Wendy Ramshaw | Her Room of Dreams | Part One09 Jun 2021
This June The Scottish Gallery hosts a memorial exhibition dedicated to Wendy Ramshaw CBE, RDI (1939-2018) - Her Room of Dreams. We have also produced a series of blogs that take you through Wendy's illustrious career in her own words. Please enjoy part one that focuses on her early career, including the development of her ringsets and her collaboration with Wedgwood.
A Jeweller's Words
'I enjoy making jewellery. I enjoy looking at jewellery and I enjoy wearing jewellery. These are in simple terms the real reasons why I am an artist whose main means of expression have become the creation of jewellery. I make objects whose function is to decorate the human body and I am also concerned that these terms can be enjoyed out of context with the human form and have at times deliberately devised means by which this can be achieved. How, when or where my work is worn is not particularly important to me, precisely because it is out of my control. There is often humour in my work, though I regard it as a serious activity, as a means of expression and as a way of earning a living. To be able to earn a living in the arts is a privilege although it is often very hard work, but nonetheless worthwhile.
I like to think that on any one day women in various parts of the world are putting on my jewellery and that it is giving them pleasure.
Making jewellery is not a life-giving activity like growing food. It is a response to the ancient human need for body decoration, it has meaning, particularly for me. I have worked on commissions for small children, for young women, for older women and for men, I have made commissions for people who almost never wear jewellery and have no interest in contemporary design. I have made work for collectors who love jewellery and are amongst the most informed people on the subject. I have made jewellery for people who saved for a long time and will only ever buy one piece, and those who commission several valuable items at one time. Each has equal value.
I was very fortunate to be born at a time when it was possible for me to fulfil a dream and go to Art College and begin a career which has enabled me to work creatively for all my life. Times, places and meetings have been the sources of my inspiration and invitations to exhibit have opened the doors to further wonderful experiences.
I was born in Sunderland in 1939. My father was a ship’s pilot and therefore my mother moved from one part of the country to another to meet him. Toys were difficult to obtain and awkward to carry on crowded trains filled with troops. I remember at the age of three or four treasuring a box of buttons, thinking some of them lovelier than others, playing with them and arranging them in patterns. My grandfather took me on regular visits to a very pleasant small museum, art gallery and library in Sunderland. It was filled with glass cases containing stuffed animals, pickled snakes, and an unbelievable fossilized tree. There were paintings illustrating the life and romance of a ship building town and fine ship models. There were ships’ propellers, the reflections from the old lighthouse and models of ships engineered to exact scale. These must have been major influences in my early thinking, the wonders and romance of the industrial art combined. In 1951 I went with my parents to the Festival of Britain. I saw the amazing architectural styles of the pavilions, so clearly pointing the way to the future. A sense of creative energy was expressed through the specially commissioned works of art which surrounded and decorated them. I decided I wanted to go to art college to train as an art teacher and I studied illustration and fabric design at Newcastle.' - Wendy Ramshaw
Wendy's wedding dress is on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum and you can hear from the curator, Edwina Ehrman, in the film below as she discusses preparing Wendy Ramshaw's wedding gown for public view, featuring a rather tricky challenge with confetti...
'In 1969 I gave up teaching and all other design activities to concentrate on making precious jewellery in my own studio. In 1973, David Watkins and I shared an exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall. It included a series of pieces where the usual surface shine on the metal had been eliminated by sandblasting. The delicate graphic designs would have been destroyed by a high polish and its accompanying reflections. Using a sandblast finish I was able to exploit the counter charge of colour between white and yellow golds. The ring sets moved into a new phase with the stand or column gaining in importance. In creative terms the stand is now as important as the rings it holds. After a time for thought and experiment to investigate a new material or a new direction in my work I begin by making drawings. Most of my work is drawn to exact dimensions before it is translated into metal. This is not a design process as I would understand it, in that it is not a simple matter of sketching out an idea and then perfecting it through further drawing and thought, but a case of getting the drawing right first time and working from that. The machine shop holds industrial equipment and bears little resemblance to an artist’s studio. It is a place which has more a feeling of work than of thought. If work can be produced with great speed and accuracy using a machine, then as far as I am concerned there is little virtue in doing it less well by hand.
There are endless possibilities for using different kinds of shapes and forms to make jewellery, there is an amazing variety of materials and an ever-expanding number of techniques. To help me decide on a particular direction in my work I must look closely at my own reasons and impulses so as to make the right and natural choice for myself as an artist. I work with all materials as if they are precious, they are, because I am using them to make ornament to be worn by another human being as a form of their self-expression. The making of such work is both a serious and joyful task. I choose to manipulate small elements achieving effects which are on one level simple and on the other complex. I like abstract form and care about a sense of surface. I am fascinated by the concept of visual rhythm. Finally, I hope that jewellery and personal ornament can become again as essential a part of life as dance and music, both popular and progressive; an art for everyone.
