Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Glorious news - the Ditchling Museum has re-opened...

I was very pleased to see that the museum in Ditchling has been re-opened (thanks to a large amount of money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others),with quite a fanfare, by Sir Nicholas Serota. It's dedicated to the memory of the Ditchling Community: England's only serious attempt at establishing a Catholic Distributist/Arts and Crafts community. There is a small BBC news report about it here.

It all started in 1907 when the sculptor Eric Gill (the designer of the Gill Sans typeface) moved to the village with his three daughters. Other artists began to congregate around him and, soon, there was a flourishing Catholic artistic community engaged in all sorts of diverse aesthetic pursuits including publishing. They came together under the auspices of the Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic.

As a result, Ditchling became a centre for the applied arts in the early 20th century. The museum holds a nationally important collection of works associated with those who were drawn to the village and who were influenced by the earlier Arts and Crafts Movement. Figures represented within the collection are some of the most important applied artists of the 20th century including Eric Gill, David Jones, Edward Johnston and Ethel Mairet

Not everyone approved. The redoubtable Father Vincent McNabb would often berate them for not getting their hands dirty enough . They probably did, but McNabb thought that the soil, not the paint brush, would provide clearer evidence of a commitment to Distribution. He was not entirely right. Both Chesterton and Belloc, the founders (for want of a better word) of the Distributist movement, clearly saw a role for artistry within the Distributist agenda. Chesterton, in particular, lamented the demise of Artisan culture (so beautifully revived in Ditchling) and argued that the flight from the Land was inextricably linked to its progressive disappearance. 

The loom at Ditchling
In summary, had it not been for the 'Chester-Belloc' there would have no Ditchling. The Ditchlingers went to Ditchling with a purpose. They were returning to the Land and to a form of artistry which had its roots in Catholic England.

I will be organising a trip to the Museum next year. In the meantime, wallpaper.com have published an interesting article, on this exciting project, written from an architectural perspective:

For many decades, the rural English museum was a typology untroubled by architects. All that changed, of course, with the idea that a museum could be a destination in its own right, a piece of architecture equal to or even exceeding the worth of the collections within.

Nestled in the rolling landscape of East Sussex, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft seemed even less concerned with appearances than most. A former village school, bolstered by the gentle accretion of two decades, the Museum brought together art, crafts and design, building on the village's longstanding association with some of the key figures in early twentieth century applied art, design and sculpture.

Last week, the overhauled museum was officially opened by Sir Nicholas Serota. Re-built, re-hung, re-organised and utterly transformed, the new museum buildings were designed by Adam Richards Architects, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. They were five years in the making, following a competition win in 2008.

Richards' approach is one of unification and restoration, with new build carefully sandwiched between existing structures. The museum used to be entered via St Margarets churchyard but Richards, together with project architect Sam Dawkins, flipped the orientation, transforming a carefully restored former 18th cart lodge into an entrance, café and shop, leading through to the re-ordered main gallery via a terracotta clad link building.

Richards describes the commission as a 'great treat', and the architecture is domestic in scale and meticulous in its details, despite the tight budget. He speaks of trying to 'imbue the museum with the spirit of its collection,' a process that begins simply and honestly with the restored cart lodge, stripped back to bare bones and rebuilt - 'nipped and tucked' - into a sort of rustic pavilion, the first floor cut away to reveal the beams above and a window placed just so to give a view out onto the church. Richards visited a huge variety of museums to research the job, from Kettle's Yard in Cambridge toChipperfield's Neues Museum in Berlin, but in the end it's the vernacular of West Sussex that wins through, as well as a palette of mild, earthy colours - greys, browns and reds.

The domestic scale is carried through the new link building, up a tapering set of concrete stairs and clad externally in terracotta tiles. From here, one enters a new gallery building, a zinc-clad, barn-like form with a single tall window overlooking the village pond. Here the architects have built a tall display cabinet - a wunderkammer - that hints at the collection within and its connection to the life of the village.

The pivotal Ditchling artist is of course Eric Gill, the deeply complex and devoutly Catholic letterer and typographer. Gill came to Ditchling in 1907, and from then onwards, the small village became home to a group of artists and craftspeople who stayed true and loyal to the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. Often devout and other-worldly - Gill established The Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic in Ditchling and ritual, liturgy and prayer were integral to their lives - and certainly artistic and eccentric by modern standards, the artists were also devoted to the highest levels of craftsmanship and quality.

The main gallery, planned and laid out by Richards with signage and way-finding by Phil Baines, sets out the lives and work of the main players in the community - Gill, Edward Johnston, Hilary Pepler, David Jones, Desmond Chute, Philip Hagreen, Edgar Holloway, Ethel Mairet and Hilary Bourne (who set up the museum in 1985).

Perhaps they would have remained marginal but revered figures in art history, were it not for their impact on the look and feel of modern life. Edward Johnston, who had taught Gill and arrived in Ditchling in 1912, is best known for shaping the typography and identity of the London Underground, having been commissioned by Frank Pick in 1913, while Gill's typeface, Gill Sans, is still widely used.

The Museum of Art + Craft feels simultaneously timely and old-fashioned, replacing the ad hoc and ramshackle arrangement of the original buildings with sleeker, crisper, Farrow-and-Balled version of the original, filled with the analogue totems of the digital era - letter-pressed type, carving, craft, honesty and virtue. The printing press itself, once the hub of the community, is given reverential placement, an altar piece paired with alcoves containing the tools, materials and output of the Ditchling Press.

Richards and his team use architecture to hint at the divine within the ordinary, giving a modern, largely secular, audience just a taste of the motivations and obsessions that shaped a very singular community.

Madonna and Child in a Landscape by David Jones, circa 1920-1921

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