Omar Ramsden - his life and work

Omar Ramsden - his life and work


He was born in Sheffield in 1873 to silver engraver Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden and his wife Norah. The family lived in an average terraced street of two story brick built houses typical in that part of Northern England.

 

Fir Street was not in a smart area and the Ramsden’s were not a particularly smart family, but Omar Ramsden was nevertheless destined for great things and his early years were certainly more interesting than those of your average working class Sheffield child.

 

The family business was a common one in Sheffield which by the time of Omar Ramsden’s birth, had long been the country’s centre for the production of cutlery.

 

Electroplate and silver fish carvers, dessert spoons and scoops were listed among the items produced by Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden and it is reasonable to assume that he had received a typical training in the craft as a boy growing up in Sheffield, graduating to his own business in later life.

 

The young Master Ramsden was perhaps destined to follow in his Father’s footsteps and to enter the working world as a Silversmith as tradition dictated; but nobody could have foreseen just how much of an impact the talented youth would have on the industry and the influence which he would later have on the Arts and Crafts movement of the latter part of the 19thcentury and early part of the twentieth century.

 

Omar Ramsden’s early life was unusual for the era in some respects and when he was still small, the family relocated to America. The Ramsden’s are listed as arriving on American shores in 1879 on the SS Britannic.

 

The reasons for this move are not known but suffice to say, Omar Ramsden spent at least seven years of his childhood in America and was later quoted as saying “I spent my childhood abroad and returned to England in my early youth.”

 

Emigration was unusual in this era…at least for what appears to be a working class family in “trade”. It is possible that Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden was seeking to further his fortune in the USA as the period coincides with some of the last great gold rushes there. Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden’s trade would certainly have been eminently useful in the growing country.

 

Whatever transpired during their years in the USA, it was not deemed enough of a success for them to remain on foreign shores and the family returned to England and resumed working in the same trade although not at first, within their own business.

 

Upon the family’s return to England, Omar was almost fifteen years old and at this point in time, his Father is listed as being employed as a “Manager” at 68 Fir Street Walkley.

 

Records indicate that this was not Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden’s own firm and perhaps for this reason, Omar was sent to work as an apprentice at a Sheffield firm of Silversmiths.

 

It is possible that the widening of horizons which must have resulted from an early life spent abroad, provided the young Omar Ramsden with something of a head start in terms of confidence and certainly he was a self assured young man who as he grew into adulthood, showed no fear of new challenges.

 

His apprenticeship, in addition to his childhood impressions of his Father’s trade, set in motion what was to become his life’s work and it is certain that Omar Ramsden’s significant talent began to shine as soon as he had the chance to express his ideas in a creative sense.

 

He began attending evening classes at the Sheffield School of Art which at this time was seen as one of the world’s foremost schools of art and design and it was here that he was to meet another talented young man who would be both a professional influence and a life long friend.

 

 

 

Education and Fresh Pastures

During his evening classes Omar Ramsden was released from the confines of his apprenticeship and allowed to free up his potential as an artist.

 

He was at last afforded the chance to experiment with design and form and perhaps most importantly, to learn the rudiments of history of art. His later work was enormously influenced by the Celts and the Tudors and one can only imagine what an eye opening experience it must have been for the young man to begin his journey towards becoming an artist of note.

 

One fellow student at evening class who struck a chord with Ramsden was

Alwyn C E Carr. Carr was a year older than Ramsden and also his social superior in that his family was considerably better placed both financially and socially.

 

Carr was better educated and better able to hold his own in the intellectual discussions which were part of the young men’s evening education, but no matter the social differences, a deep friendship was formed nonetheless. The two talented young men began a fierce but fond rivalry born of mutual admiration and a love of the same medium.

 

When Alwyn Carr won the Sheffield Corporation Scholarship in 1893, he was afforded the opportunity to attend the Sheffield School of Arts for the next four years as a full time student and this must have spurred the young Omar Ramsden on in his ambitions because the following year, he was the recipient of the same scholarship.

 

This marked a departure from Omar Ramsden’s expected path which would have been the same as his Father’s had fate and talent not intervened.

