Matrix – A Triumph of Evocation

The Cover of Matrix 19, Winter 1999

This article, written about the photographer James Ravilious (1939–1999) by Olive Cook, first appeared in Matrix 19, published by The Whittington Press in Winter 1999. James Ravilious died just before the article was published. It is reproduced here with permission.

Olive Cook and her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, were great friends of the Ravilious family and James, as a young boy, would often stay with them after his father, Eric Ravilious, was killed during the Second World War. It is unclear whether or not Edwin Smith had a direct influence on James Ravilious’ decision in the 1970s to take up photography, but he must have been well-used to seeing Edwin’s work and was undoubtedly conversant with the photographic darkroom from his association with Edwin.

As Edwin died just at the time when Ravilious started his involvement with the medium, he never witnessed the immense body of sensitive documentary photographs that resulted from Ravilious’ work in Devon. Edwin’s approach definitely influenced Ravilious to a large degree, but his devotion to the lives and lifestyles of the people in his small community was very different to Edwin’s concentration on architecture and landscape, where the presence of people was secondary.

Olive Cook obviously remained close to James Ravilious after Edwin’s death and no doubt the two had many discussions about photography. She gave Ravilious one of Edwin’s cameras, probably the old Thornton Ruby plate camera. My feeling is that Olive was more of an influence than Edwin could have been, with her romantic approach to the countryside documented by James ‘warts and all’ in a way that gave a true representation of the changing nature of rural existence in Britain.

I look through my windows as I write across a sweep of almost hedgeless fields towards a small village on the banks of a tributary of the Cam. Beyond it the land slopes up to a chalky ridge crossed by a motorway. Pylons bestride the gentle contours and in the distance to the right an isolated and picturesque farmhouse is dwarfed by one of those enormous concrete structures which are characteristic of modern industrial ‘indoor’ farming. The fields, once a patchwork of diverse crops, delighting the eye with contrasts of colour, have been uniformly planted with rape, ready now for harvesting and pale and dry as chaff. The village of clunch, half-timbered and brick cottages and farmhouses and a church, presents much the same aspect as it must have done for many generations, though a row of council houses, each with its attendant car, and a scattering of detached newly built houses proclaim the age. And even more indicative of the age is the fact that most of the cottages and farmhouses, together with their converted outbuildings, including a magnificent medieval barn, have become the homes of commuters and the weekend retreats of town-dwellers. The fields, once the scene of busy activity throughout the year, now, except for brief visits from giant machines, lie wrapped in an unnatural silence. The village no longer has any connection with agricultural life and work.

There is nothing new about change on the farm. Modifications, sometimes startlingly innovatory, in ways of growing crops and breeding sheep and cattle have been continuously taking effect ever since our forebears first began to till the soil. But the scene I have just briefly described bears witness to a change unlike anything that has gone before: it is the result of a catastrophic, irremediable break with tradition.

After the Wedding, Dolton, Devon, by James Ravilious

That tradition and the reassuring sense of continuity it engendered still lingers in one or two remote pockets of the country. And by what seems almost a miracle the glowing life of men and animals, the passage of the seasons and the splendid plenitude of nature in just such an area have been celebrated and recorded in extraordinary and moving detail. Some twenty years ago James Ravilious was commissioned to create a photographic archive of the people and land of North Devon for the Beaford Arts Centre and he has never stopped taking pictures of that stretch of country watered by the rivers Taw and Torridge. The son of Eric Ravilious and himself an imaginative painter, he is, like all addicts of the photographic medium, a ceaseless watcher and has made his own outstanding contribution to the visual arts with his Leica range finder. A representative selection of his many hundreds of photographs has been published In three enchanting and revelatory books, The Heart of the Country (1980) with a fresh, lively and informative text by the artist’s gifted wife, Robin, A Corner of England(1995) and An English Eye (1998). This remarkable sequence of frozen moments invites comparison with P. J. Emerson’s Pictures of East Anglia published a century earlier, but although both photographers are concerned with a local rural society, Ravilious’s documentation is not only more complete because he embraces the life of farm and field, which is the subject of Emerson’s powerful prints, and all the multifarious happenings in the few small market towns and scattered villages and hamlets of the region, but more intimate because, although detached, he is part of the community he is observing. Ravilious’s record is indeed unique. Full of the humour, the pathos and the mystery of life, it sets before us the routine of work, the pleasures of relaxation and the excitement of feast and festival in incredible and astonishing detail. We even see Archie Parkhouse shaving and a Red Devon cow urinating, a humped and expressive silhouette in a misty, melancholy landscape. And James’s photographs have a significance beyond their comprehensiveness: he has captured the surviving evidences of an immemorial design for living at the very moment when its structure and rhythm are breaking down. His camera tells us that parked cars line some of the narrow streets of North Devon as they do all over Britain and it tells us that concrete and plastered breeze-blocks are replacing vernacular cob and thatch. An unforgettable photograph of a ruined barn at Hawkridge testifies to the fate of barns on all modern farms: no longer needed, roofless and amorphous, it sinks into the soil of which it was made. A horrifying picture of a poultry farm announces the decline of traditional husbandry. But such images serve only to highlight Ravilious’s precious evocation of all that still endures of time-honoured custom and an integrated society.

