Reopened by Sir Nicholas Serota, on 20 September 2013, after a major refurbishment, Ditchling Museum of Art +Craft has been re-imagined for a new audience and a new century. It has been somehow overlooked and buried that Ditchling was a centre for applied arts in the 20th Century. It is however apparent from meeting with Hilary Williams, the director of the museum since 2004, that she plans to put the significance of the artistic community that resided in and around Ditchling, (namely the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic), back on the map.
The museum had first been opened in 1985 by two sisters Joanna and Hilary Bourne, aged 78 and 76 respectively. The museum had however evolved into a receptacle into which all aspects of village life washed up. The white noise of social history and other ephemera choked any sense of understanding of the artists, or the artisans that worked with the Guild from the exhibits as they were housed in the museum. In 2007 the museum, aware of the importance of the collection, developed a capital project plan that was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, many trusts, foundations and individuals. In a series of beautiful old and contemporary spaces, the museum has been transformed into the ‘Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’ which has brought the significance of the collection to light.
The Museum collection is a unique body of work by many internationally famous artists and craft workers who had made Ditchling their home. These include Eric Gill, Edward Johnston, David Jones, Frank Brangwyn, Hilary Pepler, Joseph Cribb, Desmond Chute, Valentine KilBride, Charles Knight, Louis Ginnett, Ethel Mairet and Dunstan Pruden. These were artists whose impact and significance had a long reach:
Eric Gill, (1882-1940), engraver and stone-carver, who moved to Ditchling in 1907, and was a co-founder of the Guild commissioned to carve the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, considered important enough to exempt him from war service until its completion in 1918. Controversy and debate were part of Gill’s day-to-day life when alive and they continue to be part of this artist’s legacy.
Desmond Chute (1895-1957), stone carver who attended the Slade School of Art, London. A close friend of Stanley Spencer, he later socialised with writers and intellectuals such as Ezra Pound and W B Yeats.
David Jones (1895-1974)- wood engraver, who created many of the illustrations used in St Dominic’s Press publications. For a time he joined the 7&5 Society, alongside Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Christopher Wood. In addition to painting and printmaking, Jones wrote extensively. He returned to the subject of war in two major poems: ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’.
Joseph Cribb (1892-1967)- letter cutter and carver, whose father was a draughtsman and illustrator who had worked with, amongst others, William Morris. Gill used Cribb to work on many of his major commissions, such as the lettering on Oscar Wilde’s tomb.
Philip Hagreen (1890-1988)- painter, who studied painting in Cornwall under Norman Garstin and Laura and Harold Knight.
Frank Brangwyn, (1867 – 1956) -whose mentors were A H Mackmurdo, William Morris and Siegfried Bing. Brangwyn’s scope of work was broad and included murals, furniture, posters and stained glass. He is probably best known for the rejected mural panels for the House of Lords, now in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. He was commissioned to produce the subsequent Rockefeller Murals while living in Ditchling, for which he used villagers as models.
Dunstan Pruden (1907-1974)- silversmith. Gill recommended him for his first major commission, an altar cross for Exeter College, Oxford.
Ethel Mairet (1872 -1952) – weaver- Her many eminent students and apprentices included Hilary Bourne, Valentine KilBride, Petra Gill, Peter Collingwood and Marianne Straub. In 1938 she was the first woman to be awarded the Royal Designer for Industry.
Hilary Bourne (1909–2004)- weaver and co-founder of the museum. While selling through shops, Bourne’s commissions also included curtains for the Royal Festival Hall, fabric for the first jet planes, weaving for early ‘Lurex’, and fabrics for Charlton Heston’s costume in the film, Ben Hur. Her work bridges the hand-made tradition and the technological developments of materials of the time.
Following on from the sympathetic refurbishment by Adam Richards Architects, this year is an exciting opportunity for the museum with a dedicated learning space with an engaging programme of events for adults and children, a new cafe and shop, purpose built collection stores, a research room and new displays. International collaborations and exhibitions are also planned. The refined focus of the Museum is reflected in the updated name: ‘Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft’, with a new identity designed by Professor Phil Baines, professor of Typography, Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London. To the architects’ and museum’s credit it has also been shortlisted for a RIBA South East award and has also won the World Architecture News Award for Adaptive Use.
Walking round the museum with Hilary, it is apparent that sensitivity and meticulous care has been taken in the approach both by her and the team of architects in terms of the dialogue between the building- (in particular the form, material and palette used), the pieces held in the collection and the position it commands in the village itself. The building, the collection and the surroundings of the museum are continually in conversation with one another. Running through the spine of the building are the tools and machinery that was so central to the Guild’s work. Central to which is the Stanhope Press which was first set up in 1916 in a stable behind ‘Sopers’, Eric Gill’s house in the High Street, with one of the first jobs undertaken being the production of beer labels for the Sandrock public house next door.The Press was soon afterwards installed in the Guild workshops on Ditchling Common where it served for 21 years printing books, pamphlets, posters, magazines, billheads and notepaper. Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft has a substantial collection of works printed on the Press including copies of The Game, the magazine produced by the Guild for its own members with engravings by David Jones and others.
This building could be nowhere else, nor could it house any other collection. The new museum celebrates Ditchling’s important and truly unique position as an artistic centre of international influence.
Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft
Lodge Hill Lane
East Sussex BN6 8SP
On social media sites as @museumartcraft