Derwent Wise : Reliefs – A Journey between Sculpture and Painting (The Hatton Gallery 1998) by Andrew Burton

Tailpiece (1969)

The reputation of Derwent Wise as a teacher and artist is firmly established. At the heart of his work lies a continuing engagement with those aspects of the visual world which excite him: nature, landscape, machines, architecture. His career spans over forty years, from 1956 when he graduated from King’s College, Durham University (now the Fine Art Department of Newcastle University), to the present. He continues to work from his studio in Low Fell. During this time his sense of curiosity and investigation into what he sees has led him to work in drawing, sculpture, relief and painting.

This exhibition focuses on the reliefs . Most of these were made between 1969 and 1982, the ‘ middle years’ of Wise’s career. This was a transitional period, during which he worked across the traditional boundaries of sculpture and painting. The work exhibited here underlines the creative interplay between his differing approaches to making art. The early part of Wise’s career was characterised by an approach to sculpture which was essentially based on examining, synthesizing and restructuring what the artist saw in the visual world. After 1979, when he began to concentrate principally on painting, he chose to represent his subject in a more naturalistic and objective way. However to over-emphasise the opposing nature of these ways of working would be to miss the essential consistency of his approach. Derwent Wise describes the developments in his career as always having been led by instinct, rather than according to a logical plan. He sees the medium of relief sculpture as the middle ground between painting and sculpture . It is in this area that he has explored some of his principal concerns : his curiosity about colour, and his awareness of the profound difference between real and illusory space and form. The reliefs can be seen as works which grapple with these themes. They show how the sculptures and paintings cross­ fertilised each other, and how Wise’s overall output, far from being characterised by separate and opposing tendencies, is in fact a vibrant dialogue which emphasises the diversity of creative activity.

 Interior and Garden, Low Fell
Interior and Garden, Low Fell

Derwent Wise was born in 1933 in Loftus, Yorkshire. His father was a railway stationmaster. From his early years he developed a fascination with landscape and technology which he observed closely, an interest that has continued throughout his life. He went to school in Bishop Auckland and from there to King’s College. Following National Service he returned to Newcastle and then in 1960 was appointed Director of Three Dimensional Studies at Salford School of Art. After a year as Head of Sculpture at Wolverhampton College of Art he was invited back to Newcastle University to take up a lecturing post in sculpture. He continued to work in the Department of Fine Art, becoming Head of Sculpture in 1974 until his retirement from teaching in 1994. Since then he has concentrated on painting, particularly from the Northumbrian landscape, which has become the principal sphere of his artistic activity.


Derwent Wise’s interest in relief was prompted in part by a local commission in the late sixties. This was  proposal to improve large blank areas of concrete at the base of tower blocks in the east of Newcastle upon Tyneby attaching relief panels. He produced a series of works,  which still exist ,and this led him to begin to explore the ground between sculpture and painting.

The first studio reliefs were made in card, which he saw as an equivalent to drawing. Wise began to build up a repertoire of shape and line which he explored in these studies. After a time he began to introduce small areas of colour which worked against the neutral background. The importance of these works is in the way they illustrate the process of selecting form, colour and shape which he then used in the finished wood and fibre-glass pieces.

Tailpiece (196g) shows the influence of both nature and technology: the forms could suggest a butterfly or the tail of an aeroplane. The vertebrae­ like form at the top left belongs equally to both worlds. The natural and the man-made are not cast in opposition but find a common identity and language.

relief_1Wise also had a keen interest and enthusiasm for architecture which is apparent in much of his work. Design for Living (1g10) shows how architectural drawings and diagrams could also be important source material. He was fascinated by the London Underground map because of the way in which it directly and simply conveyed a complex idea.

His approach to materials was always led by a keen appreciation for the functional. Card was used for preliminary studies and the finished pieces are made in wood, fibre-glass and metal, materials which are well suited to the curves and planes that he wanted to achieve. This use of materials is, in itself a form of the artist’s natural selection. The reliefs, always fabricated by hand, explore both a sense of positive form achieved through constructing with materials, and the negative space implied through the process of mould making and casting in resin.

