Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft Reopens – Redesigned and Resurgent

The East Sussex village of Ditchling will always be associated with the name of Eric Gill. It was here the stone-carver, wood engraver and typographer made his first real sculpture and direct carving, Estin Thalassa ,1909-10, which is now lost and known only from a contemporary photograph. He was inspired to carve the female figure, he said, by ‘comparative continence’ enforced by the approaching birth of his third daughter, Joanna. It proved a milestone in his career, and was followed by numerous other direct carvings. Although Gill only spent sixteen years in Ditchling, this was a highly significant time in his life because he was also responsible for founding an artistic community there which survived until 1989.

Gill moved to Ditchling in 1907 with his family and apprentice Joseph Cribb. Initially he lived at Sopers, a Georgian house in the high street and commuted back to London, but by 1913 he had moved to Ditchling Common on the edge of the village, where he established a studio and worked full-time. An artistic community grew around him; he was joined in 1912 by Edward Johnston, the calligrapher famous for his lettering and signage for the London underground, and by Hilary Pepler three years later, who bought an old Stanhope Press to set up as a printer and then by the artist Desmond Chute. Other professional craftsmen followed, including the carpenter George Maxwell, the handweaver Valentine KilBride and young artists such as David Jones.

While at Ditchling Gill converted to Catholicism and together with Pepler, Cribb and Chute set up the medieval-style Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic in 1920. All four founding members were Catholics by this point, which was a prerequisite for joining; Johnston chose not to convert to Catholicism and therefore although he worked with them was not a member of the Guild. Women were excluded from the Guild. The artists set up their homes and workshops on Ditchling Common, with a dedicated Guild chapel at the heart of their community designed by Gill. A bell, on display in the museum, called them to prayer twice a day. When Gill moved to a remote disused monastery at Capel-y-Ffin in Wales in 1924, leaving the Guild and Ditchling, the artistic community remained, with Cribb, Pepler and Maxwell continuing the workshop tradition.

The Guild was finally disbanded in 1989, the land sold to a developer, the workshops knocked down, and the Guild chapel too was destroyed by the Great Storm of 1987; sad losses both to art-history and to the history of Ditchling. Important elements of the community, however, still survive throughout the village. The War Memorial to the fallen of the First World War on the corner of Lodge Lane was designed by Gill and carved by Joseph Cribb. The community is remembered too in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s behind the museum which is the resting place of several of the artists, their tombstones often carved by the others; Hilary Pepler’s stone for example was carved by Joseph Cribb. The sketch for the tombstone is in the museum collection, although not currently on display. The old School and schoolmaster’s house also remain and now form part of the new Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.

I first visited Ditchling Museum, as it was then known, a few years after it was first opened in 1985. Set up by two doughty septuagenarian sisters, Joanna and Hilary Bourne, who had sold their own houses in order to rescue the village Victorian Schoolhouse and adjoining schoolmaster’s house because they were under threat of purchase for redevelopment. The sisters had been brought up in Ditchling. They were particularly close to Edward Johnston, whose three daughters they had grown up with when he took them under his wing after their father died. Joanna became a writer and Hilary a skilled weaver whose textile motif designs of 1951 for the Royal Festival Hall are displayed in the museum. They collected items relating to the history of Ditchling and opened an independent museum in the old Schoolhouse. As keen collectors with a broad interest in history the exhibits were a strangely random collection that reflected their lives.

In 2011 Ditchling Museum, still proudly independent, closed for major refurbishment and restructuring. Under the inspirational guidance of Director Hilary Williams, appointed in 2004, a Heritage Lottery Grant was awarded and in September 2013 the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, as it is now known, was reopened by Sir Nicholas Serota.

Recently I visited the Museum again and was bowled over by the stunning transformation thanks in great part to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, matched funding and the energy of the small team led by Hilary Williams. The Chair of the Trustees, Jenny KilBride, daughter of the original community member Valentine and the first woman to be allowed into the Guild as a weaver herself, is an experienced professional arts fundraiser and played a vital role in sourcing the funding for project.

