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Ray Exworth: A
sculptor of probable genius[i]

David Heseltine




Heather Bell Cottage has been home and work place to Ray Exworth for over forty years. Situated in an area that was once the industrial heartland of Cornwall, the cottage and cluster of small barns are typical of a nineteenth century small-holding. Carefully tended spaces grow from the lichen-covered granite landscape and larger, later, but uglier buildings provide studio and storage spaces for a remarkable body of work that confirms the indisputable importance of Ray’s contribution to British contemporary art.

There is something truly educative about seeing this work in the environment in which it was made. The choice of situation and relative seclusion in which he works says much about his own feelings concerning his relationship to the art establishment. The relatively small scale of the buildings gives the sculpture monumentality, and the simplicity of Ray and wife Susie’s lifestyle contrasts noticeably with the complexity, vision and ambition of the work.

Inside the cottage, a hand-made kitchen dresser reads like one of his assemblages, and fascinating juxtapositions and groupings explore the interactions of seemingly incompatible objects: a feature of all the sculptures. Early Egyptian Ushabti share space with Victorian Staffordshire figures, Ashanti weights with tinplate toys, each considered an equal irrespective of their usual perceived status.

The eldest of five brothers, Ray Exworth was born in Ipswich in 1930 to a working class family in which there was no history of artistic interests. Brought up in Constable Country, it is memories of a turbulent childhood that has informed probably his most moving and profound work. His father was an iron moulder and Ray carries with him still the vivid impressions of heat, colour, stark outlines, cranes and active assured men working in the gloom of the big moulding pit. ‘Felixstowe Sunday trips were also part of this era, before the working class had vacuum flasks’[ii].

More acute still though are memories of the war years and the trauma and dislocation that resulted from a short period as an evacuee and of seeing 7, Wroxham Road, the family home, burned out in one air raid and the accommodation in which they were re-housed partly demolished in another. He retains particularly clear memories of East Anglian skies filled with barrage balloons, parachute mines, aircraft of all kinds and the menacing silence when the of V1s stopped.

After a brief period as an apprentice engineer and as a meteorologist, Ray entered Ipswich Art School in 1951. His resolve to become a sculptor followed a visit to the Musee Rodin, the effect of which he describes as, ‘like a religious conversion’.[iii] He entered the Royal College of Art in 1955, where he must have distinguished himself being awarded Royal Scholar in 1956, and a travelling scholarship in 1958. Contact during this period with sculptors and contemporaries alike helped Ray determine his own convictions and ideologies. He still feels a debt of gratitude to John Skeaping, he visited Henry Moore through an introduction from Sven Berlin, but more inspirational was the time he spent working with Jacob Epstein, during which Ray forged a lifelong admiration for, ‘the greatest and kindest man to prove a direct influence,’ on his own work.

In 1959, Ray was invited by the then Principal, Michael Finn to build a sculpture department at Falmouth School of Art and, only two days after marrying Susan Kalman, travelled with her to Cornwall on a motor cycle to meet this interesting challenge. Susie spent her honeymoon helping Ray search for tools and materials to equip the department and has subsequently devoted herself in support of his life and work as a sculptor. Ray acknowledges that Hepworth, Peter Lanyon and other Cornish based artists’ advice on building the new department was of immense importance to the College, but his own creative ideologies ran counter to those prevalent in St. Ives at the time. He saw it as imperative that his department maintain its independence and establish its own identity. His vehement determination to this end, coupled with a willingness to speak his own mind, made for a difficult time but a strong department. Numerous students benefited from his wisdom and commitment to art education.

I first met Ray when I joined the teaching staff at Falmouth in the mid-sixties. His department now enjoyed degree status and under the enlightened leadership of Michael Finn, staff were found studio space and encouraged to engage in their own work. At this time Ray could invariably be found, cigarette in mouth, shrouded behind huge sheets of polythene, white with plaster and dwarfed by his own staggering creations. Usually a component of a much larger sculpture, these pieces were always fascinating, their beauty and brilliance obvious, but their true significance something of a mystery. It was only later when I saw From a View to a Death (1964-5)(picture below), Bed With Night Table (1964-5), Railway Piece (1967-70) and Felixstowe Remembered (1970-74), exhibited at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1975 that I gained a better understanding and fully appreciated the importance of his contribution to contemporary British sculpture.

