Ralph Ramsay was born in Leddlesfell, England in 1852. A famous woodcarver of Utah's pioneer generation, his work can be seen in many early Utah buildings. He died in Snowflake, Arizona in 1905.
Ramsay studied the art of carving in Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England. He arrived in Utah with the first Mormon pioneer handcart party in 1856. He immediately began work on Salt Lake City landmarks, the Beehive House and the Eagle Gate.
Although he was known primarily for his larger works, his most familiar smaller work is a hall tree that he made for the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young. Other examples of his work include the façade for the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ and carvings for the Jennings mansion and the Devereaux house in Salt Lake City.
Biography adapted from Artists of Utah.
Ralph Ramsay of Salt Lake City and elsewhere in Deseret, was the great wood-carver of Utah's pioneer generation. On the other hand, sculptor part of the artistic development of the early Utah settlement period and is seen today at the Lion House, the Salt Lake Temple, and elsewhere in Salt Lake City. Yet, the Beehive atop the Beehive House as well as the elegant carving of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and the Devereaux House were largely the result of the endeavors of the sculptor Ramsay- while all noted in particular the magnificent interior carving of the Jennings Mansion.
Ralph Ramsay came to Utah in 1856 from his native England, and worked not only upon the Beehive House but also Eagle Gate and was yet another artist involved in the Salt Lake Theater project. Apparently he carved throughout his life, using his favorite woods - quaking aspen, red cedar, and black walnut - for the most part. The artist left impressive examples of his work wherever he decided to settle during a long career that took him to Richfield, Utah in 1872; St. Johns, Arizona, in 1880; Mexico in 1885; and back to Utah and the southwestern U.S. again, where he died in the small town of Snowflake, Arizona.
An unusually masterful craftsman, Ramsay built his Richfield residence in 1873-74, and it is still beautifully preserved. He made it of sun dried adobe brick but added many unique features to the basic construction on interior and exterior surfaces. He graced the outside with gables while organizing the interior into ten large rooms to accommodate all the members of his families. Much of the furniture there was of Ramsay's own design, and for the large bay-window-lighted west front room of the house, the artist carved an extraordinarily attractive and unique fireplace. A small room in the northwest corner of the house was designated as an office and herb-remedy dispensary (the first in Richfield for Elizabeth Burns Ramsay, the doctor-nurse-midwife of the artist. Then, if things didn't work out on the ground floor, Ramsay's second-story workshop was not only the point of origin for numerous furniture pieces crafted by this versatile artist but also a place for many a “pine box“ either made to order or built for sale in various sizes and stored in another room in the house.
He was best known for larger projects, but his most familiar smaller work today is perhaps a hall tree that he made for President Young, which is presently in the collection of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Just as the remarkable as a gatherer and assembler as he was a carver of difficult-to-obtain-materials, Ramsay was often forced to put together small pieces in order to create sculptured objects of anything with larger dimensions. This was the case regarding much of the work on the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ and the Devereaux House, and certainly was the case in many of his projects. For instance, the wood for the eagle of his Eagle Gate was acquired in City Creek Canyon in the form of five separate blocks - one for the bird's body another for the neck and head, two more for outstretched wings, and the last for a small beehive upon which the rest was mounted. All blocks were held together with pieces of iron, and the eagle - patterned after a model from life shot by Truman Angell- finally measured eleven feet from tip to tip. In 1889, it was “taken from its perch and sent to Chicago to be copper plated,“ and the famous Salt Lake landmark returned to Eagle Gate in 1891. It is presently in the collection of the Daughters of the Pioneer Memorial Museum.
Other examples of Ramsay's work in sculpture and furniture carving include the Oxen - used as the pattern for various L.D.S. temple baptismal fonts - several carved cabinets, day desks, other hall trees, and “whatnots“ and a great carved bedstead of his own, all furniture now located in the Daughters of Pioneers Museum Collection. Still “scrounging“ for material in his later years, Ramsay carved his bedstead throughout his travels of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s gathering the necessary pieces of wood for its construction along the way.
Originally from the English village of Leddlesfell, young Ramsay studied the carving art at Newcastle-on-Tyne; he was thirty-three years old by the time the design for the Devereaux House was started. Also busy in the mid-to late-1860s on the Tabernacle organ's carved exterior, Ramsay was responsible during the same time for such Staines -Jennings wood fixtures as an elegant black walnut banister with a masterful newel post of multiple joints, created from wagon beds originally used by William Jennings to carry freight across the plains so that they could be carved in such a manner later; a large ornate mantle. so much a favorite of Priscilla Jennings that she finally took it with her when she moved ; an imposing library/dining room set of double doors topped by a “lyre over shell“ pattern that cuts through a broken tympanum; a mahogany hall/parlor door framed by marble pilasters with a very richly carved classicizing pediment of light oak at the top; multiple window replete with such work as carved scrolls, columns, and foliated capitals - all this in addition to ample parquet flooring, and finally iron gates at the entrance and broad carriage ways leading to the mansion, along with cast-iron fence work to crown the tops of the mansard roofing as a cap on the luxuriant overall effect.
The famed Salt Lake Tabernacle organ was the design of Joseph Ridges but the work's richly articulated facade was carved by Ramsay (who also converted a few remaining pieces of Australian mahogany into furniture pieces for Brigham Young).
Biography courtesy Artists of Utah.
"Geoge Dibble Column." The Salt Lake Tribune, June 22, 1960.
Olpin, Robert S., William C. Seifrit, and Vern G. Swanson. Artists of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1999.
Swanson, Vern G., Robert S. Olpin, Donna Poulton, and Janie Rogers. 150 Years Survey: Utah Art And Utah Artists. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2001.
Swanson, Vern G., Robert S. Olpin, and William C. Seifrit. Utah Art. Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1991.