File Note 90: Shelagh Wakely - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Sarah Kent



Eros in a Glass, the Poetry of Mundane Encounters Images References Quote Biography Credits

Eros in a Glass, the Poetry of Mundane Encounters

You smell it before you see it; a carpet of golden yellow turmeric fills the air with a pungent aroma. Sprinkled over the floor in flowing patterns inspired by Baroque gardens, the spice forms a thin layer yet its presence pervades the entire space. Curcuma sul Travertino was initially installed at the British School in Rome in 1991, six years after Shelagh Wakely first made a sketch of ‘an imagined carpet, a luscious smelling coloured stain’1. 

A mantle of scarlet silk was laid over the marble floor tiles of Palazzo Ruini in Reggio Emilia. A shockingly seductive pool of red fabric, it had been slashed with a knife as though a jealous lover had launched a frenzied assault; on a related drawing she wrote ‘skin/blood’. The following year, black silk cut into organic patterns transformed the floor of the Espaço Sérgio Porto in Rio de Janeiro into a sea of shimmering darkness.  

Dramatic installations like these were the culmination of years of experimentation. For her first solo show, in 1976, Wakely carpeted the floor of the AIR Gallery, London with tissue paper torn into delicate pieces resembling cherry blossom. Twelve years later she covered the floor of Union Chapel, North London, with organic shapes derived from shells, fingers, petals and leaves cut from the pages of style magazines. The shapes remind me of the famous Bisto ads in which the delicious smell of gravy is seen wafting through the air in sinuous clouds.

The association is not as ridiculous as it might seem since the inspiration for Nymphs (1987) came from perfume ads, and the cut-outs soon morphed into stencils through which spices such as cumin, ginger and turmeric were sprinkled to intoxicating effect. The stencils were also used to dust the floors of galleries such as the Ikon, Birmingham (1992), Cairn, Nailsworth (1993) and Angel Row, Nottingham (2002) with gold, aluminium or bronze powder, producing complex arabesques gleaming with reflected light.

Seeds sewn through the stencils grew into carpets of fragrant herbs (the International Ephemeral Sculpture Exhibition, 1991) while the courtyard of St. George’s Hospital, Tooting was paved with slabs of stone surrounded by medicinal plants and heavily scented flowers that induced ‘a feeling of heavy eroticism’. Underpinning the sensuality and unashamed eroticism of these fragrant installations was the idea of a substance escaping its confines to invade the space around it  —  whether perfume released from a flower, scent escaping a bottle, liquid flowing from a glass or sound emanating from a trumpet. 

In a career spanning nearly forty years, Wakely revisited the notion of boundaries, edges and divisions  — the interface between this and that, inner and outer, the self and other  —  in a wide variety of media including sculptures, installations, watercolours, drawings, prints, photographs and videos. ‘Until you have found the edge there is no possibility of going beyond it’, she wrote on a drawing. ‘Actually dealing with the edge all the time … an unknown place.’ 

Distributed apparently at random across sheets of paper or lengths of calico, hundreds of ink drawings of hands, feet, hats, fans, fruit, flowers, petals, leaves, shells, musical instruments and geometric shapes obsessively delineate the edges that divide one thing from another  — physically and psychologically. Two long-stemmed glasses resembling profile heads face one another; beside them is written ‘outside looking in / inside looking out’.

The erotic potential of breaching the divide and entering that ‘unknown place’ did not escape her. Transparent vessels such as bowls, cups, tumblers and jugs which allow the gaze to penetrate the surface, are a means of exploring notions of intimacy and distance, the desire to fuse and the ineluctable fact of separation. Through what she called ‘a conversation with someone else using an object as an intermediary’, Wakely explored the poetry of mundane encounters  —  a glass brushing a lip, a knife held in a hand, liquid sliding down a throat  —  thereby addressing the intensity of touch and the longing provoked by its absence. ‘He kept the glass as if to remember the shape of a drink’, she wrote on one drawing.

The concept of the edge is reiterated in simple wire outlines of a foot, a hand, a fork, or shoe. Soon she began encasing fruit and vegetables in finely wrought cages made of silver wire; the fruit was allowed to wither until nothing was left except a few flakes of dried skin inside an exquisite exo-skeleton. Cherry Necklace (2000)  —  a cluster of stalks, pips and a garland of jeweller’s wire  —  is a memento mori not just for the string of fresh cherries around which it was fashioned, but for all things juicy, ripe and delicious. The fruit becomes a metaphor for life itself and the cycle of birth, death and regeneration. 

