by Annabelle Campbell
It was with real sadness that I received the news that Ralph Turner had died last week.
For me, Ralph Turner is the act I follow; in many ways.
Chronologically, though several people have held the role of Head of Exhibitions between our respective tenures, and also, professionally, he forged a way for curating craft that is truly inspirational. I often find myself, when contemplating current and future projects or programme, across exhibitions and the Crafts Council Collection, asking ‘What would Ralph do?’
Ralph Turner was appointed by Crafts Advisory Committee (CAC) in 1974 to organise all exhibitions. He came to the organisation from Electrum, leaving his role as founding director of this important and hugely influential gallery.
Ralph encouraged ambition in the work of the makers he showed, and curated shows that confronted audiences, laying down, for both audiences and makers, the challenge to consider the discipline in new ways; shows were daring, often testing, always stunningly beautiful.
“My job” said Ralph, in a film commissioned for the 2007 exhibition, Collecting a Kaleidoscope, “was to curate the shows, and it couldn’t have been a better time really, all the graduates were coming out of the colleges at that time. New fresh thinking, there we were, ready to show their work.”
The Maker’s Eye (1981) - in Ralph’s words “a hell of a show”, is just one example of his creative vision and approach as a curator.
“I would be curating … make sure that everything was going right… But I wanted the makers to select it. I wanted a mixture of gender, I wanted a mixture of ages, I wanted a mixture of pretty well everything. I wanted the selectors …to think of other crafts. And that could also tip into the fine art, it could tip into engineering, it could tip into science.”
The objects displayed ranged from a Triumph Bonneville, to a Sussex Trug. These seemingly unconnected objects were the response from 13 makers to Ralph’s brief ‘define the idea of craft from his or her personal experience’. Tanya Harrod not only recalled that this exhibition ‘looked wonderful but suggested that ‘craft’ had a complicated unstable identity’, but explained that it was The Maker’s Eye that led Harrod, the writer and design historian, to ‘to try to unravel craft’s mysteries’.
There are many more examples from the Turner back catalogue that I could draw on, but another particularly notable show was, Pierre Degen: New Work which opened at the Crafts Council Galleries in Lower Regent Street in late 1982. Like many of Ralph’s exhibitions, it had a mixed reception, and as Michael Brennand-Wood recalled ‘decidedly polarised opinion’, The design and installation was conceptually radical, evoking confusion in some: ‘Have we gone too far? Where are the borders? Is it still jewellery?‘
This exhibition formed part of a London exhibition programme that cemented the presence of experimental, performance and installation work in the contemporary craft landscape. Under Ralph’s curatorial guidance, Degen showed a number of witty and provocative assemblages of sticks, ladders, ready-mades and oversized balloons for ‘wearing’. The then Crafts Council Director, Victor Margrie remembered the show being considered ‘far, far too near the fine arts’ – there was a ‘need to draw a line somewhere’. But the Crafts Council was ‘always getting criticism, it wasn’t unexpected’
Exhibitions such as this broke ground in how contemporary craft was presented, provided break through moments for careers if many, now established, makers. Ralph’s influence extended beyond Crafts Council. In 1985, together with Peter Dormer, Ralph co-authored The New Jewelry : trends + traditions, which surveyed the key makers of the time, identifying a recognisable idiom and with it named a movement giving it both designation and a taxonomy.
Under Ralph’s guidance and authority, the CAC, and later Crafts Council exhibition programme originated a series of innovative and provocative shows, which challenged, questioned and celebrated this new contemporary craft, and on reflection have served to document the best and most exciting craft practice of that time. But unsurprisingly, with this radical and often experimental approach came criticism. Perhaps most notably, in the now infamous words of Peter Fuller, who concluded in his 1983 review of exhibitions Jewellery Redefined and The Jewellery Project, for Crafts magazine: “I never thought I would live to see the day when it became necessary to say diamonds are a better friend to a girl – or boy come to that – than used cinema tickets…Give me imitation pearls any day! Why is the Crafts Council giving gallery space to such sterile pretension?…I hope we shall never see the like of [this] again.”
Alongside pioneering exhibitions, Ralph’s curatorial legacy is seen in the Crafts Council Collection, and also the jewellery collection held by mima which, as consultant curator, he founded. He supported makers to be ambitious in the creation of new work. Further, as a curator he supported makers by buying the works to include in exhibitions, which then in time became a public collection. He made astute purchases, and showing many makers work for the first time. One such maker was Michael Brennand-Wood, who in 1979 was offered his first exhibition at the Crafts Council, and recalls, ‘talking over ideas and working with him, there was always a twinkle in his eye and a good sense of humour’.
On leaving Electrum, jeweller David Poston presented Ralph with a gift marking his gratitude for Ralph’s support of his work. Some years later, when Ralph invited Poston to exhibit something BIG for the group show Jewellery in Europe, held in the mid-1970s, Poston created a scaled-up version of the gifted work: a silver necklace of heavy fused beads using Portland limestone for beads and created quite literally a necklace for an elephant.
Ralph paved the way, leading by example, for the Crafts Council to champion and lead an open and pluralist approach to tradition, skill and contemporary innovation in equal parts, and drawing into the fold an artistic world of experimental craft, installation and performance-based activity.
His impact was significant then, and continues today- will contribute to shaping the future of exhibitions, collections.
So despite this sad news, marking, for many, the end of an era, I will still be asking ‘What would Ralph do?’
Annabelle Campbell is Head of Exhibitions and Collections at the Crafts Council.