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.