Architecture: James Turrell: he's in a different class

Staff at a Quaker school in Yorkshire may not be impressed that Turrell, the American master of light and space, has chosen to exhibit his latest creations in one of their classrooms - but Nonie Niesewand is

American artist and "lapsed Quaker" James Turrell does things with light and space that would make the Sun King blink. All over the world, curators of major galleries are in a stacking pattern to stage exhibitions of his extraordinary installations.

However, it isn't the intangibles of light and space that animate the hobbies room at Ackworth, a Quaker school in Yorkshire: it is Turrell's furniture, and the ceramic objects it was designed to house.

Last summer Turrell painstakingly measured up the room to design a plain morticed and trussed cherrywood dresser for a ceramics collection he calls Lapsed Quakerware - things that the artist created in Ireland especially for the school to be a part of the Artranspennine 98 exhibition which opens across the north of England on 22 May. When the exhibition closes on 16 August, it is anticipated that the Turrell collection will go to a museum somewhere.

So the boarders at this co-ed school won't be eating off his platters or drinking from his delicate little fluted, handle-less cups. Neither are the staff dining out on their extraordinary coup in getting this world- famous artist to exhibit his first objects at their school. I had to bite my lip during the obligatory two-minute silence at the start of lunch to stop myself from blurting out that Turrell's early work, Orca (l967), is on sale in a London gallery for $150,000.

That sort of thing doesn't cut much ice at Ackworth. After all, at the front door to the school, a plaque quotes William Penn, who founded the Pennsylvanian community of Quakers. "Frugality is good if liberality be joined to it," it reads. "The first is leaving off superfluous expenses. The last is bestowed them to the benefit of others that need."

It's evident that Turrell's Quaker background still impinges on him, at least at the emotional level. In Air Mass, the book that was produced to accompany his 1993 Hayward Gallery debut, he explains: "Having been raised as a Quaker, I was responsive to the straightforward and strict presentation of the sublime which Japan seemed to offer."

Turrell also likes the simplicity of the Leedsware ceramics which he discovered when working with the Henry Moore sculpture trust in Yorkshire some years ago.

In the vaults of Temple Newcombe country house museum, near Leeds, he found examples of all the china he was brought up with in his Quaker community in California: the salt-glazed white and the black basalt known simply as Quakerware or Funeralware. In collaboration with a potter, Nicholas Mosse, working in the Kilkenny studios in Ireland, he designed 70 pieces of dinnerware, including some 18th century specialities, such as condiment jars and chocolate shakers.

The working title for the project was Love, obedience, drink, an appropriate title given the amount of research that had to be carried out just to arrive at the right recipe for the clay.

It had to be right. Even the tiniest particle in the material causes it to implode on firing. Susan Mosse, the potter's wife, observes of their work: "They took no short cuts along the hard route of discovery to make something exquisite.

"Taking the idea of the handmade to the ultimate degree was a purist commitment, and typically Quaker, in that the Quakers always found the longest and hardest way of doing things. Remember Mies van der Rohe's remark that `God is in the details?'."

All this is reassuring for the Quaker school at Ackworth where a spade is a spade, "yea is yea, and nay is nay".

Built in Yorkshire stone that is the colour of bleached straw between1757 and 1763 on the Palladian plan, with pedimented doorways and symmetrical windows, Ackworth School's east wing is topped with a bell tower that sonorously rings the hours.

Above the cupola, which houses an azure clock, a lamb designed by Hogarth whizzes merrily around the weather vane.

A certain Mr Lamb was the founder of the Foundling Hospital, which housed orphans here until 1779 when it closed. John Fothergill (Wedgwood's physician, which accounts for the white busts of him in the library) started the Quaker school here because, before the advent of state schooling, only Anglicans could join independent schools. Quakers who couldn't afford private tutors sent their children here. As did the established families of Victorian industry - Huntley and Palmer, the Frys, Cadbury, Rowntree, Reckitt & Coleman, Barclay, Binns (now House of Fraser). It was always co-educational, the first of its kind in Britain, although Frederick Davies, 72, the archivist and retired senior master at Ackworth, is disappointed that "people in the south still think that the first co-educational school was Bedales. When the question came up on Paxman's University Challenge, he marked the Bedales answer right, but we were at least a century ahead".

If Fothergill, the founder, were to reincarnate himself (and there are rumours of a school ghost) he wouldn't be too surprised by what he would find. There are more day pupils than boarders these days, and stir fries for lunch indicate the internationalism of the students.

However, the friendliness, the simplicity, the unadorned purity of the place remains, along with the water biscuits with Marmite at tea break.

And the interiors are almost exactly the same - flagstone floors scoured to the colour of pale straw, overscaled 18th century fireplaces, plain walls hung with samplers, and a collection of Chippendale furniture in everyday use. It's easy to foresee a rash of Quaker style books coming into vogue now that the Shaker vein has been exhausted.

The Meeting House - built in 1840 to hold 800 people in the U-shaped wooden gallery - has blue wainscoting and bare boarded floors. Bathed in light, it is the place where the Friends meet twice on Sundays and every morning for assembly and silent contemplation. As the headmaster Martin Dickinson points out, in a multi-cultural society this form of worship is entirely appropriate, "as is the ethical code which values integrity, honesty and imagination".

No wonder James Turrell fell for it. Bought, sold, exhibited all around the world, he is concerned with perception and enlightenment and observation of the heavens. At the Roden Crater in Arizona he is engaged upon the Pharonic labour of building earthworks that will send light shafting into underground chambers. Robert Hopper, head of the Henry Moore Institute and the man who introduced James Turrell and Ackworth, believes that the Roden crater project will become "an ideal environment for some form of possible communication between earth and beyond".

Susan Ferleger Brades, who runs the Hayward Gallery and was the first person to exhibit work by Turrell in a public gallery, isn't so sure about the lapsed part of Turrell's claimed lapsed Quakerism. She believes that Turrell's Air Mass, the sky tower built on the roof of the Hayward, came out of his feeling for Quaker meeting places - "in their simplicity and celebration of light in terms of worship, as much as in the communal nature of the project, unlike many of his interior pieces, which have to be experienced individually, preferably alone."

James Turrell himself writes this about the intangible material that he has chosen as his primary medium: "Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it.

"But for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. I form it as much as that material allows. I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting a space." It could almost have come from the scriptures.

Artranspennine 98 shows James Turrell's `Lapsed Quakerware' at Ackworth School, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF7 7LT (01977 611401).

James Turrell exhibition from 20 May-27 June at Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art, first floor, 21 Cork Street, London W1X 1HB (0171-434 1318).

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