Aubergines, peppers, courgettes, tangerines and grapefruit were encased in gold leaf and similarly left to whither. As the plump flesh rotted and shrivelled, the golden skins wrinkled and warped into masks whose gaudy flamboyance mocks the corruption hidden beneath their surface. In 1993 Wakely achieved the apparently impossible  —  gilding a swathe of water. Invited to exhibit in Museo do Açude near Rio de Janeiro, she sprinkled bronze powder onto the rectangular pool outside the museum to create a perfect mirror. 

Tropical rainstorms made short work of disturbing the glittering surface, which had to be renewed each day; but the contest gave Wakely the idea of collaborating with the elements rather than trying to combat them. Back in England, she covered sheets of glass in aluminium leaf and left them out in the rain for various lengths of time so the silvery skins were eroded to differing degrees. The addition of a second sheet of glass preserved the patterns, which she described as ‘the memory of the falling rain’.

Memory is another recurring theme; from the very beginning, Wakely explored its fragility and evasiveness. Called Towards the Inside of a Container, her exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1979 featured two vessels made of unfired clay. Cast from the inside and outside of a small bowl, they were shown one inside the other, the space between them being the thickness of the initial vessel. This evocation of an absent object might have been nothing more than a formal investigation had the frail shells not seemed so abject and so vulnerable. More like traces than fully-fledged objects and too frail to function as vessels, they feel like ghosts  —  abandoned and useless.

That sense of desolation was triggered by a photo of an urn, an inadequate memento of an encounter in a garden. ‘All I had was the photograph from five years ago’, wrote Wakely, ‘like some tight self-conscious kiss, and the memory of the garden in which I had found it.’ 2 The bowl was a surrogate for a half-forgotten urn that in the artist’s mind had become ‘the unobtainable, the thing one wanted most’; its deletion translated it into a poetic emblem of loss, a repository of unfulfilled desires and fading memories. 

‘Eros is not a physical accomplishment; it is an evocation of the mind’ 3, wrote Wakely. The remark might equally well apply to her work which, like the ceramic bowls, is often ‘an evocation of the mind’ as much as ‘a physical accomplishment’. Her drawings may be spread over large sheets, but they rarely stake a claim; the myriad silhouettes of familiar objects are like whispered invocations, as transparent as recollections and as insubstantial as dreams. 

Her sculptures do not so much occupy space as infiltrate it. Whether growing in a courtyard, encroaching upon a floor, covering a wall or enfolding an object, they act primarily as seductive skins moderating the interface between one thing and another. No matter how beautiful, glamorous or expansive, they are nearly always fragile and often short-lived  —  relics that may linger in the mind but often exist only through reproduction or restoration. 

A sense of loss permeates Shelagh Wakely’s work; beauty withers, memories fade, love dies, the moment slips through one’s fingers. But it is not drenched in melancholy; backward glances imbue the work’s fragile beauty with a delicious sense of longing coupled with the promise that unfulfilled desire outlives the allure of the thing within one’s grasp. And for romance there is always art, which is not subject to the will of others and, as Wakely demonstrated so eloquently, ‘is so much more succulent than reality’.


1 Shelagh Wakely used to scribble comments on her drawings about the ideas she was working on, as well as thoughts about art in general and being an artist. Unless otherwise stated, the remarks quoted are taken from her drawings.

2 Shelagh Wakely, Towards the Inside of a Container, LYC Press, Cumbria: 1979.

3 Wakely, ibid.

 ‘For most of us Eros is not a physical accomplishment; it is an evocation of the mind. Even now I can drink from a glass sometimes and not think of it being anything special.’ Shelagh Wakely


Shelagh Wakely (1932–2011) was a pioneer of installation art. She had solo exhibitions and installations at: the Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1979; John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, 1982; The Showroom, London, 1989; IKON Gallery, Birmingham, 1992; Museu do Açude, Rio de Janeiro, 1993; and The British School at Rome, 1991. One of her outdoor installations, Rainsquare, was installed at the South London Gallery in 1994. Her work was included in the following group exhibitions: Summer Show 1, Serpentine Gallery, 1977; British Art 1940–80 from the Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery, London, 1980; Collazione Inglese at Scuola di San Pasquale (Anthony Reynolds Selection) during the Venice Biennale 1984; New Art, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, 1985; and An English Summer: British Art in Northern Italy, Palazzo Ruini Reggio Emilia, Italy, 1991. She was a fellow at The British School at Rome in 1991. In her later years she undertook many architectural commissions in the UK and abroad including an ambitious mosaic for the southern porch of the Royal Albert Hall, London. Public collections include: The Henry Moore Trust; Arts Council Collection; British Council; and the Victoria and Albert Museum. When she died, Shelagh Wakely bequeathed her estate to The Elephant Trust, to support future generations of artists. Her estate is represented by Richard Saltoun, London.


Sarah Kent is a critic and curator based in London.

Supported by The Elephant Trust and The Shelagh Wakely Bequest.