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William Whiteread Ratcliffe 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’. 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 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. 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. However, with Gilman’s encouragement, Ratcliffe decided to abandon graphic design and enroll at the Slade School of Fine Art* in London. He studied there part-time for a term starting in January 1910, 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), 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. Likewise, in depicting a central London square in Clarence Gardens 1912 (Tate T03359), Gilman’s and Gore’s treatment of similar subject matter is evident.
Ratcliffe was subsequently proposed by Gilman for membership of the Camden Town Group*, showing four works in each of the three exhibitions. In a review of the first exhibition in June 1911, the Daily Telegraph described him as ‘a valiant and well-skilled impressionist of the French type’.
A reviewer in the Sunday Times wrote:
Pleasant luminist landscapes are ... shown by J. B. Manson and W. Ratcliffe, the two newest recruits to the group, whose works, like all the other paintings in this collection, have engaging qualities of colour and surface.
In July 1911 Ratcliffe exhibited with the Allied Artists’ Association, and in 1913 he became a founder-member of the London Group*, contributing regularly to their exhibitions until 1926 (he resigned in 1930).
In late 1912 or early 1913 Ratcliffe travelled to Sweden with Stanley and Signe Parker and the writer J.D. Beresford (1873–1947), no doubt enthused by Gilman’s recent visit there.
Ratcliffe continued to live an itinerant existence, staying periodically with family and friends, particularly his brother’s family, now in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire (see Tate T03167), and the Parkers in Letchworth (see Tate T00062). He often made excursions to the countryside, and from about 1914 frequently stayed in the family weekend cottage in Whiteleaf near Princes Risborough in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire. Throughout the 1920s he went on a number of painting expeditions to the West Country, residing with his friend, the artist C.J. Fox.19
The death of Spencer Gore in 1914 and Gilman five years later affected Ratcliffe profoundly, and he later told the artist William Townsend that ‘he had never painted so happily deprived of their encouragement’. In 1926 Ratcliffe stopped exhibiting with the London Group and resigned four years later. At this time he produced fewer oil paintings, and instead concentrated on wood engravings and works in ink and watercolour, exhibiting in an International Exhibition of Watercolours at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927 and 1928.
He held his first substantial show in 1946 at Roland, Browse and Delbanco, exhibiting sixteen works, all of which were painted in the period 1913–21. In August 1954 a solo exhibition was held at the Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery, where he showed forty-four works, a mixture of oil paintings, watercolours and woodcuts. Not long after, on 6 January 1955, Ratcliffe died at his relatives’ home in Hampstead. At the age of 84, he was one of the last survivors of the original Camden Town Group.
Written by Heather Birchall, Helena Bonett and Ysanne Holt
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