Dorothy Ramsay is an English painter and printmaker working in Cumbria, having moved North after studying art at Camberwell, London. We meet on a late November night at the private view of the Great Print Exhibition, Rheged gallery, where Dorothy sits with sparkling eyes surrounded by her work in her painter’s smock and monoprint ink in hand. Working in oils, etching and monoprint, Dorothy Ramsay’s art is permeated by a lyrical movement of light and colour.
Having met and been greatly influenced by Winifred Nicholson – painter and first wife of modernist Ben Nicholson – Dorothy’s work has a certain joie de vivre and wistfulness that reminds us of her idol. Ramsay’s work seems to me to catch a memory in place; a lighthouse emblazoned on your mind from a lost childhood holiday, flowers picked from balmy garden paths… Dorothy Ramsay’s life and work have an inherent playfulness, which I had the pleasure of delving into on this dark winter night…
Dorothy Ramsay in Conversation
C: How long does it take you to make a painting?
DR: Oh, I work very fast, so when I start painting it will take about a day.
C: Really? So how would you start a painting, would you work from a memory or…?
DR: I do a lot of drawing outside first. I have piles and piles of drawings, and then when I come along and see something exciting I keep it. But I do move things around.
C: That is brilliant! So how would you summarise your work?
DR: I work in two completely different ways. The first is abstract – something that becomes abstracted, like this (raises piece). This is taken from a cactus but it looks nothing like a cactus. And the second is Romantic, drawing on the long history of painters going and looking at views.
C: Which artists do you draw on in your work?
DR: Well, Winifred Nicholson of course, and Mary Newcomb who is mainly a poet but she is a great painter as well.
C: Ah, that is so interesting! So how did you meet Winifred Nicholson?
DR: Oh, she was still painting when I knew her. We met through friends of hers who were painting – this must have been 40 years ago. She was married to Ben Nicholson, who married Barbara Hepworth, and then Man Ray’s ex wife. It is very unfair really that female artists get put down as just the ‘artist’s wife’. You want to watch that.
C: Yes, absolutely! But that is fascinating! What was Winifred Nicholson like?
DR: She was just a cute old lady when I knew her, like me now! You know, I don’t think she ever really stopped loving him…
But she was very good natured, very kind.
Left to right; Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Westmorland, early 1920s; ‘Ben with Slinky’, © trustees of Winifred Nicholson, photo credit. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
C: Really? Her work feels very kind, doesn’t it? Very soft and light, like yours.
DR: Yes. Not much of my being is very dark.
C: I think your work gives a real light in this world of dark things and political art though, what do you think?
DR: Yes well, as a liberal minded person, I just find it so sad to see the world so mean and so self-centred. My work doesn’t reflect any of that. I must say, I live in a bit of a Utopia.
When I was younger I lived in a spiritual community because I thought I could change the world.
C: Oh my goodness, did you? Where was this spiritual community?
DR: Findhorn, Scotland. When I arrived there was about 12 people, and when I left there was 300. I worked in the studio at Findhorn and learnt to weave from the crofters who used the looms as a second income with their crofts.
What an interesting life you have lived!
DR: (Laughs) Just a long one. Life doesn’t always end up where you expect!
C: (Laughter) Very true! So what advice would you give to young artists?
DR: Oh my God, choose a different career! Anything that you make your living from becomes so repetitive and stressful, doesn’t it?
You’ve got to leave room to play, to stay curious and playful.
You can see more of Dorothy’s work at http://www.dorothyramsayfineart.co.uk and in exhibitions across the U.K.