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Wendy Ramshaw: Art, Dynamism, and Design
Miriam O'Connor Perks
[ Artist in Focus )
Assistant Curator, Miriam O’Connor Perks explores the work of Wendy Ramshaw, currently on display as part of our exhibition New Works: Cultivating the Collection.
Wendy Ramshaw is best known for her innovative jewellery designs, but she also created large-scale commissions for architecture around the UK. The current Print Room exhibition New Work: Cultivating the Collection features a striking model she made for the gates at Cass Sculpture Park. Cass Sculpture Park was based in Goodwood in West Sussex and provided the setting of large-scale outdoor sculptures by emerging and established contemporary artists. Eight Degree Rotation came to Pallant House Gallery alongside over forty other works from the Cass Sculpture Archive in 2019.
The park sadly closed in 2020, therefore the gallery was delighted to be able to acquire and display works which tell part of the story of contemporary British sculpture. Sculptor’s models (or maquettes) and preparatory drawings provide a fascinating insight into the artist’s process.
Ramshaw’s model for the gates at the park were commissioned to celebrate the first five years of the Cass Sculpture Foundation. Eight Degree Rotation is a circular structure formed from a series of abstract shapes which are representative of the number five. Ramshaw employed the latest technology of laser-cutting to carve out patterns in stainless steel using her distinctive geometric style.
Wendy Ramshaw was born in Sunderland in 1939, and was greatly inspired as a young child by the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Festival was a celebration of the best of British manufacturing and design, intended to help boost the public’s morale in a difficult period of austerity after the war. It represented the future, and she recalled how she had a feeling of ‘the positive energy generated by so much recent creativity gathered in one place.’
She then went on to study illustration and fabric design at the College of Art and Industrial Design in Newcastle, where she began experimenting with jewellery-making techniques, using scrap metal and hand tools. Whilst studying for a teaching diploma at the Reading University she met fellow designer David Watkins. They later married and started collaborating on designs. The jewellery they made reflected the liberating atmosphere of 1960s London.
During the first years of Ramshaw’s career as a jewellery designer, the Op Art movement was gaining momentum in the UK. Artists associated with this style used repetition and pattern in order to create optical illusions, so that the shapes within their works would appear to move and vibrate. They were inspired by developments in technology and psychology at the time. Similarly, Ramshaw’s designs for both her jewellery and large-scale works also have a great sense of movement, the circle is a shape which is associated with perpetual motion.
She has also worked closely with Pallant House Gallery in the past. In 1999, Ramshaw and her daughter Miranda Watkins (who is also a designer) had an artist residency at the gallery. The two artists transformed the interior of the 17th century townhouse through creating a surreal installation of decorated eggs, flowers and cakes.
When the new wing to the gallery opened in 2006, this presented an opportunity to mark the occasion by commissioning a piece of contemporary design. This would encourage visitors to use the new entrance to the gallery and also act as a signpost of the gallery’s collection of modern and contemporary British art. Wendy Ramshaw was approached to provide a design and she made a model for a decorative screen to go across the former entrance to the townhouse.
Unfortunately the project was never fully realised, but the maquette is an incredible example of Ramshaw’s signature style and was influenced by an enchanting work in the gallery collection, Paul Klee’s watercolour drawing, Bewölkung (Clouds).
Ramshaw first encountered the work of the Swiss artist Paul Klee when she was a student. Referring to both Klee and the American Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt, she described them as ‘the cerebral pattern makers…totally in control of their medium, finding their own way into their own creative worlds.’ Paul Klee was an imaginative artist, whose paintings are fantastical, abstract and witty. He was also a musician and he likened developing the structure of a painting or drawing to composing a piece of music.
His watercolour drawing Bewölkung (Clouds) is a series of delicately incised abstract ink drawings over a dark watercolour wash which suggest cloud-like forms. The work was made in 1926, whilst he was a teacher at the highly influential German school of art and design, the Bauhaus. The school was founded by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. It has become famous for its teaching methods which aimed to break down the difference between fine art, technology and applied arts.
The School moved to Dessau in 1925, the year that Paul Klee wrote Pedagogical Sketchbook, his manual for students which aimed to teach them the absolute fundamentals of drawing. The students would begin with a dot, which would then be transformed through ‘taking a line for a walk’. The sketchbook encourages the student to be intuitive and to experiment.
The language Klee uses is often spiritual but it is also presented in the style of a mathematical textbook. This reflects the Bauhaus aesthetic of combining the creativity of the artistic individual with the technological skill of the manufacturer.
Not only was Paul Klee a key influence on Ramshaw, the principles behind the Bauhaus were the basis in the shift in teaching methods at British art schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook was first translated into English in 1953. The new approach was called Basic Design and its origins were rooted in the ideas of the artist and educator William Johnstone who was Principal of the Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1947-1960.
Johnstone was inspired by the Bauhaus Preliminary Course, which was one year of training in which the student experimented with lots of different kinds of skills and materials. This was the precursor to the art foundation course which is now the standard of an artist’s education today. Wendy Ramshaw was also a student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1969, and she may well have been taught using the methods that Johnstone had laid the groundwork for in the 1950s.
Ramshaw’s large scale commissions such as the gates at Cass Sculpture Park or the decorative screen at Pallant House Gallery blur the boundaries between art and architecture. Her experimentations with industrial materials, alongside her admiration of the visual rhythms in Klee’s work, can be seen within the greater modernist experiments in combining fine and applied arts, typified by the Bauhaus and the later Basic Design courses in post war Britain.
You can see Ramshaw’s maquette in New Works: Cultivating the Collection in our Print Room until 16th October 2022.