 

Now, instead of continuing in his apprenticeship for a considerable number of years on a low wage, Omar Ramsden was able to become a man of academia and at the Sheffield School of Arts he would be taught by some of the best in their field.

 

The next three years passed in pleasurable companionship, rivalry and keen learning as the two pursued their studies, enjoying short courses at The Royal College of Art in London and excursions to the Victoria and Albert Museum where they spent many hours sketching the exhibits.

 

It is thought that as the more financially comfortable of the pair, Alwyn Carr subsidised his friend to some degree, especially where travel was concerned and the two certainly appeared to enjoy a lifestyle which indicates some form of substantial monetary support.

 

In later years, the two friends were to bask in a mutual love of London life and all that it afforded and these early experiences in the capital must have piqued their curiosity for the sophisticated life which was as of yet, just a flavour of what was to come.

 

It is around this time, during Omar Ramsden’s studies that entries relating to Benjamin Woolhouse Ramsden’s business which had been reinstated at some period after the family’s return from America, cease to appear in local directories and he is presumed to have died around the period of 1895.

 

Norah Ramsden continued to trade under her own name and presumably she kept the same staff that her late husband had hired whilst managing the business herself. It was never a huge concern but the family business must have kept at the very least a roof over the family’s heads.

 

Omar Ramsden showed no interest in taking over his Father’s company and instead, in 1897 set of on a year long jaunt around Europe with his friend Alwyn Carr.

 

The Chelsea Studio

Alwyn Carr’s scholarship and the three year’s of study which it afforded, had been completed by the time the pair took off on their adventure but it would seem that Omar Ramsden would have still had one year left of his studies to complete.

 

Possibly he undertook the journey with the blessings of his Masters, perhaps on the understanding that he would continue to work on his art and that by using his time abroad to visit galleries and exhibitions, he could benefit from the change.

 

The two young men travelled extensively, visiting France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Germany and upon their return, Omar Ramsden was announced as the winner of an open competition to design a Mace for the City of Sheffield.

 

The competition had been arranged by the Duke of Norfolk who was Sheffield’s first Lord Mayor and the honour of being chosen as the winner of such an illustrious competition was to open many doors for Omar Ramsden and for his friend and collaborator Alwyn Carr whose influence and craftsmanship was to be part and parcel of Ramsden’s rise to fame over the next ten years.

 

Omar Ramsden turned to Alwyn Carr for his assistance in the execution of the work; it was no small task and the pressure to create a Mace worthy of the city must have been intense for the young Silversmith who up until that date had created no pieces of note; certainly nothing survives from his early days at the Sheffield School of Arts besides a wax model for a ceremonial key which is still in the possession of the school and which is signed, “Omar Ramsden 1895”.

 

A baptism of fire was perhaps a good thing for Omar Ramsden and the Mace was ultimately met with unanimous approval although reaching that point proved to be an interesting journey for both Ramsden and Carr.

 

In the creation of the Mace, the young men made a surprising decision as they immediately left Sheffield and decamped to London where they set up a workshop at Stamford Bridge Studios in Chelsea.

 

It would seem that once they had been given the go ahead as artists of note, they wasted no time in leaving Sheffield for the more sophisticated and forward thinking capital city.

 

This studio which the two friends set up shop in was far from luxurious and in fact was known to be in an insalubrious and neglected part of the city, the building lacked comfort and the area could be rough. The Chelsea of then bore little resemblance to the Chelsea of today and although there were fashionable parts of the area, Stamford Bridge was not one of them!

 

For two young men such as Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr, the small workshop in Chelsea represented a start in the world as independent men of means who were entrusted with an important task by the Duke of Norfolk and it would seem that they were determined to enjoy it!

 

For both Ramsden and Carr, this period in London was an exciting and happy one; both shared a passion for the theatre and when they were not working in the studio, they could be found in the West End enjoying all that the city offered in terms of entertainment.

 

They were said to frequently finish their work for the day and then head out into town with parts of the partly completed ceremonial Mace stuffed in their pockets as this was deemed safer than leaving the valuable, partly completed sections unattended in the studio all night.

 

The idea of the Duke’s Mayoral Mace being included in so many West End revelries is an amusing one and perhaps highlights the fact that highly talented or not, Omar Ramsden was still a young man and had less highbrow things on his mind for at least some portion of his day.

