Rob Ryan at Charleston Farmhouse
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.
Ceramics copyright © Rob Ryan
Rob Ryan’s exhibition runs at Charleston until 28th October.
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