Rozanne Hawksley obituary | Art and design

The work of Rozanne Hawksley, who has died aged 90, exemplifies the intersection of making skills, materiality and concept that characterises what is known as “textile art” in the UK. Such labelling, however, fails to capture a true sense of Rozanne’s unique artistic practice and examples of her work are found in collections as diverse as the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the Crafts Council, the National Maritime Museum, and the Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal hospital. Difficult to categorise, the work is closer to sculpture than what we normally associate with embroidery or textile construction.

Her maternal grandmother supported her family by working with the needle, making sailors’ collars as a pieceworker for a naval outfitter in her native Portsmouth, while her mother and aunt always had some decorative, domestic needlework on the go; Rozanne herself acquired sewing and pattern-making skills as part of her tertiary education in art and design.

Certainly, in the second part of her life, making art became a kind of compulsion, a way to express both profound, personal emotions and a more universal empathy for the fragility of the human condition. Conceptually, her work addresses the most visceral experiences of life: love and loss; grief and remembrance. Recurring themes are rage against the immorality of armed conflict and its attendant human suffering.

The work, which ranges in scale from tiny, palm-sized objects to large installations, is rich in allegorical references and, often, many-layered in its making. Materials are selected intuitively, for their ability to convey narrative, and include found and discarded objects such as worn and soiled gloves, bleached bird and animal bones, jewels, fabrics and text. Comparisons have been drawn with so-called memento mori still life and vanitas-style painting, with their emphasis on the transience of life and the inevitability of human mortality.

Gloves were almost a signature motif in the Rozanne’s work. A highly poetic medium, gloves symbolise touch, propriety and human connectivity. They first appeared as memento mori in seminal works that she made in the late 1980s and early 90s. Pale Armistice: in Death Only Are We United (1987), a funeral wreath of worn and soiled white gloves adorned with lilies and bleached bones, represents all ages, rank and gender and is one of her best-known works. It was shown in the exhibition The Subversive Stitch in Manchester in 1988 (Cornerhouse and Whitworth Art Gallery) and subsequently acquired for the Embroiderers’ Guild collection.

Another version of Pale Armistice was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum collection in 1991 and has since been exhibited widely. The piece subverts traditional symbols of commemoration and has been called a “feminist meditation” on the grief and suffering associated with war.

Caiaphus, 2007, by Rozanne Hawksley features a glove, one of her signature motifs. It was bought by the Crafts Council in 2019.
Caiaphus, 2007, by Rozanne Hawksley features a glove, one of her signature motifs. It was bought by the Crafts Council in 2019. Photograph: Dewi Tannat Lloyd/Ruthin Craft Centre

Continuum, begun in the same period, from 1987, is a highly sculptural series of nailed gloves that speaks of the cruel and repetitive use of torture in conflict. Rozanne’s artistic output also embraces elaborately worked single gloves with gauntlets that were inspired by Elizabethan and Jacobean examples and are no less rich than the latter in their narrative content.

Born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, an embarkation point for the D-day landings that was bombed extensively in the blitz, Rozanne was the only daughter of Wendy (nee Alice Hunter) and Arthur (known as Turo) Pibworth, a bank clerk. She often commented how, retrospectively, she realised that growing up in Portsmouth, visibly surrounded by the human damage resulting from the first world war and conscious of the city’s vulnerability as a military target during the second, had seriously influenced her.

It also contributed to the precarious health that, in some sense, shaped her life. Evacuated as a child to various temporary homes in southern England and Wales she developed an intermittent stammer and was hospitalised with rheumatic fever and pericarditis. The experience left her with heart disease and respiratory problems. She also suffered a severe mental health breakdown in the late 70s, at the very point she was in the process of re-establishing an independent creative life.

Committed to an artistic career from the outset, Rozanne competed a national diploma in design (NDD) at the Southern College of Art in Portsmouth in 1951 and subsequently won a place on the then newly established three-year degree course in fashion at the Royal College of Art in London. She enjoyed the three-dimensionality of fashion and what she regarded as its “engineering” aspects, but had no desire to work in the industry.

Most of her career was spent teaching, at Guildford, Brighton and Portsmouth initially, apart from a brief period as a designer and tutor of needlework at the American Needlework Center in Washington DC (1964-67). On her return from the US, she lectured full-time at Battersea College of Education, London, before undertaking a postgraduate diploma in textiles at what is now Goldsmiths, University of London and launching a new career in the making of more expressive work in the late 1970s, when she was already in her 40s.

She married the illustrator Àsgeir Scott in 1956 and gave birth to a son, Mathew, the following year. A daughter died soon after birth in 1961, a victim of the thalidomide tragedy. The marriage to Scott was difficult and unhappy and the couple separated in the early 1960s. Scott took his own life in 1968 and three years laterRozanne married the actor Brian Hawksley .

In 1987 the Hawksleys left London and Rozanne set up a studio in Newport in west Wales, though she continued for a time to act as a visiting tutor and examiner at London art schools, including Goldsmiths, the Slade and the Royal College of Art.

Some of her best-known installation work was made after the move. They included the ironically titled Casualties Were Surprisingly Light (1991) and The Seamstress and the Sea (2006-07). The former, composed of 17 crosses covered with body-bag-like canvas, represented the first group of British soldiers killed in the Gulf war and was exhibited in the undercroft of St Davids Bishop’s Palace in Pembrokeshire.

The Seamstress and the Sea, a link back to the artist’s Portsmouth past, commemorated both the craft skills of her seamstress grandmother and the dangers associated with the lives of anonymous seamen. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum for showing on its London-based, Royal Navy warship HMS Belfast, it toured subsequently to Portsmouth and was later acquired by the National Maritime Museum for its permanent collection. In 2009 the artist was given a major retrospective exhibition, Offerings, at Ruthin Craft Centre in north Wales.

Rozanne was a well read and well researched artist, with a sense of fun that belied the deep seriousness of the work she made. Brian died in 2001 and Mathew at the age of 37 in 1995.

Rozanne Pibworth Hawksley, artist, born 18 February 1931; died 30 December 2021

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