Early morning mist on the River Torridge
James Ravilious - A World in Photographs
By Laura Joint
The late photographer James Ravilious captured forever a way of life in North Devon which has now largely disappeared.
Over a period of 17 years, photographer James Ravilious took 80,000 black and white pictures of rural life in a small area of North Devon.
Ravilious captured forever a way of life - of hard work, stoicism and humour - in a corner of rural England.
He was self-taught, and his pictures were never posed - he wanted to show people as they were.
Ravilious, who moved to Dolton, North Devon in 1972, started taking the pictures for the Beaford Archive project the following year - and it just grew and grew.
James Ravilious - in front of the camera, c 1980
He died from lymphoma in 1999, and despite his remarkable photographic documentary of rural life in the late 20th century, he never received the attention his work deserved.
Now, several years after his death at the age of just 60, a film about his North Devon photos has been made.
In addition, one of his books - An English Eye: The photographs of James Ravilious - was republished in December 2007.
His reputation has grown as a result of his books, and because of greetings cards which have won him admirers around the world.
The photographer's wife, Robin Ravilious, still lives in North Devon. She says the photos show a way of life which has largely disappeared in recent years.
"A good deal of what James photographed has gone," she said. "A lot of the villages have expanded, and the ways of doing things have gone forever - hedging, for example.
"The director of Beaford Arts asked him to take a few photos for a project, and he became obsessed by it.
"People on the whole didn't take a lot of notice of it. North Devon isn't a glamorous sort of place like the Lake District.
Hedger's lunch break, 1980
"James' real purpose was to record North Devon as it was, because he knew it wasn't going to last."
The documentary, James Ravilious - A World in Photographs - was made by film-maker Anson Hartford, who also lives in North Devon.
It's narrated by Alan Bennett, who views the photos as a snapshot of life in rural England: "These photographs, anything but nostalgic, reveal the persistence of an England one had thought long gone."
The film features people who were photographed by Ravilious for the Beaford Archive - among them, Olive Bennett.
Olive was photographed with her three Red Devon cows in 1979, and Anson Hartford interviewed her for the film.
"This meeting with Olive was a revelation," said Anson, of Banyak Films.
"Firstly she was a wonderful character, full of Devonian dryness and sharp wit as well as steely grit and determination and her way of life, in the face of modernisation, was very much in the balance.
"Secondly, was the remarkable effect of mentioning James Ravilious. I would never have been able to film her if I had not talked about him.
Olive Bennett and her Red Devon cows, Beaford 1979
"To her, James was this man-on-a-motorbike who used to just turn up, become interested in what was going on, take photos and then disappear.
"He would return later with some images and she would curse him for taking certain shots and praise him for others, but like this they became friends and that is what Olive remembers today.
"I soon realised James' name was like a passport in the area that he photographed. Everyone seemed to have either known him or known someone that was photographed by him - if they weren't of course photographed themselves.
"Actually, when I set out to make the film, it was going to be about the area I grew up in since the age of one, and about the people who live in the area. But it turned into a film about James.
"I was familiar with his work before, but the more I look at his photograph collection, the more unbelievable I find it was. He was an unknown genius of photography."
As well as the 80,000 photos he took himself, Ravilious also borrowed and copied over 5,000 early photographs of North Devon.
Anson Hartford believes that if Ravilious had been famous in his lifetime, he may never have produced the collection which is so admired for today.
"Strangely, I think he may never have produced this unique record of North Devon. He'd have had other opportunities to travel and would have been removed from the area."
Following James Ravilious' death, all of his work for the Beaford Archive became the property of Beaford Arts. The documentary film by Banyak Films is available on DVD.
Take a look at some of the photos, by clicking onto the gallery photo link.
The book - An English Eye - is published by Bardwell Press. It was the first comprehensive study of Ravilious' work. The book was first published in 1998 and has been out of print for some years. It is now being republished with a grant from Devon County Council.
Robin Ravilious took us on a tour of 'Ravilious Country' - take a look at the short films which are linked.
All photos: © Beaford Arts.
last updated: 05/03/2008 at 09:43