The budget of £2.3.million, was tight, but the grade two listed 18th century cart-lodge near the Victorian Schoolhouse, which had been redundant for years, was leased by the Village Green Trust at a peppercorn rent, and skilfully incorporated into the new design to become an attractive new entrance, shop and cafe area. Access had previously been from the other side of the building through St. Margaret’s churchyard. London Architects Adam Richards won an open competition for the project and have transformed the rather disparate site, achieving a beautiful, unified and imposing building by successfully synthesising a new build with the historic cart -lodge, the 19th century school building and domestic space. The new build consists of engineered timber wrapped in black zinc, a building method more commonly found in northern Europe. Similarities with the work of architects such as Herzog & de Meuron can also be detected in the respect Adam Richards Architects have shown for the existing buildings and the way they have successfully combined the old buildings with the new. They have taken account of the Sussex vernacular in the style of the architecture introducing a stretched version of a local barn to join the cart-lodge entrance to the old school building and introducing red Keymer tiles in a sculptural fashion. Hilary explains that the wood used in the build comes from managed sources which chimes with the art and craft element of the museum and the importance it places on truth to materials, adding proudly that the new museum is ‘the antithesis of a white box.’

As part of the organisational development it was decided that in future its focus should be solely on the artists and craftsmen who lived and worked in Ditchling. As part of this redefined narrative during the closure (and since!) there has been a huge ethical disposals project to re-house the items which were no longer – or in many cases ever – relevant to the museum. They were given to collections nationally: a ‘trench art’ jardinièrefrom WW I went to the Garden Museum, a clay pipe of a buffalo’s head went to The Freemason’s Library and Museum and a set of chairs to the National Trust property at Knole .

Another aspect of the redevelopment focused on the conservation of the remaining items. An article by Johanna Puisto (ADD LINK) details and explains her work on the conservation of the Gill plasters. The sculptures were conserved using funding from the Henry Moore Foundation. Hilary explains that the conservation came in under budget and that to her delight the Henry Moore Foundation allowed the remaining funding to be repurposed for th hanging and installation of the imposing Desmond Chute relief, Madonna and Child, 1920-21, in the main gallery, a piece which is on loan from Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

From the cart-lodge entrance the visitor enters the newly built area which connects with the old school. Light streams in from a huge window overlooking the village pond. Floor-to-ceiling windows are a most attractive feature of the build not only adding natural light to the museum, but providing a sense of the building’s place within Ditchling as the architects were passionate about retaining the views of the village. The motifs placed on the large areas of glazing are required by law, but are understated and are part of the rebranding of the Museum which was undertaken working together with Professor Phil Baines, Professor of Typography at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. The motif, a simple plus sign, which can be interpreted as a cross or the sales of a local windmill is very much in keeping with the Museum’s ethos. The room contains a large cabinet, an enlarged art and craft version of the kunstkammer, which houses local Sussex artefacts such as shepherds’ hooks and a hackle for combing the wool. Behind this display is a state of the art collection store.

From here the visitor enters the central and main display room of the museum, but to the left a lofty room leads off which is the new Print Gallery, side lit with long floor to ceiling windows, it contains Pepler’s iron Stanhope Press, the very one which was used by the St. Dominic Press. A generous bequest to the museum in 2005, it was displayed before the rebuild in an auxiliary building of the museum, but now has pride of place in a gallery space of its own. The area is set out like a print workshop. Phil Baines worked on the display and interpretation to help bring the pieces to life for visitors. Hilary Williams explains: ‘We use the press – we held a master class recently. We don’t want the museum to be static, but a hub as it was years ago generating interest.’ Display cases exhibit examples of what the community printed on the press: A poster for a production of Twelfth Night in the Village Hall, a souvenir guide to Ditchling which was sold in the village and labels for beer bottles for the pub nearby.

