One of the greatest British Photographers


Henry Porter

I first came across James Ravilious’s work in a Cotswold art store, where I bought a card of Homeland Bridge on the River Taw. I thought it was one of the most beautiful British landscape photographs I had ever seen. I wrote the card to a friend, but couldn’t quite part with the photograph and, fifteen years on, I still have it on my mantelpiece.

A few weeks after this, I tracked down the Beaford Archive, where most of Ravilious’s work is held. I can remember scrolling through photographs of the people and landscape of North Devon for the first time with increasing awe.  It was immediately evident to me then that although he confined his work mostly to this tiny area of Britain, he ranked alongside Fay Godwin, Don McCullin, Jane Bown and, at times, his hero, Cartier-Bresson. What astonished me is that no one in London seemed to have heard of him: even people who were meant to know about photography looked blank when I mentioned his name.

Well, there is no excuse now. Not only do we have this utterly beautiful collection of his photographs, put together by John Hatt under the title The Recent Past, but there is also a very good biography by his widow, Robin, which is terrifically illuminating about her husband’s development and working methods. Ravilious is quite simply one of the greats of British Twentieth Century photography and to my mind there is no picture that establishes this claim better than Homeland Bridge, for it captures “the soft inland murmurs” of the British landscape, at the same time as being a profound photographic meditation on light, form and time.

This is the important point about James Ravilious – he may seem to be a parochial talent working in obscurity, but his achievements amount to great art, both in landscape and his studies of people. He is a master of composition; he has an original eye for form; and his appreciation and exploitation of light matches that of Vermeer.

Ravilious is an understated and subtle photographer, yet you can tell that he is energised and constantly alert to opportunities. He will see a photograph where no one else would, for example the picture of Morley King turning into road on his old David Brown tractor. It is hard to say why this is such a great photograph for it is, after all, an extremely banal subject and very little is going on. And yet there is something arresting about the shot. Maybe it’s the balance in the landscape, or the slight tension between the direction the tractor is turned and the driver’s gaze – I am not sure what it is, but I do know that it works wonderfully well.

There are two things that will tell you about the personality of someone who takes photographs of people. The quality of their work is one of course, but as significant is the expression in the eyes of their subjects. When James Ravilious asks people to look into his lens, they do so with trust and warmth. You don’t have to read Robin’s foreword to this collection, or her biography to know that he was a lovely man as well as an artist, and indeed his character lives on in the faces of almost all his subjects.

There is something else at work in Ravilious’s photographs – a lack of ego that allows him to mysteriously reduce the weight of his presence so that the people he is photographing seem to forget he’s there. Looking at the picture from 1985 of the French family watching the cup final on TV in their home, you notice how natural they seem and it’s very hard to imagine a photographer is in their front room with them. The same is true with the study of the five hunt followers – a wonderful photograph that I rank with Cartier-Bresson’s best work. The men seem oblivious of the pleasant-looking photographer who must have crouched in front of them, or stooped to take the shot.

The photograph as a record is important to Ravilious. The results of his days roaming the countryside were rarely preconceived, and never set up. He is simply recording what he finds. There is none of the showy self-expression that attracts photographers to subject matter that’s grittier than rural life in North Devon, and, though there is much art, there is no artifice, fakery or false sentiment. George Orwell once wrote, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” Ravilious’s style is transparent, for he never gets in the way of his audience. And he is not glancing over his shoulder to the owners of London galleries, or the editors of Colour Supplements either, but is just doing his job of recording a way of life that is fast disappearing and which, today, has mostly vanished.

His sympathetic nature is present in all his photographs, but the work is tinged with something urgent and sad, for he must have known that on the death of  one of his favourite subjects, the old farmer Archie Parkhouse, then much more than his fund of anecdotes would die with him. I find myself gazing at Ravilious’s people with an odd intensity, noticing their caps and pipes, aprons and bonnets, the farmers’ multiple layers of clothing, their closeness to animals and natural life, and their lack of the creature comforts and objects that we take for granted. His photographs hold my attention like an old family album. The fascination of course is about the recent past, one that I’m familiar with, having been brought up in a village in the 1950s where no one travelled more than a few miles to work and all the children – including me for one blissful year – attended a village school. In the Recent Past, we see a rustic life that has gone forever; the English as they had been for centuries, without many signs of outside influence yet, and still living a remarkably settled and simple life which, at the same time, involved quite a lot of grind and hardship.

There have been other books devoted to Ravilious but none is as good or as intelligently compiled as this collection of his photographs, which, incidentally, are arranged around the seasons, beginning in winter with beautiful shots of Archie Parkhouse and his neighbouring farmer Ivor Brock. I love this book not simply because it is beautiful record of the past, but because it makes you concentrate on the present,  and the wonders that are still to be found in the English countryside. Things have changed, but not all has been lost.

Some photographs from The Recent Past