These sculptures, hugely impressive in scale, form and content were predominantly worked in direct plaster. Felixstowe Remembered relied more heavily on mixed media, took three to four years to make and measured a staggering 30 x 25 x 11 feet. Based on a childhood reminiscence, it presents an idealised mythical beach scene, but in fact the Felixstowe Beach of Ray’s childhood was covered with barbed wire, land mines and anti-landing devices. In support of the Whitechapel solo show, Ray wrote: ‘The desire to create, to make a mark in whichever way one can, however limited, has no need for verbal justification or stylistic reference.’ But the following is extracted from his Notes on Sculpture, 1975: ‘It is of course rather out of context to make statements about particular pieces of sculpture that may almost be the debris of constant attempts at creating. The problems of making sculpture with a material of limited form, space, time, existence are both emotional and intellectual. The use of plaster is for me, probably the simplest way of using an inert material in a play sense; the activity of sloshing water, plaster and scrim is a form of active play, a never ending game which allows expression over a wide range of metaphysical and empirical gambits, a process of discovery and disclosure, of things remembered and of the duality of experience.

Firm in the belief that sculpture should have some social content, and reacting strongly against the view that international public art had become essentially abstract, inoffensive and mundane, Ray produced a vast number of preparatory drawings for The Circus. Staggering in their quantity and quality, they reflect a much more sombre and troubled frame of mind. By now, Ray had become reclusive, angry and disillusioned with a student body who in embracing the wind of change sweeping the art establishment, was increasingly dismissive of the disciplines and practices that had been central. Ray’s one concession to change was to swap his bomber jacket for a leather one and his van for an MG Sports car, but it was a short lived indulgence and following ideological differences with senior management, he took early retirement in July 1975.

Liberated by this change of status and acting on Henry Moore’s advice that he avoid style and current fashion and concentrate on form and content to exact the broadest possible emotional response in his work, Ray embarked on The Circus in 1976. He brought to the work years of reading and research, a vast art historical knowledge and a mass of preparatory drawings.

Rays early inclination was towards the Sciences and he remains fascinated by their parallels with the Arts and their shared dependence on an attention to detail. Ray is passionate about detail. He would often walk on the hill behind the cottage to meditate and plan; the hill’s height above sea level and its impact on weather patterns was for him vital information. He has always had a voracious appetite for knowledge and says, ‘The importance of the novel and poetry for me cannot be overstated; the writings of philosophers, psychologists and scientists have all contributed to the confused way in which I think. Bombarded by information – visual, aural, verbal, theories, system thinking, critical dissertation - where process links hand and mind, one simply makes things’.

Ray had recognised the potential for a work drawn on repeated observations made at Piccadilly Circus Underground Station and could see how this might provide a structure and embrace an original concept exploring a Day, Evening and Night theme. The work would now be based on all the exits from the tube station represented in sculptural terms by doors that in turn become gateways to the underground rather than the railway network. The initial plan to have at its core a huge black steel cylinder to contain much of the ‘black stuff’, as he called it, was not financially viable and became the first of numerous compromises dictated by cost and materials. Day, Evening and Night instead suggested the form of three large Circus rings that in turn suggested the activities played out within them. These include numerous larger than life figures, a life size fabric giraffe, a magician holding twenty one chairs: each chair supporting a still life, nine tables and nine Circus stools. Ray insists this is not an installation. Each piece is calculated to have an effect on the next with interest being created by the interaction of one piece with another and by the hierarchical order of things.

It was still a work in progress in 1984, when the Arts Council Purchasing Committee, visiting Cornwall, set off for the interior in search of an ‘irascible and difficult’ person who some said had abandoned his work altogether or dug it into the ground. They found what they described as  ‘a smallish muscular person in a knitted fisherman’s cap’. John Spurling reports on this visit.

'He had not buried his work, or only metaphorically. It was contained in seven different outhouses, a mass of plaster, wood, papier-mâché, wire and I don’t know what, modelled, carved and partly assembled to fill, like the visitors, every available cranny. In fact most of it was one work with a circus theme, or would be if it could ever be brought together into a sufficiently large space – a circus tent for example. We viewed it separately, in groups of two or three, with increasing amazement and admiration, crossing and re-crossing the yard, and learning from one another that there was yet another out house that we hadn’t seen, edging our way in and out of half open doors, past large, fragile plaster figures trying to exclude the two cats who weren’t supposed to enter in case they knocked something over. But what could we buy? The whole thing and the artist’s time to finish it?… As it was, we found a second best solution. Upstairs in the cottage was a very small room, stacked to the walls with open wooden boxes like drawers, each of which held a kind of tableau of miniature plaster figures and collages made of found objects: ideas, models, doodles, going back over seven or eight years. We chose three for the arts council.'

The boxes purchased for the Arts Council Collection were just three of a large number made in the early 70's to finance work on The Circus. Underestimated by Ray and seen primarily as a commercial enterprise, they seem to me to reflect all the successful elements and qualities realised in the major works and present as cohesive and resolved works of considerable importance in their own right.

Ray worked on The Circus six days a week between 1976 and 1985. During this period he was twice in receipt of an Arts Council Major award and undertook his only commission, to produce eight large relief panels for the doors at the newly constructed Barbican Centre. Profoundly affected by his father’s death in 1985 Ray found himself unable to continue work on The Circus. It was he says, ‘As if a shutter came down’.

