Admiration for the People: The James Ravilious Collection.

Dick French and family watching the Cup Final © Beaford Arts.

Ella Ravilious reflects on her father's inspiration and photographic prints held in the museum collection.

Barnstaple seemed like the big city to me as a child growing up in rural Devon. I was born in Barnstaple Hospital, studied at North Devon College, and we did our shopping at the Pannier Market and along Butcher’s Row, where my parents would have long conversations with stallholders about local apple varieties. We were regular visitors to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon too, I have fond memories of hours spent drawing stuffed birds in the Natural History collection.

James Ravilious, my father, was a documentary photographer who lived in North Devon from 1972 until his death in 1999. He was born at Eastbourne, England, the second son of Eric Ravilious, the war artist, wood-engraver and designer, and Tirzah Garwood, also an artist and wood-engraver. James married the writer and illustrator Robin Ravilious in 1970, and her knowledge of Devon history and wildlife was a major influence on his work.

Margaret Bolt delivering a lamb, Lower Week © Beaford Arts

'[the]...project grew into a seventeen-year body of work'.

My Dad took up photography in the early seventies, having been inspired by seeing an exhibition of the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. John Lane, director of the arts centre in the nearby village of Beaford, invited him to contribute some work to the newly set up Beaford Archive, intended as a photographic record of life in a largely unchanged country area. What started as a short-term project grew into a seventeen-year body of work. In that time he took over 80,000 black and white images of all aspects of local life: landscape, farming, everyday life in the local towns and villages, and their special occasions.

Hatherleigh Band parading at the Carnival © Beaford Arts

The resulting historical span, and detail, he gave to the Archive makes it probably the most intensive record of any rural area in England. Though unposed, the pictures are composed with an artist’s eye, and they capture subtle qualities of light – the result of experiments with pre-war Leica cameras and uncoated lenses. Above all, they are warmed by Dad’s affection and admiration for the people whose lives he recorded. His pictures reveal real life as it was being lived in late 20th century rural England when the country traditions that have been handed down for hundreds, if not thousands, of years were still part of everyday existence.

Floral Dance © Beaford Arts

'...what he considered his best photographs'.

My parents wanted the photographs to be available to the communities of North Devon, especially the local people who kindly allowed Dad to photograph them. The photographs documented North Devon people hard at work, whether on the farm, in the shop, making deliveries, at the doctor’s or dentist’s, but also more intimate and restful details of their lives, at home, taking a break with a thermos, watching the match in their front room, or having a quiet cigarette. Dad particularly enjoyed recording Devon’s rich social life, all the fetes, the Sunday school parades, the carnivals, the Friendly Societies, the jumble sales and the coffee mornings.

James Ravilious © Robin Ravilious

That is why I am so pleased that the Museum holds over 170 of his photographs today, one of several Devon institutions to hold his work. The selection echoes the 1997 Royal Photographic Society exhibition of his work titled ‘James Ravilious: An English Eye’, and therefore includes many of what he considered his best photographs.

If, like me, you grew up in North Devon in the 1980s, or your family are Devonians, I hope that there are people, scenes and activities that you remember in these photographs. North Devon still has a rich culture and landscape worthy of celebration, and if seeing these photographs inspires you to record local heritage, whether in photographs or in any other way, I think my Dad would be happy.

You can find out more about James Ravilious’s work here:



Twitter: @JamesRavilious


Written by Ella Ravilious

Editor Adam Murray

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