 

The Mace was completed in 1899 and despite being made in London, it bears the Sheffield Assay Mark due to its creators being from that city and having trained in their craft there.

 

The Mace is an impressive piece of work and is entirely made from hand-beaten silver; its head is in the form of a Royal crown with a pierced Fleur De Lys gallery; decorated with oak leaves and acorns, it also includes the Arms of the Duke of Norfolk on one side and those of the City of Sheffield on the other. Between the two Coats of Arms are representations of the Yorkshire Roses.

 

The staff of the Mace is decorated with pomegranates which was a design taken from Mary Tudor’s badge, the connection being that it was she who gave Sheffield it’s first Charter.

 

The inscription at the base of the Mace reads, “Deo Adjuvante Labor Proficit” (With God’s help our labour is successful.) and beneath this, “Omar Ramsden and Alwyn C E Carr made me in the year of our Lord 1899”.

 

Omar Ramsden’s singular style is apparent in the execution of the Mace though there are some who believe that the actual creation of it was undertaken more by Alwyn Carr whose skills as a Silversmith were considerable.

 

The repousse work on the Mace is done with extreme skill and Omar Ramsden was not known to be skilled in this area.

 

This school of thought is given strength when we consider that prior to the Mace there were no completed or at least known completed works in silver which bore Omar Ramsden’s name.

 

His skills as a designer were apparent from the moment he was chosen as the winner of the competition but it is difficult to assess which of the two partners had more of a hand in the actual execution of the Mace.

 

Pastures New

The Mace was not the only work undertaken at the Chelsea workshop in 1899 and in the city of Sheffield’s museum there lies an exquisite silver bowl, wrought with repousse panels of dog roses which are framed with intertwined briars; an inscription on this bowl reads, “Content who lives with tried state need fear no change of frowning fate.” Which is a quote taken from Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. Beneath the bowl, on its base is the familiar inscription “Omar Ramsden and Alwyn C E Carr made me, 1899.”

 

The quote and the design are typical of Ramsden, he was attracted to and strongly influenced by Tudor art and Spenser wrote The Shepheardes Calendar during this period.

 

Another impressive piece made that same year is in a private collection; it is a tall silver vase with a design of pomegranates and the now familiar inscription “Omar Ramsden and Alwyn C E Carr made me 1899.”

 

Both the bowl and the vase display a strong understanding of the Arts and Crafts style; sinuous and elegant with their inspiration rooted deeply in the natural world their appeal is timeless.

 

It is not difficult to imagine the admiration such pieces would have attracted at the turn of the century when fashionable society was desperate for a breath of fresh air as the stifling Victorian age was drawing to a close and the brighter, more forward thinking twentieth century beckoned.

 

So the pair of intrepid Silversmiths were becoming quite industrious it would seem; an alliance had been formed and a working relationship in which both men could grow and flourish whilst Omar Ramsden’s design talent led them in the right direction.

 

In the months following the creation of the Mace, demand and a need for assistance saw the workload increase to such an extent that the men were forced to take on a growing staff of assistants in the shape of first, Walter Andrews who had been originally employed as an errand boy but who quickly began training as a Silversmith beneath Ramsden and Carr.

 

A E Ulyett was also welcomed into the studio that year and became a senior chaser and later, the manager of the concern and a man on whom Omar Ramsden relied heavily.

 

It was shortly after the Sheffield Mace was completed that Ramsden and Carr decided to split the workshop from the studio; this would they imagined, create a more relaxed environment for Ramsden to tackle his drawing and designing whilst the workshop could continue as before under the management of A E Ulyett.

 

The new studio was duly set up at Albert Bridge, Battersea and the workshops were moved to Fulham but after some teething troubles with the first workshop’s location in Fulham, Ramsden announced another move to Seymour Place off the Fulham Road.

 

This time, the studio and workshops were in the same location and this made things simpler in all aspects.

 

The building which was chosen as the new location for the company was a charming one. Old fashioned and quaint for the area it was instantly attractive to Ramsden and Carr and they were not hesitant in their decision to move.