The work remains unfinished.

Recalling memories and significant events from his youth prompted by his Father’s death, Ray conceived a new project: a huge sculptural triptych designed to be shown as three separate but related works at The Royal Cornwall Museum. Already proven as an accomplished sculptor in wood, direct plaster, metal and a host of found materials Ray now chose to work almost entirely in the difficult medium of lead. All three works, dedicated to the memory of his parents, Charles and Ivy Exworth, were inspired by specific memories of the bombings that destroyed his childhood home.

A Garden for No7 (1992–1995) was shown in 1995 and vividly recalled the suburban vegetable garden created by his father at 7, Wroxham Road. When the family moved in, the spaces back and front were as the builders had left them and the sculpture, sub divided into four sections; Lawn, Pond, Path and Wigwam deals with the innumerable changes, including the garden’s resurrection when the house was rebuilt, in a, ‘… constantly changing but enduring space. Trees came, grew old and were cut down, crazy paving came and went, a chicken coop, rabbit hutches, a pond, cabbages with snow on, the water butt with two inches of ice, hot childhood summers.

The second of the three works, The Monolith, was shown in 1998. Originally an attempt seeking to link the past with his present, it became more fragmented after Ray’s mother died and included echoes that she would recognise. It explores the ‘…curious but very odd calm that descended after the trauma of the bombings. Things saved took on a special quality, that of survivors, but incomplete. Home became in my mind at that time a fragmented space, populated with oddities that bore only a resemblance to that which they had been, but a fireplace survived intact, a door lay flat, not as in a builders’ yard but awkwardly.’

The third and final work, Home for Christmas was shown in 2003. It starts with the red bike bought for Ray when the family returned to No7, which they did out of desperate need. The building wasn’t finished, walls still had to be plastered and there were planks and scaffold poles everywhere - everything seemed awkward. Ray wanted the sculpture to reflect this and the theme explored in the work is the elasticity of time and the odd perception people have of reality. Ray didn’t want, nor did he feel able, to communicate the awfulness of the bombings and the family’s brief but horrendous experience of them. Instead these works focus on those qualities of ‘Home’ that are so important. The triptych presents a moving account of one working class family’s dignity and courage in dealing with the aftermath of war. In doing so, it hints at the horror of war with much of the imagery assuming a dual meaning. A toy tank and aeroplane foretell the violence, a vast empty chair acts as a symbol of the fallen and two huge lead curtains stand like giant headstones.

During educational visits to the exhibitions, students were visibly moved and stood in awe, engaging with the work with respect and reverence, as if they were invited guests to the house; they were amazed at Ray’s ability to convey feelings and a sense of place and time so powerfully. In communicating what is humanly important Ray realised his aim of producing a work of universal significance.

Ill health has halted work on his latest and probably final work. Considered by Ray to be his strangest and most difficult challenge to date, Distant Red seeks to give sculptural form to a lifetime of experience and memories. While it appears at times to be a summary, it is also a journey into the unknown. Odd objects, prompted by the making of two sunshine gates, have appeared in the work and Ray realizes that almost subconsciously and apparently from nowhere, he has collected all sorts of ‘bits and bobs’ that could be integrated into expression of a single thought. A mixed media work, but predominantly formed in lead, it again demonstrates Rays superb ability at giving significance to any found everyday object. He is a master of recycling – even garden gnomes make a serious statement! It remains difficult to interpret prior to assembly but when the doors of an ordinary garden shed are opened to reveal the magical contents that are Distant Red, one experiences the same sense of awe that overwhelmed on entering The Circus studio. This time the work is more compact and intimate but contrasts wonderfully with the massive cathedral like qualities suggested by The Circus.

Ray has never been commercially driven, interested in aestheticism or in making single sculptures that can simply be ‘placed somewhere’. The difficulty or impossibility of exhibiting the major pieces has denied Ray the recognition he merits: his preference has given us the masterpieces but confined them to the space in which they were made. The Heatherbell smallholding and all it embraces is undoubtedly a site of national importance and it will fall to the trustees of The Ray Exworth Wroxham Trust to preserve it as an inspirational educational resource and focus for devotees of the visual arts. It will also stand as testament to Susie, whose wholehearted contribution in support of Rays work can not be overstated, and to Ray, a visionary sculptor of probable genius.


[i] Bruce Bernard described Ray Exworth as “a sculptor of probable genius” in his report to the Arts Council Purchasing Committee in 1984.

[ii] “Felixstowe Remembered” Whitechapel Gallery, 1965 – Quotation contained within Ray Exworth’s notes on sculpture for this exhibition

[iii] Ibid


Ray Exworth: A Shutter came Down was at Kestle Barton 17/9/11 - 30/10/11 http://www.kestlebarton.co.uk/