James Ravilious was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, second son of Eric Ravilious (see Art Prints and Biography), a connection, however, which he never wished to exploit – so much so that when enrolling at St. Martin’s School of Art, London, he assumed a different surname. Here, nevertheless, he was taught painting and drawing, and here too he met Robin Whistler (daughter of the poet and glass-engraver Laurence Whistler). After his training the couple moved to a cottage in Devon where they had two children, Ben and Ella.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ravilious took up photography. His work was soon spotted by John Lane, Director of the Beaford Archive, and in the early 1970’s Ravilious was contracted by Lane to document rural Devonian life – its communities, farms and countryside. And this he did, for the following twenty or so years.
Alan Bennett has suggested that Ravilious’ work is heir ‘to a very English tradition of photography’, a tradition which includes within it the documentary photographs of Humphrey Spender and Bert Hardy. The epithet ‘English’ is difficult to define, but it can be applied not only because Ravilious photographs content of a peculiarly English type – the landscapes, climate, lanes, the people and the traditions – but because he captures a certain dignity and a reticence in his subjects, qualities often associated with an Englishness of an earlier era. Yet there is no nostalgia, no looking back to this earlier time. Nor does he indulge in the picturesque or the sentimental. Ravilious’ images are of working people and their ways: ‘he photographs hard, ill-paid work, work that has gnarled and twisted the bodies of those who have had it to do…’ *1
Ravilious manages to capture the ordinary moment, yet there is nothing commonplace or dull in his photographs. As a photographer it is clear that his subjects have trusted him, they have let him in to their world. His subjects are caught at their tasks, in their homes or contexts, and because there was trust, there was no need for preparation or for preening. Ravilious knows instinctively that when people are in front of the camera they can tend towards the posed, and that this can detract from the quality of the photograph.
Because he knows this he manages, through the trust he invites, to avoid the cliché of the overly prepared or arranged, and the ‘ordinariness’ in his pictures becomes something more – an exploration of a unique moment.
Ravilious may have enrolled at St. Martin’s School of Art under an assumed name, yet, notes Bennett, in terms of the quality of his work there was no need for such subterfuge:.. ‘father and son in their different modes [are] both superb exponents of the Englishness of English Art’.
James Ravilious died in 1999. His work has been exhibited at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne; the Palais des Arts, Paris, and the Photographers Gallery, London. His work is collected by private individuals worldwide, and is held in public collections including The Towner Gallery in the UK, and the Bibliotheque Nationale in France.
*1. Alan Bennett, Forward to James Ravilious ‘An English Eye’ p.7.