 

St Dunstan’s was a charming old building with a lovely Mulberry tree in the grounds and details such as a fine portcullis entrance appealed to the stylish pair to whom aesthetics were everything.

 

They established the workshop and the drawing offices at St Dunstan’s and found the large, airy rooms were well appointed for their needs. Information gleaned from newspaper accounts of the period would indicate that the studio was a lively place of work and staff were encouraged to take part in amateur dramatics which both Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr enjoyed immensely.

 

Impromptu performances of all kinds took place at the studios and it would seem that everyone from the messenger boys to the managers were encouraged to join in!

 

As the business grew, an adjacent builder’s yard was incorporated into the studio and provided more space for chasers and other staff who worked on Ramsden’s designs.

 

This period of growth was largely financed by the wealthy Alwyn Carr as the profits which the business made were ploughed back in and used to continue improving the manner in which things were run.

Growth and Prosperity

The First World War was just around the corner but business was flourishing and the team at St Dunstan’s continued to grow until it stabilised at twenty.

 

Notable amongst the staff were the gifted Silversmiths Walter Andrews and Leonard Burt and also Jeanne Eteve who undertook most of the enamelling work as well as secretarial duties.

 

Ramsden and Carr were adept at talent spotting and many of the apprentices and assistants which they took on over the years went on to have successful careers in their own right.

 

By building a talented and capable team, the pair were assuring themselves of their position as respected producers of fine silverware and building the foundations upon which they would rest for a number of years.

 

They were commissioned to produce all manner of silverware from tableware to ornamental goods and larger pieces for municipal buildings and organisations.

 

The in-house style of Ramsden and Carr drew influences from Celtic and medieval periods and was considerably advanced in terms of style for the era.  

 

Ramsden had a particular talent for self promotion and was adept at networking and securing large commissions including ecclesiastical orders.

 

As both Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr were staunch Roman Catholics, it was not surprising that many commissions came their way from the Catholic Church.

 

One of the most notable pieces to be created by the pair is the magnificent Monstrance made for Westminster Cathedral in 1907. The authorship of the Monstrance is attributed to Alwyn Carr and it was he who took ownership of the finished drawing for it when in later years, the partnership was ended and the work and records split between the pair.

 

The piece is certainly different to that of Omar Ramsden’s notable pieces, its heavy base contrasts markedly with the wiry decoration encircling the cruciform section of the Monstrance.

 

The design has an air of the future about it due in part to its nod to medieval substantiality which was a look not to come into real prominence until the 1940s; so it is reasonable to come to the conclusion that Carr was as ahead of his time as Ramsden was.

 

Despite its solid appearance, the Monstrance has an elegance which is remarkable for so sombre a design and it is only let down by the somewhat clumsy enamel panels which are presumed to have been executed by Jeanne Eteve.

 

The work which was coming into the studio was varied and Omar Ramsden’s talents were regularly noted in the press. His craftsmanship was celebrated yearly with an exhibition at the studio and this was attended by fashionable society and always faithfully recorded in the press.

 

He also took part in many exhibitions around the country, notably at Newlyn where his presence is recorded regularly in records from the period.

 

Changing Times

By 1912 the studio had become more “salon like” than ever and a growing circle of friends and admirers came regularly to socialise at St Dunstan’s and to bask in the reflected glory of Ramsden and Carr.

 

The partnership was strong and life was good at this point but something had to change and if anything could break up the partnership, it was war.

 

In 1914 Alwyn Carr enlisted and joined up with the Artist’s Rifles; in 1915 he was granted a commission in the R.A.S.C and left for France.

 

London was changing and more and more men were enlisting, the studio could not stay as it was and though the staff changes were more frequent, Ramsden stayed put in London and did not enlist.

 

He is known to have created a number of war memorials during the war years and a notable one is to be found in Sandwich; executed in Bronze like many of the war memorials of the time it features a relief of St George and the Dragon and is a notably well executed piece for the period.

 

When Alwyn Carr returned to England in 1918 it was because he had been injured and invalided out, he had also been granted the honorary title of Captain and spent some time recuperating from his experiences and injuries.

 

He was, when fully recovered keen to get back to work with Ramsden but on attempting to carry on as before, he found the relationship too far changed to resume business as it had been.

