Ralph Turner


Ralph Turner 1936 - 2017

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We include an obituary on the esteemed and seminal writer, gallerist, exhibition curator and craft champion Ralph Turner who died on 29 September 2017. An important encouragement pioneer in the use of new thinking and materials in modern jewellery, Ralph Turner influenced an entire generation of jewellers, his legacy lives on. 

Taken as a whole Ralph Turner’s career was concerned with the enlightenment of Crafts practice and its audience however it is for his influence on jewellery, “The New Jewellery” that he will be most remembered. Having arrived as an actor in London in 1960 he was introduced to studio jewellery while an assistant at the Ewan Phillips gallery from 1964 to 1971 which stimulated him to become a founding co-director of Electrum Gallery in South Molton Street, London. 

Ralph was that rare passionate person who understood and demonstrated the difference between a shop and a Gallery. Selling makers’ work was almost incidental to the promotion of the entire concept and the disparate ideas of the individual makers. To have work accepted by Electrum was to begin a constructive dialogue with Ralph whose enthusiasm encouraged the development of the work and the maker’s confidence. He mentored an emerging generation of innovative jewellers whose modest rebellion he impatiently enjoyed.  The growing audience attending Electrum were similarly encouraged to explore and expand what they might understand and wear as jewellery; the place hummed.

In 1974 the constraints of a commercial context led Ralph to join the Crafts Council as Head of Exhibitions where he remained until 1989. The transition was marked in 1975 by the publication of the seminal “Contemporary Jewellery – A Critical Assessment (1945–75)” and “Jewellery in Europe”, an iconoclastic exhibition showing current work by 25 ground-breaking jewellery artists.

Working within the Crafts Council enabled the influence of Ralph’s enthusiastic engagement to expand to cover the full range of artistic crafts expression though as an unashamed agent of change his consistent personal fascination was with progressive, disruptive work. He wrote two further books on what he christened 'The New Jewellery', one of them with the critic Peter Dormer.

Ralph left the Crafts Council in 1989 to work freelance and become more internationally available to curate, select and promote intelligent innovation in the Crafts. Though his UK profile may have reduced, recognition by his international peers generated many significant contributions, including in Wales, the land of his fathers and of his early triumph as a boy soprano. Ralph’s convinced critical involvement honed the quality and clarity of all in which he participated. Though he held strong opinions he was held in great affection by many of his collaborators and colleagues.

Started in 1999 ‘Craft Lives’ is an audio interview archive created and maintained by the British Library on the committee of which Ralph served from 2004 until he retired due to ill-health in 2013.  Ralph himself was interviewed in 2006; the full life story interview (C960/72) can be heard at the British Library and will be available online at British Library Sounds in November.

One British jeweller visiting Australia in the late 1970s was firmly told by a local maker that there was no market there for the new jewellery. Returning from a six-week lecture tour of Australia at about the same time Ralph exclaimed that he “could have sold a bucketful of jewellery”.  And that’s the difference.  Ralph created an environment which nurtured change and excitement among makers, their audience and those who work with them.  He will be greatly missed.

Ralph is survived by his steadfast partner Colin.

Ralph Turner
29 July 1936 -  29 September 2017


Written for Benchpeg by David Poston.


Image credits: Crafts Council, Iona Wolff 


Other tributes can be found below:

The Crafts Council

The Guardian

British Library



Rebecca van Rooijen


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