Up until the early seventies, Wise had been working exclusively as a sculptor. During this time colour had become an increasingly positive factor in his work. In the reliefs it became central to their understanding. In common with other aspects of his subject matter, colour was always taken from observation, for example from the livery of railway wagons or from the functional paints used in agricultural structures. As he began to work simultaneously in three and two dimensions he became increasingly aware of the difference between the use of colour in the reliefs and in painting and found that painting allowed him to convey a greater emotional depth.
relief_2Music was also a strong inspiration. The work ‘Fugue’ (1982) uses spatial division, bars and ribs to communicate the artist’s response to the musical shape of the fugue where short melodies are introduced and reintroduced until an interwoven repetitive form is achieved. At about this time Wise was beginning to concentrate increasingly on painting. However the same concerns: division of space, rhythm and colour are equally apparent in this medium. By rotating the painting Interior and Garden, Low Fell (1982) through 90 degrees the comparison between his sculptural reliefs and painting is striking.



RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION – The Hatton Gallery, December 2006 – January 2007

Derwent Wise – A Tribute by John Milner, Art Historian and Friend

Derwent Wise was a maker.  He was not concerned with image or fame but with the physical making of art. In a way the reproductive image captured all that for Derwent was inessential in art.  He preferred to adopt his ‘humble craftsman’ identity, yet he was subtle, able, cynical, perceptive and outspoken. He often said that all change should be resisted – even change for the better.  Universities and Art Schools have seen a lot of change that has impinged upon the pedagogic relationship of student and tutor.  Teaching and making were at the core of Derwent’s career, and in both he was ruthlessly honest and immensely generous with his time and expertise.

He was by no means a ‘humble craftsman’, as his ambition moved beyond craft to the far richer and less certain aims of sculpture and painting.  Unlike the humble craftsman he had no predetermined aim. His work was always an exploration of materials, structures and space – minutely observed and created, for much of his career, in glass-fibre.  In,  for example, the clasp of a car seat belt, Derwent could find the subtlest of relations between space, solid, finish and design from which made solemn, elegant, low reliefs for the wall. He studied closely what we take for granted, and he believed in the artist achieving a control of means equal to that of the craftsman, the designer, and the industrial fabricator.

Derwent with Sculpture

This made him a dedicated professional. He had absolutely no interest at all in the art world’s latest fashion. He scarcely travelled, and yet his ambitions were high in painting, sculpture and teaching.  He believed, for example, in the student’s individuality as a creative person, but he insisted too that a student should know at the end of each day what he or she had learnt.  Drawing played a crucial role in this.  He promoted life painting for sculptors, and life modelling for painters, not simply to develop skills but for disciplined creative discovery.  He dreaded teaching that produced identical results, or an adopted style, among students.  Professionalism, for Derwent, meant knowing your aims, your materials, tools, and methods in pursuing an individual vision.

His adoption of painting in the second half of his career baffled many and delighted others.  His meticulous paintings of Northumberland – each minutely observed – thrilled those who loved that Northern land­ scape, its light, weather, geology, and specific qualities.  These paintings sold well and their topographic exactness gave great pleasure to people who knew and loved these places.  He equally astonished people with his enthusiasm for academic Victorian landscape paintings, in particular those of Benjamin Leader.
Derwent’s paintings could not be mistaken for sculptures, of course, and he felt criticism deeply when colleagues occasionally commented on the Head of Sculpture making paintings.  They should have looked closer, for these are certainly a sculptor’s paintings. Imagine one of Derwent’s distant and elevated views of landscape with a farm building or two in the foreground or middle distance.  Close inspection reveals structures of intricate complexity in the juxtapositions  of walls, roofs, gates, and sheds, that Derwent had studied like minute plans for relief sculptures. Similarly the towering bright clouds, or the flat water sliding back down the beach into the ocean.  All of this had structure, every time, whether in a landscape drawing, a bird’s bill, or a sculpture.  His gaze was analytical and precise.  It was meteorological, ornithological, agricultural, geological as his study demanded.

Derwent in Studio with sculpture

This is rich material for a sculptor.  He loved the well made dry stone wall, the shapes of a yard, the relation of a tree to the wind, rock and soil. Everything observed was as easily transformed into sculpture as into painting, and always flawlessly made.

Most makers are not artists.  Many of these Derwent fervently admired.  He collected the wooden patterns that ship-builders  used to define complex curves.  He loved rural structures, and he stripped his stone houses in Low Fell and Belford to their beautiful, original basic forms .

His vision also made him a remarkable collector of objects, Japanese prints, small sculptures, paintings, and furniture, with which he and his wife Elizabeth made welcome and handsome interiors of refinement and elegance.

