Tony Carter 1943-2016

We are pleased to reproduce the obituary of Tony Carter, former Principal of the City & Guilds of London art School in December’s issue of Art Monthly written by Alister Warman, trustee of the Art School.

TONY CARTER 1943-2016

After visiting the Imperial War Museum to see the exhibition ‘Tony Carter – Sculptures and Reliefs 1984-91’, Richard Hamilton expressed pride in the achievement of his former student, remarking on how the show had lingered in his mind. ‘His work’, Hamilton concluded, ‘is very cerebral.’ Few would dispute this summary of how Tony Carter went about things. Whether making art or talking about art – his own or other people’s – his approach was typically measured, deeply thoughtful and prolonged. His deliberations could be very extensive indeed; what one critic described as ‘the ultra­painstaking nature of his procedures’ could result in a work requiring three years to reach completion. One such example is his double image of a Zen archer. Its title reads: Arc – the mould and cast of a warp implied by the strain of a bow, 1973-75. As this title might suggest, Carter’s work, for all that it engaged with methods and means bordering on the pharmaceutical or surgical, was driven by an impulse which was essentially poetic. On the one hand he was concerned with ensuring every component was exquisitely fashioned or engineered, while on the other he was ‘loading the object with as much subjective energy as possible’.

In introducing what, sadly, proved to be his final exhibition, programmed in 2015 at The Cut in Halesworth, Suffolk, Carter wrote: ‘Objects fascinate me, not because they stimulate the urge to possess but because of their capacity to reflect aspects of our sensory and psychological condition. My work typically incorporates “found objects” and aims to represent the ways they exist within an extended context of associations. Some of these are obvious and others less direct but all are projections of the human mind and psyche. In this respect they dispel the idea of “innocence”, be it that of the “observer” or the “observed”.’

Born and raised in Barnsley, and in his youth an accomplished pianist, Carter moved further north to begin his life as an artist: from 1962 to 1966 he was a student in fine art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. This was the period when Hamilton was helping make Newcastle one of the most exciting places to study art. Engrossed in his reconstruction of Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, Hamilton used it as a vehicle for his teaching, in effect generously privileging students with insights into the sensibilities and minds of two pivotal artists. For Carter the experience was revelatory, proving a lasting influence in the development of his thinking. Among the students who shared this experience and who became lifelong friends were Stephen Buckley and Tim Head.

Establishing himself in London (his small flat in Finsbury Park is remembered by Head as being a sort of ‘temple’) he found exposure for his work through exhibitions such as Young Contemporaries and the Serpentine Summer Show 3, but it was Anthony Stokes – first at Garage, and then at his eponymous gallery in Langley Court in Covent Garden – who brought Carter to wider notice. Although production was necessarily slow, given the exacting circumstances of its making, Carter’s sculpture and drawings featured in several group shows of the 1970s, the British Art Show among them, and in 1983 the Serpentine Gallery organised ‘Tony Carter – Images of subject-object duality 1968-82’. Recognition of the distinctiveness and significance of his art was probably most marked among his fellow artists, and it was around this time that Carter was recruited by Jon Thompson to join the distinguished group who pioneered the Goldsmith’s course. Carter’s work was included in the important 1986 exhibition ‘Falls the Shadow’ at the Hayward Gallery; there followed solo shows at Anthony Reynolds Gallery, in both Cowper Street and Dering Street. In 1990 Carter was appointed Henry Moore Artist Fellow at Kettle’s Yard and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and in 1994 he became a Fellow of the British School at Rome.

For much of his career Carter depended on teaching for his main source of income. As well as at Goldsmith’s, he taught for many years at Norwich School of Art and, for a period, until peremptorily laid off in a round of cuts, together with his wife, the artist Wendy Smith, he was an important inspirational presence at Camberwell. All this experience he brought to City and Guilds Art School where, having been previously head of fine art, he was appointed principal in 1998. For 16 years he devoted himself to securing the academic standing of the school and renewing its creative ambition, while always being sensitive to its special values and ethos; he is credited with having ‘refined, evolved and honed the core spirit’. At the same time as being principal, he continued as leader of the MA programme and brought to his teaching a broad sympathy allied to scrupulous care. Few tutors in an art school can have thought so long and so hard about what an art education should entail.

Art, its meaning, its mysteries and epiphanies – its difficulties – absorbed most of Carter’s life. If always well turned out, usually in black or grey, his lifestyle (hardly the right word) was essentially frugal and austere. Yet, once a year he and Wendy would spend two weeks in a hotel in Wester Ross. They would dine well after walking most of the day. These were especially important times to him.

Always attracted to the vanitas theme in painting, he once exhibited at Anthony Reynolds Gallery a transcription of Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors. ‘My transcription’, he wrote, ‘is a declaration of faith; in the tradition of Art as tactile visual language, in a more holistic world view yet to come and, if we are lucky, in the power of imagination over death.’


Taken from Art Monthly, December-January 2016-2017, with thanks for permission to reprint



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