Once, I made only small objects - pieces of jewellery. They were, in their way, site specific. The 'site' on which they were to exist was the body. Now I make large objects, including gates, doors, mobiles, and screens. The sites they occupy can be found within buildings or gardens. The increase in scale, from very small pieces to very large objects, has appeared to me to be a seamless development. Site specific, large-scale works involve working with both a client and a team outside my own studio. The final work eventually fulfils a need beyond my own. I work to a brief and extend my imagination to reach a solution. A finished work has its place in the wider world and many people may enjoy it.' - Wendy Ramshaw in Conversation, Master Craftsman c. 1985 by Chris Walton
'Sometimes there has been comment on the apparent influence of Egyptian art on my work. In my mother’s home there was a brass table – probably made in Birmingham at the time of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – a sort of sub- Art deco artefact. As a child, I used to spread paper on its surface and with a pencil make rubbings until the fingers appeared arranged in formal rows surrounded by signs and symbols. An uncle returning from the Far East when I was about ten years old brought me a gift of one of the first stereoscopic Viewmasters. I was bored by it except for one series of pictures which I looked at hundreds of times. They showed treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun on display in the Cairo Museum.'
Wendy's Signature Ringsets
'In 1969 I designed ‘pillar’ rings. They arose out of my use of the lathe as a tool central to thinking and aesthetic. I perceived many kinds of cuts and patterns as being possible in advance of using the lathe, but the real vocabulary of turning – the spacing and the balance – developed as the lathe revealed to me its own logic and rhythm. I allied this to my own natural feeling for balance and proportion. The result was a long series of pieces, and an ongoing interest in the results of the turning technique. It presents me with the precision I need and makes contact with a twentieth-century vision: technology and ornament uniting. An exhibition catalogue for Pace Gallery in 1970, illustrating turned pendants and rings, developed this visionary theme – they were depicted, through montage, as huge objects set in or against industrial and rural landscapes.
The ring is the most intimate and personal form of jewellery, which is enjoyed by both the wearer and observer.' - Wendy Ramshaw in Conversation, Master Craftsman c. 1985 by Chris Walton
The stands for sets of rings are unique to the works of Wendy Ramshaw. The first perspex stands were made in the late sixties and did not screw apart because only the bottom section existed for the rings to sit upon. The concept of the ring set as a sculptural work, to be enjoyed when not being worn, was at the time regarded as innovative. Stands are often similar as they are produced for rings in related series. The stands for special pieces are completely unique to the work which is mounted upon them. Sometimes it may be that the stand and ring are of equal importance.
In this short film below you can see how Wendy's iconic ringsets can stand monumental like on their bespoke stands. These stands can then be unscrewed to release the ringset captured within.
Long enamelled bead necklaces in gold or silver or combinations of both have been made since 1972. The cylindrical beads (turned on a lathe and enamelled with vitreous enamel) were, in the first instance, designed as parts of the necklaces made to support enamelled pendants. They were so beautiful in themselves that they were soon being designed as pieces in their own right as long, thin strip necklaces: laboriously made, always unique, but eminently easy to wear.
These chains are amongst the most beautiful things made in my studio. They are always a delight to work upon: although the pace is slow, the work is enjoyable and exciting when finished. I like to compare the making to painting a picture in that I usually have a plan of how the beads will be coloured and be strung. However, it will be slowly evolving piece which attempts to demonstrate some logic or some deliberately random effect. Unlike a great deal of my work which follows an exact drawing, the details of this work are only resolved while it is being created. It is rare for more than two or three of these necklaces to be made in any one year.
The Wedgwood Series
During the early 1980s Wendy Ramshaw embarked on a collaboration with Wedgwood which resulted in the Wedgwood with Wendy Ramshaw Collection. Here she explored the properties of ceramics, creating jewellery that was fabricated using black basalt and jasper in various colours. The ceramic elements were created at the Wedgwood Factory in Barlaston and subsequently turned and assembled by Ramshaw in her studio.
The Three Cone Necklace, 1982, features beads made of Picasso Jasper lathe-turned to forms of spheres, hemispheres and cylinders, threaded onto silver with a drum shaped silver fastener hallmarked WR. With its clean and simple form and the restrained colouring, this necklace captures a contemporary take on the combination of material and craftsmanship that was appreciated back in the eighteenth century. We are delighted to announce that The Goldsmiths’ Company Collection has acquired the Three Cone Necklace and you can read more about the acquisition here.
The Wedgwood collection was launched to coincide with a retrospective of Ramshaw's work held at the V&A in 1982-1983. Wendy is quoted reflecting on how the Wedgwood series came to be:
In 1981 I was offered a small exhibition of my work in the Jewellery Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and I decided to develop ceramics for jewellery. Shirley Bury encouraged me to approach Wedgwood. I thought their industrial technology, finely developed clay bodies and highly controlled firing would achieve a technical perfection not possible in my own studio. I made approximately 100 drawings for Wedgwood and waited for the beads and shapes to arrive. I soon abandoned the drawings and began working directly with the units, assembling jewellery by trial and error unlike anything I had arrived at through the process of drawing
For further reading you may wish to explore two publications that are available to purchase on our website. Rooms of Dreams (below left) presents a beautifully illustrated career with archive images and quotes from Wendy Ramshaw herself. Wendy Ramshaw The Scottish Gallery Collection (below right) allows you to explore works available to purchase at The Scottish Gallery.
For further details discover our tribute to Wendy Ramshaw - Her Room of Dreams where you can view available works including Ramshaw's signature ringsets.