devon, why did he work in black and white, and why did he put so much effort into making his photographs look beautiful?
All I can say in answer to this question is thank goodness he did, and thank goodness Lane gave him such a free rein, while at the same time paying Ravilious enough money to hone his craft over such a long period of time.
A footnote: Ravilious did in fact take some colour photographs, although I could only find one online.
And as Ravilious is quoted as saying by one of the contributors to A World In Photographs, the Devon landscape is so lush and verdant that conversely, photographing it in black and white somehow works better.
The official James Ravilious website can be found here, and you can see many more of his photographs at the Beaford Archive website, while an original will set you back between three and four hundred pounds.

The most notable book about Ravilious is called An English Eye, and much of the information for this blog post was culled from this excellent Guardian obituary.

6 thoughts on “James Ravilious

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Tom. Beautiful pictures, fantastic exposures – very impressed. I had never come across him.

    1. Glad you like them. The more of his stuff I see, the more I like it, and I definitely think he deserves more recognition – a proper retrospective in a big London gallery would be a start, although I suspect there aren’t many curators of big London galleries reading this blog…

  2. Hi! It’s pretty late in the day to be responding, but I searched for Archie Parkhouse this evening – just for the hell of it – and came up with your blog. Yes, it is all illegal, but you said some very nice things about James, and spread the word in a good way, so I think you can be forgiven. Devon is not all that different even now – still beautiful. Who do you lecture to? RR

    1. Hello there Robin
      What a wonderful surprise – and indeed a privilege – it was to find your comment on the blog this morning.
      As well as me being a fan of James’ work, my mother was a fan of Eric Ravilious (isn’t there a retrospective of his on at the moment? One of those occasions I wish I could just pop back to the UK for the weekend…) and my father was a fan of your own father’s work.
      Obviously I should repeat my apology for copyright infringement, although as much as anything else, I hope that what I’ve written was factually correct.
      On a day-to-day basis I teach English in junior high schools, but the lecture about James was to a group of comparatively fluent English speakers who invite foreigners like me to talk about whatever they want, and – more to the point – pay us about forty quid into the bargain (by way of furthering Japanese awareness of the English romantic tradition, I did a lecture for them last year about Nick Drake).
      Incidentally, the village where I lived as a child is called Stoke Rivers. We moved to Tiverton when I was about three or four, and my brother still lives in our mother’s old house in Dulverton. I do come back to the UK every couple of years, and it’s reassuring to see that so little of the countryside has changed in that part of the world.
      Thank you once again for dropping by, and I wish you all the best maintaining James’ legacy and reputation – as I said in the blog post, both as art and as a social document, I believe his work deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
      All the best
      PS. I just tried a Google search for Archie Parkhouse myself and this blog did indeed come out top, which was somewhat unexpected, but then again, I suppose he’s not a man with a particularly strong internet presence!

  3. Hi,
    Thanks for this very interesting article and for Robin’s graciousness and common sense. Just one wee point: the Leica M3 was a post war camera if it’s WWII you’re thinking of. It came out in the 1950s. Depends which war you have in mind I suppose.
    Kind regards,

    1. Hello there Bruce
      As you may have guessed, while I did research the topic as thoroughly as I could, I have to admit I was on rather shaky ground when it came to the technical side of things.
      Once I’ve posted this reply I’ll go back to the original post and do a quick re-edit, so thank you very much for pointing out the miss (like you say, I could have bluffed it and claimed that I meant ‘pre-Gulf War’, but that would just be…weird!), and for taking the time to visit this blog.
      Take care and good luck with your efforts in keeping the magic of film alive!

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