Friday, 31 October 2014

James Ravilious: hunters in the snow

When Seamus Heaney was about to describe his potato seed-cutters, he invoked Breughel, saying, 'You'll know them if I can get them true'. I lived in Devon at the time James Ravilious took these photographs of north Devon farmers working with their sheep and dogs during a blizzard. I remember my own road being full of snow and I think Ravilious got his farmers true.

Ravilious is one of those artists who start people off talking about Englishness as though he were expressing some peculiar quality about us. What I like about these photographs is the way he could put all that behind him while he was working alongside these men. The harsh conditions provided him with the best opportunity he had to show that he could do more than just show how people lived in rural England.


The snow provided large areas of white but alongside them he has a tremendous range of tones. It's one of those paradoxical things about monochrome - in the right hands, it can be used to get the feel of things of themselves. In the 1920s Arthur Rigden Read was masterly in the way he got the sense of silk or sacking or feathers by using what was more or less black-and-white. Being a photographer Ravilious could work directly with the light to render those extraordinary armfuls of hay. These photographs are not about who we are, they are about what we are.

The Beaford Archive hold all the negatives for the photographs taken between 1972 and 1989 and all of them can be viewed online. All I have done here is to look at one aspect of his work, but I think there is something profound about the ones here. His father, Eric, never achieved anything like this. James found a way of retrieving something, much the way his farmers did.

The photographs are a record of events and of a way of life and he never lost touch with very ordinary things, but some of these also go well beyond that. You can see the sense of rhythm he achieved (especially in the photograph above) and the way he could build on it, and sometimes get somewhere very unusual. There are political borders and real borders, often within countries themselves. Modern life doesn't recognise such things by and large but Devon is a borderland and I think Ravilious picked that up.


  1. Wonderful photos. They reminded me of the Larkin poem about 'lambs that learn to walk in snow':
    They could not grasp it if they knew,
    What so soon will wake and grow,
    Utterly unlike the snow.

    Please keep up the great work with this blog. I stumbled across it a few months back while searching for something else and I'm hooked.


  2. Glad you like the blog, Chris. I didn't know the Larkin poem but I have a book called 'All around the year' with photographs by James Ravilious and poems by Ted Hughes.

    It was the first post with photography and all has been quiet till now on the comments, so I appreciate yours. Must now get on with the follow-up post.

  3. As a lurker for some time -- and a Ravilious fan for longer -- I'm delighted by your thoughts on his photos. I wonder, too, what you make of his colour works.

    Many thanks for inspiring me to look more closely, on this occasion and others.

  4. I'm pleased it was this post that has led some of the lurkers, as you put it, to comment, Kerry. It shows that readers want more than just colour prints.

    As for Ravilious colour work itself, there are two of them, Eric and James, who were father and son. If James ever did anything in colour, I don't know it.