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Rob Ryan at Charleston Farmhouse

September 9, 2012
by the gentle author

Throughout my childhood there were a pair of Staffordshire dogs on the window sill at the the top of the stairs which impressed themselves upon my consciousness. They had been the property of the “lost” grandparents on my father’s side of the family who died before I was born yet – somehow – these dogs still manifested their presence, possessing a melancholy aura as if they contained the dispossessed souls of the dead.

Since then, I have been fascinated by Staffordshire figures as inscrutable embodiments of household spirits and I am spellbound by the recent work of Rob Ryan (the papercut supremo of Bethnal Green) – painting new designs upon Staffordshire figures cast from old moulds and giving expression to the latent emotional presence of these ubiquitous vernacular sculptures. An attractive selection of these pieces is currently on display alongside his papercuts and tiles at Charleston Farmhouse, the former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant near Lewes in Sussex, until Sunday 28th October.

Inspired by the colour palette and spontaneous gestures of the Omega Workshops, Rob applied his designs freely with a paint brush upon ceramic blanks to create gloriously idiosyncratic pairs of Staffordshire dogs which are entirely at home at Charleston, imbuing them with a lively painterly quality and a playful spirit in sympathy with the collective visual style we associate with Bloomsbury. But, more than this, Rob has inscribed his figures with texts of vivid sentiment, addressing experiences of loss, loneliness, ageing and death – which, upon close examination, transform these Staffordshire dogs into sentinels of mortality, emphasising the fragility of such familiar ceramics that have occupied many households through generations as insentient witnesses of the passing of human life.

Rob first encountered the creations of the Omega Workshops in the early eighties as an art student from Trent Polytechnic on a day trip to London. “What I saw with my own eyes was all I needed to know. Amongst that (quite crudely) painted and decorated furniture, screens and ceramics was a joy in making that I just didn’t see in the contemporary art of the eighties that surrounded me.” he admitted. So, by exhibiting his pieces at Charleston, Rob has completed the circle by making homage to these early inspirations.

The modestly proportioned timber-framed barn at Charleston provides an elegant setting for Rob’s intricate works and, during this Indian Summer, it makes a pleasurable excursion to visit his exhibition and wander in the gardens with their magnificent displays of September colours, as I did last week.

The pair of Staffordshire dogs that Rob Ryan made for Spitalfields Life.

Ceramics copyright © Rob Ryan

Rob Ryan’s exhibition runs at Charleston until 28th October.

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You may also like to read

Rob Ryan, Papercut Artist

Rob Ryan in Spitalfields

Rob Ryan at Somerset House

On the Papercut Express with Rob Ryan

Rob Ryan’s Tintinnabulation of Bells

10 Responses leave one →
  1. September 9, 2012

    ‘The secret of our contentment lay in the reduction of ‘the Stuff”. Luckily Rob Ryan doesn’t seem to have taken too much notice of this!

  2. Marina B permalink
    September 9, 2012

    What beauties!

  3. September 9, 2012

    The dogs are very lovely, but the cats are my favourite! “I want to grow old with you until my fur turns grey” really tugs at my heartstrings.

  4. Miranda permalink
    September 9, 2012

    I have adored those dogs since I saw them on the cover of the spital
    fields life book. I am going to go to Charleston FORTHWITH!! I wonder if I could buy/commission a pair from Rob? Could you give me his address? Miranda

  5. Vicky permalink
    September 10, 2012

    The perfect place for Rob to display his work.

    Charleston Farmhouse is a favourite of mine with its painted doors and handmade furnishings. I was so inspired I went on to read everything I could about this unusual group who lived, loved, worked and met up there. The dusky comfortable rooms invited me to sit and read. The circular dining table invited me to supper. Duncan Grant’s studio, full of light, easels and canvasses, invited me to paint and sculpt. The garden was waiting for me to pull up a deckchair then get busy with a trowel. I was there at the end of the day, at the end of Summer, the place was mine.

    If Rob’s work appeals and you want the ideal setting to see it, Charleston is the place.

  6. September 10, 2012

    Thank you!

  7. Cherub permalink
    September 11, 2012

    I love these – in Scotland we call them “wally dugs”; the word wally is pronounced with an aah sound and means false (dentures are referred to as “wallies”). Love the cats as well, as I live near the site of the original Wemyss Ware factory and sometimes find colourful little pieces of broken pottery when I dig my garden. I wash them and keep them on the windowsill like treasure!

  8. Joyce permalink
    September 12, 2012

    At first I didn’t like any of these . . . only the pair made for Spitalfields life . . . and then I realised it is really important to look at them as pairs . . . not particularly because of the words . . . but because of the form . . . how does it go? . . . the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts . . .

  9. September 15, 2012

    High on the mantel shelf, above where the Eagle Range once lived (replaced by a 1957 Aga) in the kitchen in the house where I lived in the Isle of Skye, there was a Staffordshire dog, his two smaller cousins and a demented looking black cat (not of the Staffie variety). I always referred to them, without quite knowing why, as the kitchen gods. When I was exiled among the few things to come from Skye were the Staffordshire dogs and his cousins (the cat was abandoned–lesser god of little interest) who took up residence on top of my kitchen cupboards in my flat in Edinburgh. The largest dog committed suicide one evening while I was out…mysteriously throwing himself off the cupboard (it was apparently impossible for him to have simply fallen off). I could only assume he missed the west as much as I did (or did not like coming down in the world from grand house to lowly attic flat so decided to pre-empt things). I have yet to find another kitchen god to replace him, so I particularly enjoyed reading about Rob and the Spittalsfield dogs. http://www.notreadingonthebus.blogspot.com.

  10. Lorraine Chesterman-Holl permalink
    September 24, 2012

    The objects I treasure most are the ones that instantly speak to me, tell me a story or inspire countless others. The staffordshire dogs that have been staring down at me, with their indifferent and imperturbable gaze, from the mantels and windowsills of my childhood, have now been given a voice by Rob Ryan. They who have witnessed all truly know that “without forgiveness there is no hope”! And I thought nobody was watching!!!

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