James Ravilious

James Ravilious

One of the greatest artistic and documentary achievements of the 20th Century
— The Independent

The Beaford Archive was the most important thing in James’s working life. From the day in 1972 when John Lane, Beaford Centre’s founding director, invited him to contribute a few photos to it, James was hooked. The idea of recording a beautiful, quite traditional landscape and the everyday lives of its inhabitants immediately excited him. It soon became an obsession, ruling his life for the next seventeen years, during which time he made just under 79,000 negatives.

James and his camera became a familiar sight locally. Living within the community for so long gave him both insider knowledge, and insider status – a privilege which few documentary makers are given. It allowed him to make a uniquely intimate portrait of a whole way of life in one small piece of English countryside just before it was modernised.

James came to photography relatively late. He had had no formal training in it when he started work on the Archive aged thirty-three.  Born in Eastbourne in 1939, his background was artistic. Both his parents, Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood, were gifted artists. But they died when he was three, and eleven years old respectively, so he had quite a difficult childhood.

After boarding school in Bedford, and a miserable time as a trainee chartered accountant, he suddenly turned to art, and studied at St Martin’s in London.

For the next ten years he taught art part time, while trying to find his way as a painter, but it didn’t come easily. Then, in 1969, several life-changing things happened. An exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs impressed him enormously; he met his future wife, a North Devonian called Robin Whistler; and he had to be treated for lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system.

When he had recovered, he and Robin married, and moved to a tiny cottage on the Halsdon estate (Robin’s family home) near Dolton in North Devon, where he began work on the Archive, teaching himself photography as he went along.  

During this time, the couple had two children, Ben and Ella, and collaborated on the first book of his photos, The Heart of the Country, and James mounted a number of exhibitions both locally and elsewhere in England, and France.He also recorded the orchards of the South West for the environmental charity Common Ground’s influential Save Our Orchards campaign.

Beaford ended James’s employment in 1990. Three years later, the lymphoma returned, but treatments kept him going for another six years, during which the Royal Photographic Society made him an honorary member ‘for services to photography’,  marking the honour with a retrospective exhibition and accompanying book by Peter Hamilton, both titled  An English Eye.

James died in 1999, just after his sixtieth birthday, at which point, as agreed when he began, his Archive work - the 79,000 negatives and the copyright in them - became the property of Beaford Arts. 

For James, photography was a much more complicated business than it is today.  He worked in analogue not digital mode, using a Leica rangefinder camera and rolls of film.  He usually took quite a few shots of a subject as insurance, because, unlike today’s photographers, he had no way of assessing what he’d taken until he could get home and develop the film he’d exposed, and then make paper prints from it.  That involved hours of painstaking work in the darkroom in either total darkness, or the dim red glow of a ‘safe’ light, because both film and paper were light-sensitive until ‘fixed’.

When his roll of film (c.forty-two 35 mm images) had been soaked in chemicals, washed, and hung to dry, it could be cut into short strips so that all the pictures could be seen together. But they were still negatives - the images on them were the reverse of what the lens had seen, so the negative of a dark tree against snow appeared as a white tree against black. They needed to be printed to see them in positive.

Printing involved shining the bright light of an enlarger through the negatives onto photographic paper, which then had to go through three carefully-timed baths of chemicals and a wash in order to make the contact sheet.  From that he could choose likely-looking images to enlarge, singly, to make bigger prints. Only when he could see them printed could he really tell the quality of the images he’d taken. With experience, he became skilled at judging his camera settings, but it was still a more uncertain way of working than today’s photography - and he was often disappointed with his results. And without Photoshop there were only very limited ways of ‘improving’ an image in the darkroom.

An independent photographer might have discarded his less successful images, but James had been commissioned to make a public document for posterity. He didn’t feel he could decide what would be interesting in the future.  So when he came to make a digital catalogue of his Archive work he graded all his images, marking 401 of them Best, 1,300 Good, and the rest either Fair or Poor, judging them for technical quality, subject interest, and artistic merit. 

James had trained as an artist.  He had studied great artists of the past and knew about drawing and tone and composition. Although composing in a hurry through a tiny viewfinder is very different to composing on a canvas, his best images catch fleeting moments of real life in arrangements of lines and shapes and textures of light that give them the iconic qualities of paintings. As he said, ‘It is mysterious, but if you look at several shots of one scene, there is one that has it – as if there were a little poem in there – but only for a second.’  It takes an artistic eye to notice these things, and very quick reactions to capture them at speed. 

James felt his many Fair and Poor were less successful as photographs, but still potentially interesting as documentary records. They didn’t meet his highest standards but perhaps covered subjects not featured in the better categories, or shed further light on a topic, or recorded something totally ordinary that could become fascinating in the future. All of them might eventually add something to the huge ‘tapestry’ of North Devon life which he worked on for seventeen years. Though he didn’t want them to be considered on a par with his best work, he left them in the collection. Over 9000 of these have now been selected for scanning.

R.R.