13 January - 11 March 2015
Ray Exworth, sculptor.
Born Ipswich 18 March 1930, died Camborne, Cornwall 13 January 2015.
Ray Exworth, artist and Head of Sculpture at Falmouth University from 1959 to 1974, has died aged 85.
Anyone fortunate enough to have been invited to visit Ray’s studio, would leave in awe at the magnitude and quality of his life’s sculptural endeavors. Few have thus far had that opportunity to encounter the myriad complex works scattered through an eclectic group of outbuildings surrounding the tiny Heather Bell Cottage, in which he lived and shared the last 47 years of his life with his wife Susie. Those who have know that such remarkable work, or even an awareness of it, should make its way out into the wider world.
Ray had many diverse interests, one being the weather, partly the result of a period in his early life working for the Met Office. He had plenty of opportunity to study its vicissitudes at their smallholding in Releath, on the granite spine of Cornwall. This seemed to be battered continually by rain, wind and gale, and one was as likely on a visit to find Ray and Susie working on some long term project to hold at bay the elements from entering the house or barns, as one was to come across Ray making new work.
Despite this, the multitude of sheds and barns were packed to the rafters (literally), with an astonishing profusion of ideas and material forms. One contained the bulk of the work made in Falmouth while Ray was Head of Sculpture and was exhibited at his monographic show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1975.
Another, across the yard from the ever-open kitchen door, contained the core of the ‘Circus’, a work, unfinished after nine years of continuous making. This was initially conceptually explored in a series of chalk, conte and charcoal drawings, and evolved into an immensely complicated work formed of three circus rings, each filled with such a rich plethora of fabricated objects made from a huge array of diverse materials – woods, metals, glass, canvas, concrete, much of it found or recycled. Within and around the infrastructure of the piece was a set of exquisitely rendered plaster figures.
Though never fully resolved, ‘Circus’ has garnered much critical praise from those who were allowed into the many sheds it occupies, among them Nicholas Serota. There was a visit from an Arts Council purchasing panel, which returned to London with a group of the small boxes Ray had been making to finance the project, each a small tableau made of plaster figures and collaged objects, many of which were found by Ray and Susie during their regular beachcombing trips. David Heseltine concludes in his essay for the catalogue accompanying a recent solo show ‘A Shutter Came Down’ at Kestle Barton, Cornwall, with a quote from Arts Council visitor, Bruce Bernard. Ray, Bruce says, was ‘a visionary sculptor of probable genius’.
Ray Exworth was born in 1930 in Ipswich, the eldest of five sons. His father, Charles, worked as a moulder in an iron foundry, his mother Ivy brought up the boys. Visiting the foundry had a profound effect on Ray. Both the visual and sensory impact of the works, and the profound practical understanding and concentration required to successfully manage the industrial forging process, are engrained in his life’s work. So too the dramatic and traumatic events of his childhood – the family home was burned out in an air raid, the house they then moved into partially demolished in another, while the vast East Anglian skies were full of planes, trails, barrage balloons and menacing V1 bombs.
After a moment of epiphany at the Rodin Museum in Paris, Ray resolved to lead a life as a sculptor, studying first at Ipswich School of Art and then from 1955, the Royal College of Art where he was a Royal Scholar in 1956. The period following was a mixture of travelling and working with Jacob Epstein before, in 1959, setting off on his motorbike with Susie for their future life in west Cornwall.
Throughout this time, and during his long stint at Falmouth setting up and running the sculpture department, Ray established a series of deep and long-lasting intellectual and artistic friendships with peers and students, with whom he sustained decades-long arguments and discussions through occasional visits, letters and phone calls.
Following the death of his father in 1985, Ray abandoned work on the ‘Circus’ and, returning to memories of childhood experiences, made a cycle of three linked works, which were shown at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. ‘A Garden for No.7’ 1995, The Monolith’ 1998 and ‘Home for Christmas’ 2003, were all made from lead. Each of these works comprises hundreds of meticulously and evocatively wrought representations of domestic and garden objects and furniture, systematically organized across the gallery floor. Visitors were astonished by the prodigious scale of the undertaking as well as the intimate family narratives they conveyed.
While the weather battered the cottage, it frequently seemed to his close friends that life had continually battered Ray too. His response was a determined and relentless life of attrition. That he managed to sustain the last forty years of extraordinary sculptural production, following his departure from Falmouth, is due to the profound and mutually engaging relationship with Susie; and to the home, garden and ‘studio complex’ at Heather Bell Cottage, which they created together.
In the past few years, with the help of a small group of friends, the Ray Exworth Wroxham Trust has been established to preserve it all as an inspirational educational resource. He is survived by Susie and three of his brothers.
Obituary written by Jem Southam
Jem Southam was Ray and Susie longstanding friend and visitor to their cottage producing at various times some marvellous photograph of Circus which were shown at Kestle Barton in 2011 (Ray Exworth: A Shutter Came Down, 17 September – 30 October 2011).