Obituary | Simon Roy Olding, 1954-2022
Professor Simon Roy Olding, director of the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham, died on 19 November 2022 after a short illness. Simon joined the University for the Creative Arts as director of the Crafts Study Centre in 2002. The building was brand new and empty – the equivalent of a blank canvas – while the centre brought with it a deep and resonant history of support for British contemporary craft of the highest order.
Simon's task was to provide a new environment for the collection which, while celebrating its past, would clearly demonstrate its importance and relevance for the 21st century. This he achieved, brilliantly, with quiet modesty and impeccable scholarly research.
Born in Exeter in 1954, Simon moved with his family between there and Bristol, following his father’s posts as a teacher and subsequently, headteacher of the Royal West of England Residential School for the Deaf. During his time at Hele’s School Simon proved a gifted cricketer (the only sport for which he was allowed to wear his glasses) and played for Devon Schoolboys.
Awarded a scholarship to Fitzwilliam College, Simon moved to Cambridge to study English Literature. He went on to study for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh exploring The English Short Story in the 1890s. While completing his thesis he began his museum career, first as a volunteer at the National Galleries of Scotland and then as graduate trainee at Glasgow Museums & Art Gallery, at Kelvingrove.
Simon’s main focus was on ceramics, but he also worked on a major exhibition about Thomas Lipton, yachtsman and founder of the famous tea brand who tried and failed to win the Americas cup for Britain.
A move back to the West Country followed, with a post at Salisbury Museum as assistant curator of art, and he joined the influential Museums Professionals Group as a committee member.
In 1985 Simon became London museums officer and assistant director of the Area Museums Service for south-east England, a post which led to one of his most popular and enduring publications, the comprehensive guidebook, London Museums and Collections.
He was also responsible for commissioning an influential survey of university collections in the capital. He found time, too, to join the council of the Museums Association with a particular responsibility for education and curatorship qualifications.
In 1989 Simon was appointed head of arts and museums for Bournemouth Borough Council and director of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. It was here he began to make a serious mark in that fertile space where contemporary artistic practice and craftsmanship interact with the traditional.
The series of works which Simon commissioned for the Russell-Cotes – 15 to 20 functional and decorative pieces in glass, metal, ceramic, furniture, etc – reflected the tradition of that eccentric house museum and simultaneously brought it boldly into the late 20th century.
The Southern Arts annual review for 1991/92 noted that: "The Russell-Cotes … is a marvellous showcase for commissioned craft in an architectural setting, that leads the way in integrating contemporary work with historic and modern architecture."
The language Simon used to describe the works in the excellent catalogue reflects something of his own sensibilities and personality: "distinctive", "approachable", "informed", "authentic", "graceful".
Deeply committed to education, Simon also made possible, through partnership and persuasion, an extensive programme of activity for schools and the wider community in Bournemouth. As his reputation grew, he took up various positions including board member of Southern Arts and chair of Salisbury Arts Centre.
In 1998 Simon moved to the role of director of heritage policy at the then Heritage Lottery Fund. He transformed the way policy was set: introducing a comprehensive process of consultation and research, and producing the definitively outward-looking strategy Broadening the Horizons of Heritage which, with its emphasis on public engagement, would chart the course of the fund’s work for the next 20 years, in effect giving it its social conscience.
Simon joined the University for the Creative Arts in 2002 as director of the Crafts Study Centre and in 2004 was made professor of modern crafts. His opening show in the new purpose-built space was a solo exhibition by the ceramicist Magdalene Odundo, which was accompanied by a new publication by Lund Humphreys, for which he wrote a major essay.
He went on to feature solo shows by ceramic artists including Takeshi Yasuda, Emmanuel Cooper, David Leach and Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, among others, alongside exhibitions featuring other crafts. The opening of the museum also included a stunning permanent light installation by Peter Freeman, and purpose-built furniture by Matthew Burt. The Ladi Kwali exhibition in 2015 was the first to examine her individual role and contribution to the history of colonial and post-colonial British involvement in African arts. The 2019 exhibition, Michael O’Brien: In Nigeria, focused on O’Brien’s own work in ceramics and that of his protégé, Danlami Aliyu.
In 2016, Simon embarked on a project with the photographic artist Garry Fabian Miller, who lives on Dartmoor and experiments with light-sensitive paper, working without a camera.
The exhibition, Making, Thinking, Living, showed how innovative Simon's contribution was to the Crafts Study Centre, while the catalogue Garry designed is a beautiful milestone in art and craft history. Large Cibachrome photographs commanded the space, but also craft objects from his own collection, such as lidded jars by Richard Batterham, and many textile samples and lengths from the centre.
Further examples of Simon's contribution to craft scholarship, his understanding of its modern history, and his clear and articulate telling of it include his influential role in the 2017 ceramics exhibition, Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, as one of three curators and editors alongside Glenn Adamson and Martina Droth, both from Yale.
The exhibition, shown at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, made a considerable impact for its expansive scale and breadth of approaches. The splendid catalogue accompanying the show, with essays by eight curators and craft writers from the UK and USA, has ensured the afterlife of the exhibition.
And in 2020 Simon edited and contributed to the book, Bernard Leach: Discovered Archives, with contributions from scholars Yuko Matsuzaki Kawakita and Sadahiro Suzuki, making use of newly discovered research material in the Crafts Study Centre archives.
A Wessex man at heart, Simon had a lifelong enthusiasm for the works of Thomas Hardy and a passion for walking in the landscapes that are the setting for Hardy’s novels.
Diagnosed with cancer in late spring 2022, it was hoped that Simon would live to see in 2023 and work on a final exhibition with Dame Magdalene Odundo, now chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts. This was not to be, although Simon did complete a final piece of writing, a history of the New Craftsman gallery in St Ives, just days before he died.
His passing has been marked by the many artists and craftspeople whom he wrote about, championed, and promoted as professor of modern crafts and director of the Crafts Study Centre.
He is survived by his wife, Isabel, his beloved daughters Mabel and Madeleine, his sister, Bryony and twin brother, Mark.
Isabel Hughes is the associate director at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading
Stephen Boyce is the chair of South West Museum Development
Simon was both the dearest of friends and the most-admired of colleagues.