Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Some Corner of a Devon Field That Is for Ever England

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Some Corner of a Devon Field That Is for Ever England

Article excerpt

Alan Bennett celebrates the rural art of James Ravilious

Except to pass through on the train I have never been to Devon (and only once to Dorset). So why is it that the photographs of James Ravilious seem familiar? That they are heirs to a very English tradition of photography is part of the answer, a tradition which I first came across as a boy in the 1940s, waiting in the barber's in Leeds and turning over the battered pages of Picture Post. Here were features on the mill-towns of Lancashire by Humphrey Spender and Bert Hardy, the scenes of which (cobbled alleys, smoking chimneys) were, of course, not unfamiliar to me; but here, too, were photographs of life on remote West Country farms and idyllic Wiltshire villages, small fishing communities in Cornwall and upland sheep farms in Wales, places I did not know at all and which seemed as exotic as the South Seas. The whole enterprise was, I suppose, an attempt to introduce one half of Britain to the other and as such a part of the war effort, though it went on, of course, once the war was over. Radio contributed too, but in my lifetime the business of our getting to know each other has been taken over, for better and worse, by television.

So it is that nowadays most of us think we know England. But, looking at these photographs by James Ravilious, I am not so sure, because although they are anything but nostalgic, they reveal the persistence of an England one had thought long gone and the persistence, too, of a dignity and reticence that goes with it.

Ravilious' photographs often seem 20 or 30 years older than they are, harking back to a more innocent England, and this is only partly because he records life in a corner of the country that is out of the way. But the people he photographs seem old-fashioned, too, because they are unposed, do not feel the need !o smile or to ingratiate themselves at all for the camera. Ravilious keeps his distance even in the most intimate scenes that he records, and it is this mutual respect of photographer and subject that dignifies both.

But do not think that this is nostalgia: the picture he presents of this corner of rural Devon is harsh, unflinching and never picturesque. He photographs hard, ill-paid work, work that has gnarled and twisted the bodies of those who have had it to do and, while Edward Thomas is the poet that Peter Hamilton quotes in his text, it is the plain speaking of Thomas Hardy that they recall for me, and his humour, too. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.