James Ravilious : Celebrations
A sunny day in June and a drive up through Devon from Somerset to Barnstaple to visit an exhibition at The Barnstaple and North Devon Museum. It is here that an archive of about 200 original black and white photographs of James Ravilious are held and presently about 50 of these are on show under the title “Celebrations”. It has been something of a journey coming here as I first made direct enquires about James Ravilious last year. The Museum said they had no prints at the time (an inexperienced member of staff it seems had spoken to me) and was directed to the Beaford Arts Centre for which James Ravilious worked; finally, I was in contact with Robin Ravilious, James’ widow, who has a website in memory of his work and who sometimes gives talks. Robin confirmed that the museum did have a substantial archive of original works but it was not until the exhibition came about did I decide to visit, encouraged in part by Jesse Alexander, OCA photography curriculum leader.
Arriving at the museum, I soon came across a display of James Ravilious memorabilia. The book “An English Eye” I had studied last year, reading some of the text and taking in the photographs that give a good understanding of what James Ravilious’s work is about. Apart from this book, there is also an award winning video narrated by Alan Bennett and featuring among others, Robin Ravilious. There is also another book, “Down the Deep Lanes” which is book about the west country lavishly illustrated by James Ravilious’s black and white photographs. Ravilious’s photographs are all in black and white, made in the days of film and the chemical or wet darkroom.
The first photograph of his that catches the eye as it stands at the bottom of the staircase in the museum, is called “Archie Parkhouse sheltering from the snow, Milhams, Devon, 1976” – this is said to be one of the photographer’s favourite if not most prized photos and it shows Archie Parkhouse, an intimate of James Ravilious, holding some kind of sack over his head while standing outside in the rolling Devon landscape. It is the expression on Archie’s face that makes this picture so special – although he is conscious of being photographed, he is not reacting to the camera merely revealing a slightly despondent air as he accepts the adverse weather. There is another image of Archie cerebrating Christmas Dinner with a neighbour in which he is chuckling raucously yet again in a relaxed unpretentious manner. The humour in these images is not funny ha ha, it is merely expressive of a kind of innate rustic joy.
The exhibition itself is upstairs in a single room, the photographs mounted and placed in wooden frames, hung on the walls of the room; there are a few artificially constructed walls in the centre and also a cabinet containing more moment movies from the era of James Ravilious in particular some of his published work.
The making of Black and White prints, from camera to paper, was something of an art and still is as it has not completely died out as a practice; many pursue this kind of image digitally although sensors usually lack the tonal width of black and white film and paper, unable to capture what Ravilious called the “silver watercolour.” Gone are the extremes of black and white so that what emerges is a softer, characteristically English yet candid view. James Ravilious was certainly a master of this “carefully crafted” process and his prints glow with a subtle light that silver halide can give under the right hands. James Ravilious was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious who was well known in his time; James however, did not find his niche in the world of painting but after seeing an exhibition by Henri Cartier-Bresson (with whom he happened to share a birth date along with his subject Archie Parkhouse) he appears to have realised he could pursue his own artistic intentions through the medium of photography which at the time had not really been accepted as an art form in the UK. Black and White in the country was one way of avoiding the problem of green in the English landscape.
In the exhibition, there are views of rural life from the area Archie Parkhouse photographed, some miles south of Barnstaple, between Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rustic community here in the 1960’s and 70’s were using centuries old farming methods and still adhered to a way of life that has largely disappeared as villages become dormitory towns and convenience stores for the wealthy who have taken over the countryside. Farming has become more mechanised and farms much larger. The dwindling fortunes of small holders has been covered by other photographers but Ravilious’ work remains unique.
One image that captures my eye is of Reverend Bill South seen through the archway of a church at Roborough; the striking thing about this photograph is that the archway which would also appear to be the entrance is blocked by a table with a bowl on top. Like much of Ravilious’s work, there is much to be seen in the incidental detail of the image. Ravilious seems to have been brilliant in capturing the decisive moment, the quality of which is evident in his own images – he has taken this concept formulated by Cartier-Bresson and developed it in subtle and sometimes surprising ways. Ravilious worked in this particular area of Devon sfor over 20 years catching transitory moments of inherent beauty. As I looked at the exhibition, a couple of people walked around looking briefly at the images while chuckling at their messages.
Although an artist, Ravilious did pay attention to his equipment which he often moderated for his own use.He liked to use some of the older Leica lenses which were softer and yet allowed less contrasty images. He also put vignettes over his lenses to help cut out flare.According to his wife, Ravilious was for ever playing with equipment to fine tune his images.
Ravilious had great affection for “delightfully rundown”, the clutter of buildings and farmyards that seemed to hail from a bygone age; he found their character a welcome relief from the clinical feel of modern farming and it’s intensive forms of agriculture.The stoicism of these dwellings and their inhabitants comes out in his work which is easy to enjoy, not demanding too much of the viewer yet not giving into the demands of populism. There are many””chocolate-box” images of the area to be found in countless books referencing the beauty of the area but none seem to extoll it’s virtues quite like the images of Ravilious who not only lived in the area but among it’s people who became his friends.The fact that he came to the area from London might have helped in his taking a detached view of his locality.
The exhibition encompassed a number of subjects. Apart from church going, there were auctions, sports days, playgrounds, fetes, weddings,baby shows, harvest suppers as well as royal celebrations. One image that stands out is entitled “Armistice Day, Chulmleigh, 1976” and is a wonderful study of some 16 different adult male faces. Another photograph that catches my eye is entitled “Line-up for a sack race, Chulmleigh 1988” while a photograph of a country doctor stitching a cricketer’s head shows a wonderful control of light.
After seeing the exhibition, I drive back though the long evening, visiting Beaford where the arts centre that initially supported Ravilious still operates and made a quick visit to Dalston around which Ravilious lived and worked. My love of his work is perhaps influenced its’ proximity to the area I have lived in most of my life just over the border in Somerset and which I am also attempting to record not so much for posterity but as a place that yields secrets as it is focused on and explored with the camera. Yet Ravilious was obviously a remarkable photographer and the increasing interest in his work, there was recently an article about him in Amateur Photographer magazine, seems set to deservedly continue.