James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious

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James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The name of photographer James Ravilious is less well-known than that of his father Eric Ravilious, the war artist – a state of affairs which this delightful biography by his widow should help to put right. It is an excellent read about the man, and a wonderful look at the whole work and ethos of using the camera to help preserve the past for posterity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 248 Date: November 2017
Publisher: Wilmington Square
ISBN: 978-1908524942

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The name of Eric Ravilious, war artist, engraver and designer, has long been familiar. Less well-known was his equally gifted son James. This delightful biography by his widow should help to put the situation right.

Born in 1939 and orphaned young, losing his father on a wartime flight in 1942 and his mother, Tirzah Garwood, also a gifted artist, to cancer eleven years later, James was brought up by his stepfather's brother. He left school at seventeen for a career in accountancy, which soon proved unsuitable and he then trained as an artist. After seeing an exhibition by Henri Cartier-Bresson, he decided he would devote himself to photography. This inspiration was reinforced when he, his wife Robin and family moved from London to her homeland, a rural, unspoilt part of North Devon. Here he found his true vocation, recording daily life in the countryside on his camera before the relentless march of progress threatened to sweep all before it. Producing a formidable body of work comprising over 75,000 black-and-white negatives for the Beaford Archive was to be his life for the next seventeen years. He was soon recognised as one of the most insightful photographers of his generation, with his portraits of the people, their countryside, its landscapes and changing seasons portrayed with a remarkable sympathy and intimacy. With the sensitive eye and mindset of an artist, he was one in a long line of many working in different media, among them Pieter Brueghel, Thomas Bewick and Samuel Palmer, with whom interesting comparisons are made.

Sadly, he had never been strong. A naturally highly-strung temperament, the legacy of having watched his mother's slow decline while he was a boy, and a diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of thirty, all told on his health. So did hours of working in the darkroom with possibly carcinogenous chemicals. With her shared love of country life, her understanding of what inspired him and her thorough involvement in his work as she travelled with him, helping with his books and exhibitions, Robin has drawn a picture of this talented man. She has also given us a moving account of a sensitive soul who drove himself to the max, passionate about what he was doing and also well aware he was living on borrowed time.

I particularly liked her insights into how he was inspired by the parents he had known so little. Father and son evidently enjoyed the same things, like English light, unusual patterns, muted colouring, and even 'quirky corners of a junk half-buried in nettles', while from his mother he conversely acquired an abiding interest in other people and their way of life. I also enjoyed reading about how he would distract himself with other artistic interests, such as an occasional return to painting landscapes in his later years or immersing himself with listening to all different kinds of music, with the aid of a valve amplifier he had built himself – quite a Renaissance man. At the same time I appreciated and was struck by her poignant record of the last six years, after the rediscovery of lymphoma led to blood tests, treatments, chemotherapy and the ultimate sad decline which ended just after his sixtieth birthday.

Moreover, there is a tendency to underestimate photography as an art form. This biography is not just an excellent read about the man, but a wonderful look at the whole work and ethos of using the camera to help preserve the past for posterity.

Published simultaneously with this is a sumptuous album of the subject's work, The Recent Past by James Ravilious. Another recommended volume for those who appreciate the rural life is In the Country by David Gentleman, while another sometimes neglected art is the subject of The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making by David Esterly.

Buy James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy James Ravilious: A Life by Robin Ravilious at Amazon.com.


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