OCA SW Group – Study Visit, 26th July 2014–Barnstaple and N Devon Museum

James Ravilious 1939 – 1999 Photographer of rural life in North Devon 1972 – 1989

james_ravillious_lead_203x152   www.bbc.co.uk

This study visit was of particular interest to me because of my working association with agriculture. What James Ravilious photographed in Devon in the 1970’s, I experienced as an agricultural student working on farms in the Isle of Wight and at college in South Wales. My work in the dairy manufacturing industry over a 30 year period brought me into regular contact with dairy farmers from places as diverse as the West of Scotland down to Hampshire and places in between. I’m pleased to say that two families I know have survived the upheaval  and continue to do battle with the markets, climate, foot and mouth, food scandals and government policy. They’ve survived through dedication, hard work and at times pure bloody mindedness. These are some of the characteristics of the people that James Ravilious captured with his Leica for the Beaford Archive. Agriculture and rural life has changed almost beyond recognition and this record of North Devon life is invaluable.

I used these links for research to prepare for this visit:



Here are a few notes I made from my recording of the talk:

In the first session James’ widow, Robin Ravilious talked about James, projected around 70 slides and answered questions about his work. He was relatively unknown beyond his home county but for in the 17 years he worked  with the Beaford Archive, he amassed over 80,000 photographs. The son of war artist and engraver Eric Ravilious, he attended St Martins School of Art and studied painting. Before moving to Devon, he taught in London. In 1969 he was inspired by the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition at the V&A,  In the early 70’s, he and his wife moved to Devon and he started work with Beaford Arts, continuing the work of Roger Deakins after he left. He had no training as a photographer and was self taught. He lived in the village of Dolton and for 17 years, he photographed the daily happenings of this remote part of North Devon around Torrington, Hatherleigh and Chulmleigh. He had the freedom to record anything that he liked, landscapes, climate, people, animals and architecture. His work encompassed all genres but could be classified loosely as Social Documentary within the Landscape. James liked something to be happening in his photographs and he would often wait patiently before pressing the shutter. He used mostly black and white film because he loved the honesty of monochrome. His subjects were not posed, he used available light, hand held and he printed the full frame with a black border (as HCB) to “make an honest record” He responded to local events on a cyclical basis, if he missed something one year, he’d get it a year or two later. He was very fond of the early light (an early riser) snow and some of the characters who appear often in his photographs. Archie Parkhouse, Olive Bennett are two of them that he pictured often, managing to capture something of their dogged independent characters. He was also approached by two local GPs to make a record of some of their home visits which he did with sensitivity and skill, using only window light. Throughout the duration of his work with Beaford Arts he continued to photograph everyday life; thatching, harvest, lambing, hedging, milking, threshing, local events and festivals, all came under the focus of his lens. In addition, he also collected and copied 19th and early 20th century photographs from the families of his subjects for the archive.

Below I have inserted a few low resolution images that I found on the internet and added my responses to them:


This is a typical example of James Ravilious photographing against the light in the early morning. The craft of hedge laying has been largely replaced by the use of hydraulic tractor mounted hedge trimmers.


Taken in 1980, this traveller was camping in a field near to the Ravilious family home and shows the diversity of the subjects James photographed. He had an easy way with people and was rarely refused permission to take photographs.


This photograph was captioned “Lily Lock milking cows with machine” and shows a relatively modern system. There was in the archive, a photo of  someone hand milking but I couldn’t find it on line. It was a useful contrast of the changes and how the old sometimes co-existed in parallel with the new.


This shows the quirky nature of some of James’ photography. It is one of my favourites, not because it is beautiful, (although the soft graduated  layers of the background are very pleasing) but it has a spontaneity. Often when getting the cows in for milking there would  be one that stayed behind. Just when you thought you had got her moving, she would stop and  lift her tail……….


“Dr Paul Bangay visiting a patient, Langtree, Devon, England, 1981”. Robin explained that James wanted to use natural light for his photographs taken indoors. His painters eye for lighting and composition is evident here.

Many of the photographs that Robin projected were also available for us to look at as prints from the museum collection. After lunch we were able to look through them. Unfortunately, limited space meant that we could only view a very limited number.

DOCscans017 DOCscans018
Tutor Jesse Alexander and OCA students examine the archive Robin Ravilious – our speaker on the work of  her husband  James Ravilious

I also watched the BBC film “James Ravilious A world in photographs” which contained interviews with some of his subjects and showed a lot of his work.

Following this informative and entertaining topic, tutor Jesse Alexander led  discussion of the representation of rural communities. He felt that the emphasis of contemporary photography was more inclined towards the urban. James Ravilious was the exception as most photography seems to be made by people not living in the countryside. There was a discussion of the various terms used to describe non urban photography, pastoral, parochial, bucolic and rural. It was my assertion that rural was a good term as it engendered an element of self sufficiency, giving the rural a distinct identity and  the terms pastoral and bucolic bring to mind an idealised vision of the countryside which is not always close to the realities of rural existence. Jesse showed some of his work in progress in which he is photographing the landscape and communities around his home south of Bristol.

This discussion and the main topic of the day has given me plenty of ideas for future assignments in social documentary and landscape and I’m sure these will surface and become relevant as I progress through my course.


3 thoughts on “OCA SW Group – Study Visit, 26th July 2014–Barnstaple and N Devon Museum

  1. Catherine

    Some wonderful use of light in Ravilious’s photographs which you’ve mirrored really well in your own photographs. Can you see yourself doing an assignment along the lines of the rural community?

    1. richard506896 Post author

      Yes Catherine, I’m having a long hard think about assignment 2 which is 8 single image narratives on an abstract concept. Not sure where it is going yet or even what my concept will be. I may have to leave the rural community for landscape when I get to it. I was quite pleased with the photographs in the museum. They were taken on 35mm B&W film which I developed myself and scanned. First time for many years that I’ve developed my own film.

      1. Catherine

        You’ve obviously been inspired. Maybe by the lengthy and ongoing thread on the OCA student forum!
        Look forward to seeing you soon, including Brighton in October.

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