William Ratcliffe

1870–1955

William Ratcliffe, ‘Hampstead Garden Suburb from Willifield Way’ c.1914
Hampstead Garden Suburb from Willifield Way c.1914
© The estate of William Ratcliffe
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Biography

Artist biography

William Whiteread Ratcliffe (figs.1 and 2) was born on 6 October 1870 in the village of Clenchwarton, just west of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, the youngest of four children of Zachariah Johnson Ratcliffe and Kezia Ratcliffe (née Harness). When Ratcliffe was young, the family moved to Manchester where his father was employed as a clerk and then a labourer, living at 4 Norbury Street in the suburb of Gorton. After leaving school Ratcliffe worked as a clerk in a cotton merchant’s office, and for seven years attended evening classes in practical design at Manchester School of Art, where the Director of Design was Walter Crane (1845–1915), a committed socialist and influential member of the Arts and Crafts movement. Perhaps inspired by the Arts and Crafts ethic, around 1894 Ratcliffe began working as a wallpaper designer. Although none of his designs are identified, their legacy can be seen in such paintings as The Attic Room 1918 (Tate T03167) in which a detailed wallpaper pattern is carefully reproduced. In 1901 he was living with his older sister, Edith, at 95 Hulme Hall Road in Cheadle, Cheshire, where he gave his occupation on the census as ‘Designer of Wall Papers, working at home on own account’.1 Around this time he moved to London to work for the Wallpaper Manufacturers’ Combine, until moving to 10 (now 19) Westholm Green in Letchworth Garden City around 1906.
Letchworth, the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928), was still in its early stages of development in the early 1900s. Ratcliffe was one of a number of artists and designers who moved to the new town, attracted by the surrounding countryside, the Arts and Crafts housing (see figs.3 and 4), and the textile, pottery and furniture businesses that lined the modest thoroughfare. Stanley Parker, whom Ratcliffe might have met at Manchester School of Art, was the brother of one of the town’s architects and may have encouraged Ratcliffe to move there. Parker, who subsequently taught craft at St Christopher’s School in Letchworth, developed a close friendship with Ratcliffe, and introduced him to many of the local artists and musicians at the regular gatherings he and his Swedish wife Signe organised at their home at 32 Westholm Green.2 It was probably in this informal environment that Ratcliffe met the painter Harold Gilman who had moved with his family to 15 Westholm Green in 1908, a few doors away from Ratcliffe. Parker and Gilman soon moved to larger family houses at 102 and 100 Wilbury Road respectively; Ratcliffe stayed in Westholm Green, moving to number 18 (now 11) in 1909.




During his first years in Letchworth, Ratcliffe worked as a freelance designer producing illustrations of the Garden City for books, postcards and the annual engagement calendar published by new printing companies such as the Garden City Press, as well as possibly continuing with his wallpaper designs.3 However, with Gilman’s encouragement, Ratcliffe decided to abandon graphic design and enrol at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He studied there part-time for a term starting in January 1910,4 and at the same time began attending the regular ‘At Homes’ held at 19 Fitzroy Street under the auspices of Walter Sickert. Paintings such as Interior c.1911 (private collection),5 which depicts a woman seated in a domestic interior painted in bright colours with impasto brushstrokes, show the impact the new group had on his work.6 Likewise, in depicting a central London square in Clarence Gardens 1912 (Tate T03359, fig.5), Gilman’s and Gore’s treatment of similar subject matter is evident.

Heather Birchall, Helena Bonett and Ysanne Holt
February 2011

Notes

Wikipedia entry

William Ratcliffe (6 October 1870 – January 1955) was one of the Camden Town Group of artists in early twentieth-century England. Although he never achieved the fame of other members of the Group, such as his friend and mentor Harold Gilman, he remained a full-time artist throughout his life, relying on the support of friends and family.

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