 

During the war years, Omar Ramsden had made new friends and had forged a particularly close alliance with Mr and Mrs Downes-Butcher; Mrs Annie Downs-Butcher had a particularly strong influence on Ramsden and Carr was thought to find this difficult.

 

In the past, both Ramsden and Carr had lived within the confines of St Dunstan’s, both in their own quarters, but now Carr moved out, apparently unable to stand the influence of Mrs Downs-Butcher upon the business which no longer needed his financial support to stay profitable.

 

At some point during the years after the war, it is apparent that Omar Ramsden’s relationship with Mrs Downs-Butcher became something more than that of a close friend and following her husbands’ death in the mid twenties, the two were married.

 

She had long had some involvement in the studio from a social perspective if not an advisory one and now she was married to Ramsden, her presence became even stronger and she was well known to both workshop staff and locals alike.

 

Ramsden is thought to have made a very special gift for her after their marriage, in the shape of a silver belt or “girdle”. This girdle, now in the British Museum, is Medieval in style and consists of eighteen shields linked together with ropework knots and was designed to be worn in the manner of a belt.

 

In the centre of the girdle is the figure of St Christopher carrying the infant Christ and hanging from this are four more shields which end in a further figure, this time that of Thomas Beckett.

 

On each shield is depicted a Heraldic device and on the reverse is engraved a location from “The Pilgrim’s Way”.

 

It is a remarkably beautiful piece and one can only imagine the pride with which Ramsden’s new wife wore it…and wear it she did! She was regularly seen by staff from the workshop as she walked through Kensington and one staff member is recorded as saying, “Mrs Downes Butcher was a formidable woman who could be seen striding down the streets of South Kensington clasping a tall cane and wearing a long silver chain decorated with scenes from the Canterbury Tales.”

This is undoubtedly the girdle made by Omar Ramsden and such a romantic gesture says something of the man he was.

 

It is thought that this gift was Ramsden’s special message to his wife as the couple were known to walk the route of the Pilgrim’s Way themselves, to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket.

 

Many happy hours must have been spent on that route and in recording the places which are encountered on the famous walk within such a piece of jewellery, Ramsden was essentially honouring his wife.

 

As an interesting side note, there is a silver cup signed by Ramsden in a small church in Yorkshire, The Church of Thomas Becket has a centuries old connection with Thomas Becket and it is interesting to consider why Ramsden felt such affinity with him and why he gifted a cup to a church in an area with which he had no known connection other than his admiration for that particular Saint.

 

The cup is small, goblet shaped and made of beaten sterling silver with a flared rim and a trumpet shaped stem. The Spreading foot on the stepped base is inscribed “Omar Ramsden Me Fecit” Which translates as “Omar Ramsden made me.”

 

This is similar to the style in which Ramsden and Carr first signed their collaborative pieces and is a quirk which shows his innate humour and love of classic art.

 

Annie was obviously a major presence in Ramsden’s life and her involvement in the business went on for years after Ramsden’s death. It was she who dealt with staff and clients and she who ensured the business kept going for some time after Ramsden was gone.

 

It is somewhat comforting to know that Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr’s relationship did not suffer in the long term due to their growing apart creatively and in 1938, Carr wrote his will and his reference to Omar Ramsden is singularly warm; the relevant section reads, “To Omar Ramsden, St Dunstan’s, Seymour Place, West Brompton, my friend and partner for so many years, my continuous affection and gratitude for all that I owe to him during our years together.”

 

Alwyn Carr died two years after drawing up his will, outliving his friend by just one year. Omar Ramsden passed away in 1939 leaving his wife and her children Gerald and Joan to manage the business alone.

 

The young man from Sheffield had come a long way and his legacy is clear to this day.

 

His works are avidly collected by many enthusiasts, often creating as much of a hubbub when they appear at auction as they did when they were first created all those years ago in London.

 

 

Omar Ramsden is considered a master and although relatively little is known of his private life, it is a certainty that his designs have outlived many fashions and fads and continue to grace their surroundings with as much impact as they did at the turn of the twentieth century.

 

 

 

 

To listen to an audio version please visit   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIT9SmhAr-0