The English Cartier-Bresson

I find it hard to believe that the the photographer James Ravilious died almost seventeen years ago. The son of the artist Eric Ravilious, he moved to North Devon in the early 1970s to live in a cottage owned by his wife, Robin. She is the daughter of the actress Jill Furse and the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler.

Trained as an artist and art historian, Ravilious found it daunting forging a path as a painter in the shadow of his illustrious father. He became enthused by the possibilities of photography, and spent many years photographing the landscapes and people of the agricultural lands of North Devon for the Beaford Archive. It is on this extraordinary legacy of black and white photographs that his reputation rests.

Ravilious was rigorous in his approach. He used old Leicas with even older uncoated lenses. He would never countenance cropping an image – what he saw was exactly what you got. If a subject attempted a pose he would wait until it had disappeared before pressing the shutter. He would talk animatedly with his subjects, engaging them in conversation, taking a series of rapid shots whilst they were unaware. As a result, his images have the quality of total honesty, and reveal a deep respect for the people he photographed. There is nothing contrived or bucolic about them, and he made no attempt to stylise or alter what he saw.

Last week a packed audience at St Luke’s church at Simonsbath enjoyed an illustrated talk by James’s wife, Robin. I have known and loved Ravilious’s photographs for many years, and it was wonderful to gain insights into the extraordinary characters James photographed – including Archie Parkhouse (see the image above), Ivor Brock, Alf Pugsley, Olive Bennett, and a cavalcade of others. We learned how James worked, and how the people and communities he photographed gradually came to accept him, inviting him to witness and record their daily tasks – including hedging and ditching, delivering lambs, harvesting – as well as photographing a whole range of village events and celebrations.

It is always difficult forging a reputation when your work is focussed on a small geographical area. What relevance do his Devon images have to a Londoner or a Yorkshireman? Yet I firmly believe that Ravilious is as important as Bill Brandt in the canon of British photography. Many of his photographs approach the genius of Cartier-Bresson – see the one below showing the Exmoor family watching the Cup Final.

I urge you to search out his images, many of which are online at the Beaford Archive. Read his books, too. Below is a short list.

An English Eye: The Photographs of James Ravilious,1998
A Corner of England: North Devon Landscapes and People, 1996
Down the Deep Lanes, 2001
Heart of the Country, 1980

About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends ( My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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