Ray painted four large exterior murals in London’s East End and designed another, which was completed after his death.
Ray was born at the end of the war, in 1945, the eldest child of a Liverpool working-class family. He had three brothers and a sister and grew up in cramped terrace house in an area that was to become one of the worst examples of inner-city decay. His father was often away at sea and Ray’s first memory of him is bizarre: waking from sleep in front of the fire he faced a stranger in a cream coloured suit and a panama hat, holding a monkey in a cage! Ray spent much time alone with his mother, drawing and painting from an early age. She encouraged him, often reading the newspapers to him and fostering an early interest of events in the world. But perhaps the greatest influence on his later work was the tough Liverpool street life he experienced as a youth and the humour of the local people in the face of severe deprivation. Ray got a place at the local grammar school and was greatly encouraged by his art master who said of him, “I have not had a student since who had such singleness of purpose.” Ray joined a band, played at the Cavern, and partly supported himself through his playing. He went to Liverpool Art School in 1961 “when it was a haven for gifted people and when the driving forces were invention, expression and imagination, regardless of the canons of beauty.”
Ray’s paintings drew attention and after four years he gained a place at the Royal College of Art where in a strong year his powerful, often surreal and erotic work stood out. In 1969 at his degree show he was able to sell many of his paintings and afterwards had an exhibition at a London Gallery which was highly commended and he did well. With the proceeds he went to Morocco for nine months working hard on pictures of his experiences there and including mythical themes. Coming back, he was earning from part-time teaching and living in squats, readjusting to London and poverty. Nevertheless, throughout the seventies his “desolation row” period, he was working hard on pictures large and small, based on characters in his neighbourhood, of striking and accessible reality. Ray wished to exhibit the larger, more socially aware paintings ,which were becoming the focus of his art. He had had various one-man shows but the galleries were concerned with saleable work and increasingly reluctant to show this more direct, aggressive painting. Ray began to look for commissions for public sites, and in 1973 assisted John Bratby making paintings on hoardings round the future Globe Theatre. There followed a commission for a work for Whittington Hospital, which gave birth to a large triptych. He said, “This was my first move to having my work in a public space and it delighted me. Working for a community. You feel as if you’ve gained a role, using all the skills you’ve got. “I’ve got round to thinking it’s their mural, why not work with them.”
In 1978 Ray was offered the opportunity to paint a large mural on the rear of Bow Mission, off Bow Road. He wrote, “I wish to do something that would give people a lift on a grey wet winter morning on their way to work, and to make some sense of what their lives were to be about.” After the mural was completed the Mission’s annual report stated, “The original aim was to brighten a very drab wall which faces a new estate. But now the mural is with us it means much more; the mural brings out ideas and attitudes that are basic to our work. People in a working class community, doing all sorts of things, working, playing, shopping, feeding, visiting the doctor, attending lessons. The artist did not attempt to glamorise or interpret but rather to recognise what is.”
Ray’s second mural was painted in 1978-79 on a vast wall in Chicksand Street, surrounded by an estate close to Brick Lane in Whitechapel. At the time this was the most economically deprived quarter of London, inhabited by Asian families in poor housing, suffering from economic exploitation and racial abuse, and it was located not half a mile from the City of London, the richest square mile in the country. This became the theme of Ray’s mural. The right hand side depicts the world of greed and exploitation – one that is full of poverty, where immigrants are confined and attacked and where the city brokers rule. To the left are images of people becoming free – throwing off ropes, padlocks and chains – and children playing. The mural crowded with of activity and detail, precise colours and arresting changes of scale. There is over-all an architecture of local places – a tenement, tube train, tower of workers’ cabins, a playground and road in which play out different scenes of people of all ages and races, their portraits full of individual character.
Ray’s next mural was Peasants Revolt, painted in 1981 commemorating the peasants uprising, creating an extraordinary conflict. By compressing the peasant between the armoured knights on the right side with the castle walls on the left – behind which lie symbols of the church and king – he created a sense of their desperate struggle. He formalised the figures, appearing at huge scale to give them greater force, as flying fists, faces, weapons, flames and armoured masks and so on kept coming in a melee of actions and angles.
The last painting Ray worked on was the Battle of Cable Street, the project begun by David Binnington in 1978 to commemorate the success of the local people to repel the march of fascists in 1936. He worked with Paul Butler and Desmond Rochfort to redesign David’s original and paint the wall again. Desmond took the right side, Paul the middle and Ray the left. Desmond said, “Ray was constantly struck by the democratic and social nature of mural painting. The experience of working collaboratively proved an inspiration to us all. Ray created in his section a passage of imagery as effective and powerful as exists in any of his other mural work.”
Paul said, “Ray’s section is absolutely brilliant on the left, stunningly good. By far the best technically and in terms of his ability to realise and formalise figures of any muralist I came across.”
Ray’s last work as a muralist was to design a Peace Mural for Hackney. It is of a street full of people celebrating the Dalston carnival coming down the street, all in festive mood, bustling waving and shouting, some in costume and wearing masks, there is with a band of brass, strings and wind, banners and tall structures and inflatables, and above the houses are the rooves (roofs) and sky. After Ray died his friend and fellow mural painter Mike Jones and Ray’s wife, Anna Walker painted the mural.
Ray’s murals, like the easel paintings before them, are always about people, and for people – his drawing skill enabled his accurate and emotive images. He was an ardent socialist, became an active member of his local Labour Party and joined the left wing Chartist Collective and Arts For Labour. He designed posters, wrote articles, spoke at meetings, joined marches and supported causes. His murals speak of how we live, encourage people to take heart and action and look for more.
Ray said of his mural work: “I want to paint about working people, well people in general but largely people in working class situations, what it’s like to live here and now and try to develop a really solid cultural image which is about British people as a racial mix, and I want to get that on the walls. I think serious mural painting at street level is one of the most adventurous things to happen in painting for a long time and I am committed to give it all I’ve got to it!”