New areas of the museum created in the old buildings include a dedicated reading room with auxiliary information about the collections and a spacious learning room for lectures and classes on craft such as wood engraving, ranging from pre-schoolers to adults. 

The main collection had previously been divided up and displayed in tiny little rooms, but when Hilary Williams planned the new space with the architects, it was felt that this collection should become the focal feature of the museum and now the large gallery forms a central exhibition space where the main collection is displayed. The current exhibition focuses on each of the core members of the artistic community separately, showing their work and the tools they used, so there is reference to the craft aspect of their work. Portraits of the artists are included where possible, and because it was such a close knit community several of the portraits were done by the other artists for example David Jones by Eric Gill and Philip Hagreen by Edgar Holloway. 

There are fine examples of Joseph Cribb’s carving including an example of the Stations of the Cross and a small polychrome group carved in stone, Epiphany, which is notable for its medieval style. There is also a fine example of Gill’s letter carving, but only a few of his sculptures are on show such as the polychrome limestone relief, Nativity, which is a slightly atypical crowded composition thought to be based on a drawing by his daughter, Joanna and Icon, a pewter cast taken from a carving Gill made of his wood-block Divine Love, as well as some work in plaster. It is, however, immediately noticeable that there are no examples of his direct carving. Hilary is very conscious of this lamentable gap in the collection and is anxious to rectify it, but funding such a purchase is proving difficult. A small work in bath stone entitled, Contortonist, of a crouching figure by Gill carved in 1913 while he was in Ditchling sold at Sotheby’s last December for £278,500 against an estimate of £15-25,000, placing it well outside the museum’s budget. 

Hilary draws further attention to the funding problems the museum experiences: ‘Two of the works which we have on display at the moment are fairly major pieces; lettering by Gill and Epiphany by Cribb are being offered to us for sale and we are trying to raise £11,000 for their purchase.’ There is also currently no catalogue for the collection and the museum is trying to raise the funds to produce one and a short visitor guide.

Hilary outlines her plans for the future. Every two years she intends to put on an externally funded exhibition in the main space running from October until February. It would be interesting, she says, to look at Gill in an international context. She is currently in talks with two international exhibition partners about future plans. She explains that the store has been designed so that it has the capacity to take all the museums holdings apart from the Stanhope Press and the display cases can all be reconfigured internally to allow flexibility. The idea behind putting on an exhibition every two years is that it will give the staff a chance to undertake some academic curatorial research, prepare guidebooks, a catalogue and develop a proper marketing campaign. Holding the exhibition over the winter months is also a strategic move because this is a quieter time for visitors, so by putting on more specialist shows the museum hopes to appeal to those who are more likely to make the effort to travel.

Ditchling Museum of Art+Craft is a beautiful display space, sensitively designed to complement and enhance its heritage. The few staff are enthusiastic and energetic, the exhibits focused and interesting. Director Hilary Williams is passionately committed, with real vision for the future of the museum. Hilary concedes that it is a great pity that there are no direct carvings by Eric Gill on display in Ditchling. Perhaps a generous benefactor might lend or even bequeath one? The museum and staff deserve support, not only for this important major exhibit, but also for the acquisition of lesser exhibits and, indeed, for the publication of a comprehensive catalogue.

This success of the new Museum was acknowledged on 24th April by Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund when he announced on BBC 4’s radio programme, Front Row, that the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft was one of six institutions which have been nominated for the prestigious Art Fund Prize for 2014 Museum of the Year. Deuchar said that as a small Museum Ditchling was ‘the outsider’, but that the nomination was thoroughly deserved for the ‘very beautiful transformation…from what it used to be to what it is now.’ 3rd Dimension is in complete agreement and wishes the Museum the very best of luck!

Main image: The Ditchling Museum of Art+Craft, Ditchling, East Sussex (photo: Barnes)

Aurora Corio