Derwent felt no distance from the craftsman, the engineer, wall-builder,  or draughtsman.  He shared and paid homage to their skills and abilities in making their works.  He also used this to make art that was thought through, arresting, individual, and beautiful.  It made him an influential teacher, and a demanding tutor, ready to celebrate when you performed well, but impossible to fool if you performed badly.

Personally, I miss this meticulous, melancholic, and hilarious friend.  He was as difficult and delightful as a good friend could be.

John Milner
Art Historian and friend


The Background Story by Elizabeth Wise

Derwent Wise was born in Loftus in Cleveland in 1933. He was the second son of Horace and Doris Wise. Horace’s living was with the railways, he was a Station Master during the years that I knew him. Neither parent showed any particular interest in painting or drawing but all four sons had abilities in those directions.

Derwent (standing, right) with his parents Horace and Doris and his twin brothers David and Stuart.  His older brother Douglass
Derwent (standing, right) with his parents Horace and Doris and his twin brothers David and Stuart. His older brother Douglass

Derwent was educated at Bishop Auckland Grammar School, he seems to have been a rather one-sided pupil. Science was always a mystery, but he was good at Arts in general and eventually (after turning down a place at the London School of Economics) he enrolled in 1951, with the assistance of a County Major Scholarship, in the Department of Fine Art in what was then King’s College, Durham University.

During his undergraduate years, under Professor Laurence Gowing,  Derwent was taught  by sculptors Murray McCheyne and Geoffrey  Dudley.  A Hatton Scholarship stretched his time in the department to five years.  There is some small amount of work from these years, before 1956, on this website.  He became technically  very accomplished during this time, he was very good at casting, something that was only taught to those who were prepared to spend all their time below ground in the Sculpture School.  Inevitably much of his early production was cast in plaster or was fired clay, Derwent being a modeller rather than a carver, and money in short supply.  National Service could not be deferred any longer and in 1956 he entered the R.A.S.C., spending the whole of his service at Aldershot.

National Service c. 1956
National Service c. 1956

I did not meet Derwent until 1958 when I was in my third year in the Department.  For much of the next two years he worked for the Master of Sculpture, Murray McCheyne, and continued to make his own sculpture.  He was also writing a thesis on Rodin.  Our getting married depended on Derwent finding a job and fortunately, in the year I graduated, 1960, one turned up; no doubt the marriage would have been put off for ever had Salford Technical College not been so obliging.

Derwent and Elizabeth on their Wedding Day 1960
Derwent and Elizabeth on their Wedding Day 1960

After Salford, and a year at Wolverhampton School of Art as Head of Sculpture, Derwent returned to Newcastle where he was eventually appointed as Master of Sculpture.  Over the following years, from 1963 until 1997, Derwent worked at what was, by then, Newcastle University.  The University was sympathetic to Fine Art staff making their own work, but Derwent made time to fight for the appointment of dedicated Art School technicians as well as the staffing and development of a new building. Being Head of the Department, which he did for a while, did not appeal at all as he found that he could not get enough of his own work done as well as running the Sculpture School.

The move towards painting coincided with our family, now including three children, taking a farmhouse for holidays and weekends near Wooler in North Northumberland.  I believe that the time spent there, when he was still steadily making reliefs had an enormous effect on his interest in painting.  When we had to give up the house he was devastated. It took him many years to recover but there were compensations.  Frequent trips to the lakes where one son lives resulted in the Lake District paintings and there was an increased interest in the Tyne and Tynemouth.  Holy Island was still often visited and is the subject of his very last works which are in this exhibition.  Derwent was never really interested in painting areas with which he was unfamiliar; he needed to thoroughly absorb them.   It is no accident that most of his output relates to the Northern Counties.  ‘Travel’ in the accepted sense was of no interest to him, particularly the foreign variety.

Derwent exhibited steadily and extensively.  He had a large number of one man shows, completed  many commissions and exhibited in numerous mixed shows.   I have tried, with the help
of my family, to put together examples of everything that my husband did, from his Final Exhibition as an under­graduate in 1956 through all the stages of a very productive life.  I hope that it will be of great interest to all visitors to this website and bring additional pleasure to those who have enjoyed his work over the years.

Elizabeth Wise

Derwent and Elizabeth, June 1995
Derwent and Elizabeth, June 1995