WENDY RAMSHAW with drawings of “Garden Gate” for St John’s College, 1992.

Wendy Ramshaw Rooms of Dreams





As one of Britain’s leading contemporary designers, Wendy Ramshaw is represented in seventy-five museums and public collections around the world. This traveling exhibition began its national tour at Somerset House in London in March 2012 and has been making its way around the United Kingdom ever since; it will wrap up at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in November 2013 to February 2014. While not a comprehensive retrospective, “Wendy Ramshaw: Rooms of Dreams” and the accompanying two-hundred-page catalogue of the same name cover the five-decade span of Ramshaw’s acclaimed career. If you are not familiar with her beguiling work, this is the ideal introduction; longtime fans will revel in this opportunity to admire the scope and diversity of her oeuvre, from enigmatic jewelry to large-scale public artworks

Originally trained as an illustrator and textile designer, Ramshaw is now best known as a jeweler and metalworker; she was one of the first women admitted to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. In addition to gold, silver and gems, she works in nontraditional materials like paper, porcelain, plastic, stone, glass, feathers, wood, aluminum, and brass. These unusual elements demand a range of techniques not normally associated with jewelry, such as lathe-turning, woodcarving and laser-cutting.

Ramshaw, born in 1939, began her career in the 1960s, selling colorful, flat-packed paper jewelry. (The exhibition includes a photograph of Twiggy modeling Ramshaw’s paper earrings; regrettably, it is the only time we see her jewelry being worn.) She is credited with inventing the ring set, now a dominant style in contemporary jewelry design. Multiple rings, often enameled or set with precious and semiprecious stones, are worn together or singly, as the owner desires. The rings can be arranged in as many combinations as the set allows; some include as many as sixteen rings. Here, Ramshaw’s ring sets are displayed as they are sold: not in boxes but on lathe-turned brass, aluminum or Perspex posts, which evoke chess pieces, antique keys, or miniature Art Deco skyscrapers.

BROOCHES inspired by the Sutton Hoo treasure for the British Museum shop, 1987.

Ramshaw’s jewelry is severe but playful, reminiscent of origami or vintage science fiction movie props. Her love of fairy tales and Alice in Wonderland can be seen in her sometimes ominous forms and dramatic distortions of scale. She has designed collections around themes as various as Picasso’s ladies, Wedgwood porcelain, and the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship-burial. Her work may be indebted to industrial design, but there is nothing gritty or sterile about it. Her “Petrified Lace Collar” (2010) recalls both Renaissance lace and gear wheels—apart from the bright red finish, which gives it a disconcerting visceral quality.

Although the exhibition is a showcase for Ramshaw’s jewelry, it also includes photographs, drawings, textiles, and maquettes of monumental metalwork pieces, such as the “Twelve Trees, the Golden Sun & Silver Bird” (2002). This forbidding set of steel gates designed for the grounds of a Berkshire school is softened by its bright turquoise color and a sculpted crest of tree branches. It is one of the few recognizably organic forms in sight. At first glance, Ramshaw’s pieces can seem cold and mechanical, like circuit boards or scientific instruments. But on closer inspection, they are full of circles, which signify not just wheels, clocks and compasses but the rings of a tree, ripples in a pond, faces, eyes, raindrops, the sun, and the earth. Even the “Sculpture Park Gates” (2000) she designed for the Cass Sculpture Foundation are round.

Many of the objects on display look perfectly contemporary, although they are not; Ramshaw’s bold vision has remained remarkably consistent over fifty years, simultaneously futuristic and timeless. It is difficult to pinpoint when jewelry pieces were made, or how old the intended wearer might be. Echoes of Ramshaw’s geometric paper parures from the 1960s can be found in her most recent public commissions.

BLACK HEART RING for The Black Dancer, a set of fourteen rings and sketch, 2002.

The first section of the exhibition is entirely retrospective. Objects are beautifully mounted in cases and shadowboxes with few interpretative labels, encouraging close inspection and reflection. Visitors get rare glimpses of private commissions such as a spindly spiral staircase with sandblasted glass stairs.

The second section contains objects from the “Room of Dreams,” a 2002 applied art installation at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. This collection of objects—designed to be seen within a single, furnished room—demonstrates that jewelry is precious beyond its intrinsic worth, having not only sentimental value but narrative power. The pieces act as keys—literally and figuratively—to imagination and memory. One of the furniture pieces, “The Cabinet of Keys,” serves as a kind of reliquary, inviting audience participation to unlock its doors and drawers. Playing on a key’s twofold function of concealing and revealing, Ramshaw reminds us that jewelry has stories to share and secrets to keep. The white-walled “Room of Dreams” itself is represented by a scale model, displayed in a case.

The third and final section of the exhibition documents the manufacture of Ramshaw’s most recent effort, the colossal patinated bronze “New Edinburgh Gate” (2011), now permanently installed in Hyde Park. Gates are a recurring theme in Ramshaw’s oeuvre. Like keys, they have a paradoxical dual purpose, acting as barriers as well as entrances. Photographs of the gate’s construction show Ramshaw herself at work in the forge. With her white bun and droopy cardigan, she looks like a grandmother out of central casting, or perhaps a fairy godmother—certainly not someone you would trust with a blowtorch. Her apparent fragility makes her inspired mastery of metal all the more astonishing.






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