Picking up Cider Apples, Iddesleigh, Devon, by James Ravilious

The North Devon landscape of river and stream, of wooded valleys and tangled thickets, winding lanes running between steep banks topped by windblown hedges, of orchards and meadows and bare, rounded hills of the same geological formation as Dartmoor, is the subject of some exquisite and atmospheric photographs. A picture of the River Torridge taken early on a Christmas morning perpetuates a dream-like instant when land and sky merge and stretch out of sight, lost in a shimmering opalescent infinity; the photographer emphasises the drama of a storm cloud by seizing the moment when its gathering darkness is thrown into relief by the dazzlingly white plumage of a flock of geese on the hill behind which it is rising; all the soft radiance and the very smell of early autumn seem to be stored up in the photograph of a dishevelled orchard in which a man is filling sacks with cider apples; silence and gripping cold have seldom been as feelingly conveyed as they are in the exquisitely composed view from Five Barrows, Exmoor in which a blizzard has uprooted one tree and torn others aslant to cast shadow patterns on the snow, or in the photograph of Archie Parkhouse standing in the midst of a white waste beside the ruins of his shed, destroyed in the great blizzard of 1978.

Meanwhile, although it is a sign of the times that Elizabeth Wescott is playing with a space-hopper at Higher House, Atherington and that a computer is exciting attention at Dolton primary School Ravilious’s photographs show that little has changed on many of the farms or in the homes and places of work and recreation in the market towns and villages of North Devon for at least fifty or sixty years. (A scarecrow, wearing a tattered jacket, a scarf and a pudding-basin hat still frightens birds from the corn at Iddesleigh; corn is still beIng set up In stooks near Dolton and at Sandy Park, Charles Seymour Husband is ploughing with horses. Muck spreading, hedging and ditching, picking up potatoes, haymaking and rick-thatching are still part of the farming year. The ravishing and romantic photograph of Irwin Piper leading his flock along a wintry wooded lane near Upcott could have been taken at the beginning of the century. Perhaps it is the same flock that in another poetic print of Upcott has gathered in front of an isolated cob cottage with washing blowing on a line behind it. With its tiny windows and thick thatch sloping down over an outshut, this little building cannot have altered since it began life some three hundred years ago. Two vivacious young bulls confront one another in a luxuriant summer meadow, heads raised in ecstasy as they chew thistles. Archie Parkhouse (a favourite subject) leans against a post affectionately eyeing his pig eating from a little trough in just the kind of bosky terrain where pigs like to grout. Dick Smith, shearing, bends solicitously over a sheep who, clearly enjoying the process and looking like an heraldic beast, stretches his shorn neck to watch the photographer. Bill Cooke, seen in profile, cap pushed back, mouth agape, the very image of a Shakespearean rustic, communes with his cows at the corner of an outbuilding by a pile of straw. And Bill Cooke is seen again with his cat in his kitchen at Colehouse sitting at a table covered with newspaper beside a deeply embrasured window. Edwardian prints adorn the walls and nothing in the room suggests that the picture was taken at the end of the twentieth century.

And other interiors tell the same story. Oleographs of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra hang above a stuffed fox in a glass fronted case in a parlour lit by an oil lamp and the jumble of objects In an old kitchen at Langham is eloquent of country living untouched by modernisation. On a broad window-ledge a geranium in a pot keeps company with a cabbage rose in a jam jar, a cactus, a horse brush, some tomatoes and a number of pill boxes, while on the table in front of the window stand a basket of apples, a torch, an empty bottle and a bucket.

Farm Window-ledge, Langham, Devon, by James Ravilious

A broom leans against the window-ledge and old farm implements hang on the wall. In another picture of a farmhouse interior at Black Torrington not only does time seem to have stopped decades since but this room where a parrot in a huge square cage hangs askew beside a long-case clock is haunted by the shadow of an unseen figure. It is a wonderful and mysterious image, the strangeness of which is all the more potent because of the realism of the photographic medium. The beauty of the composition and the tenderness of a photograph of a cluttered room at Langtree make an equally strong impression. Young Dr Paul Bungay is bending over an elderly patient. She lies beside a muslin-curtained window and looks up at him with a confident smile. Both seem to be wholly unconscious of the eye and the lens fixed upon them. And on the infrequent occasions when James’s subjects do happen to meet his sympathetic gaze as Mary Middleton does when she is Dolton’s Carnival Queen or as the two sisters Mervyn and Ethel Turner do in the amazing photograph of their appearance in the same Carnival as ‘Half and Half’, they do so with patent trust.

These carnival pictures are part of a truly exhaustive and utterly absorbing portrayal of festive and special occasions: weddings and christenings, amateur theatricals, fashion shows, baby shows and flower shows, rectory teas, Women’s Institute meetings, brass and silver bands, Sunday School and Remembrance Sunday parades and mayoral processions. A very youthful bride and bridegroom, arms tightly about each other, walk away from us after the wedding up a totally deserted village street, a most touching image; Dot Heard plays the organ in the flower-decked chapel at Dolton. In a dramatic photograph taken on a November evening in Hatherleigh a foreground crowd of onlookers is outlined against the fierce glare of blazing tar barrels on a sledge which is being dragged through the town by young men to the clanging of a bell. They are re-enacting an ancient pagan ritual.

I know of no other presentation of a particular place and people which is as broad and as captivating as James Ravilious’s photographs of North Devon. They are the fruit of a quite exceptional acuity and patience of witness and of a quite unusual humility and warmth of spirit. This great body of work establishes its author as a master of the art of photography while at the same time it makes an unparalleled pictorial contribution to social history.

Olive Cook