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The Recent Past by James Ravilious

Sometimes you just have to own a particular book. No matter that it is a hardback, large and heavy. No matter that it costs more than four paperbacks. No matter. I had book-longing.

In my case it was The Recent Past by James Ravilious, not exactly a catchy title – it could mean anything. But in fact it is a book of photographs of the recent past in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived.

The photographer

James was born in 1939, son of the artists Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood. Both parents died during his childhood, and he was originally heading for a career in accountancy. He switched to art and a visit to an exhibition of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson helped him decide to become a photographer. He married Robin and they moved to the North Devon area and set up home there.

North Devon Archive

Soon after their arrival John Lane, director of the Beaford Arts Centre, employed James Ravilious to create a photographic archive of the local rural area. Change in rural areas was inevitable and happening fast in other parts of Britain, but the North Devon area was somewhat cut off from the changes of the 60s and 70s and slow to alter its ways. John Lane saw the changes coming and wanted to set up a photographic record to capture life in the area as it was then, and ‘to show the people of North Devon to themselves’.

And so, armed with his Leica M3, his sandwiches, light meter, spare rolls of black and white film and his lenses, James Ravilious would set out each day to find what he could photograph. He took pictures of everything: everyday life, special occasions, his neighbours, the farmers and other workers, the farms themselves, the animals, the landscapes, the schools, everything. And in the evening he would work in his darkroom on the day’s haul.

The Legacy

James Ravilious died in 1999. His work is preserved, much of it online, in the archives of Beaford Arts. 1700 images have been preserved and many can be purchased. People who view his work, all in black and white, respond immediately to the affection and directness of the photographs.

The Book: The Recent Past

The Recent Past by James Ravilious, published in 2017 by Wilmington Square Books.

There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by Robin Ravilious which add to the pleasure of the viewing.

See also:

James Ravilious – a life by Robin Ravilious published in 2017 by Wilmington Square Books

Long Live Great Bradfield by Tirzah Garwood, her autobiography, published by Persephone Books.

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