Featured in
Issue 8

The Avant Gardens of the English Countryside

How radical art bloomed at Dartington, West Dean and Grizedale 

BY Jessica Lack in Frieze Masters , Opinion | 18 SEP 19

In the mid-1990s, I was studying at Dartington College of Arts, an institution in the English countryside that had once been part of a revolutionary social experiment but was now beleaguered by a 30-year war of attrition. On one side was the trust, who believed in maintaining only those modernist credentials acceptable to a conservative country audience; on the other was the arts college, which strictly adhered to the establishment’s principles of artistic radicalism.

This state of perpetual intransience was, in many ways, liberating for the students. We were damned in this decaying utopia whatever the political weather, so we lived in the International Style dormitories designed by William Lescaze, which were better suited to the arid heat of California than Devon’s vengeful showers: the paint peeled, the pipes burst, the windows stuck and the air smelled of mildew from the swimming pool that had last been filled in 1982. But, in the summer, we swam in the cold river shaded by oak trees, lay in the tall grass and tried to articulate our feelings of inertia in long performances without beginning or end.

High Cross House, designed by William Lescaze, 1931. Courtesy: Dartington Hall, Devon

Dartington began as a utopian dream in 1925, when Dorothy Elmhirst, an American heiress of a Whitney fortune, left her stone fin-de-siècle summer house on Long Island for a medieval hall and its surrounding estate in the Devon countryside. With the moral certitude of the very rich, she and her husband, Leonard, set about building a better society from this rural idyll.

First came the Bengal visionary Rabindranath Tagore, who advised them on the kind of utopia they needed; one founded on the principles of art, poetry and science, self-sufficiency and rural regeneration. Then came the political theorist Bertrand Russell, with his Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916) and his air of dissolute notoriety. Then Walter Gropius, fleeing Nazi Germany, who recognized in Dartington the possibility of an English Bauhaus. Samuel Beckett came, then Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Imogen Holst and Mark Tobey, who established the arts department. It was there, in 1964, that Robert Rauschenberg had a Damascene moment when he ironed shirts on stage with John Cage and Merce Cunningham, later calling the deed ‘actionism’.

A school was built to teach the community’s progressive ideology to the next generation; this was where Michael Young learned about social responsibility and cultural democracy, later inscribing these tenets into the first Labour Party Manifesto of 1945.

Rabindranath Tagore with Leonard Elmhurst in private garden at Dartington Hall, 1926. Courtesy: Dartington Hall, Devon

Such was the avant-garde past of the place we inhabited – one in which optimists had once hallucinated the promised land and we learned to live, almost religiously, within its atmosphere of Chekhovian loss.

If such a place sounds seductive, I can tell you that it was and, as a result, it was populated by dreamers and lost souls. Some of them were periodically taken away, either by concerned parents, if they had them, or members of the medical profession if they did not.

For those of us who stayed, it is perhaps not surprising that we became obsessed with Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979). For three years, we, too, seemed to live in the ‘Zone’. We were perpetual trespassers navigating a landscape that was continually shifting at the whim of an invisible trust – and our art reflected this condition: there were posters for performances that may or may not have taken place; locked rooms that might or might not have contained installations, if only you had the key; doorways that were bricked up overnight. When one student disappeared, we assumed it was performative – only later did it transpire he had drowned.

Rebecca Camilleri, Nicola Rayworth, Cassie Anne and Mae Hewitt, site-specific dance performance in the River Dart for Dartington College of Arts Degree Show, 2010. Courtesy and photograph: Kate Mount

‘These are meaningless pieces!’ shouted a group of performers into an empty tiltyard and we stood in solidarity with their existential crisis. For my part, I spent my days making art about time and space, chance and reism by scrunching up balls of paper and throwing them behind my back into a wastepaper basket.

The extent to which Dartington was suffering from its laurels, and had been since the 1970s, was plain to see. There were rumours of financial mismanagement and, whenever we left for the summer holidays, we were never sure if we’d be returning in the autumn. Studios were turned into hospitality suites and parts of the medieval hall into a corporate hotel.

In 2010, the inevitable happened and Dartington closed the arts college for good, and the department was moved to Falmouth University. Throughout its existence, it had been compared to the short-lived Black Mountain College in rural Appalachia (1933–57), with its focus on radical experimentation. Yet, there was a difference: Dartington was socialist and rooted in the Ruskinian belief that capitalism leads to aesthetic degradation. After I graduated, I returned to London where art institutions were desperately trying to appeal to politicians by monetizing culture’s value, publishing reports about how much the sector contributes to the economy.

Cecil Beaton, Edward James, 1931, bromide contact print, 25 × 20 cm. Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, London

While the college is no more, its legacy continues, most notably in Grizedale Arts in rural Cumbria – the pugnacious prize fighter of the Useful Arts Movement. Director Adam Sutherland, an alumni of Dartington Hall School who knew Leonard Elmhirst, fully admits its influence: ‘Although I often see it as a dire warning rather than a shining example – but you need a combination of both in a way.’ Its impact can also be felt in the Liverpool Biennial – until recently run by another Dartington graduate, Sally Tallant – with its focus on research, social responsibility and education. Other places share Dartington’s aspirations for high creative ideals: the Surrealist collector and poet Edward James – one of the last great modern mystics – founded the thriving West Dean College in Sussex in 1971 for the preservation of ancient crafts. At that time, his prescient philosophy seemed unconventional, but is recognized today as integral to the conservation of Britain’s cultural history.  

Nine years on from its closure, Dartington has become the Dartington Project, which describes itself as a progressive testbed and model for a sustainable society. Its ambition is high and its aims closer to the Elmhirsts’ early ideals. The potential is immense but, for the project to really work, it needs to move beyond its illustrious past and the potential economic benefits that nostalgia might bring, while holding on to the experimental process and mindset that made it exceptional in the first place. Dartington was just five years old when the last great crisis of capitalism occurred in the 1930s, when its attempts to defend creativity and its usefulness to society in a world obsessed by money was seen as at best eccentric, at worst dangerous. This time round, let’s hope they succeed.

Main image: German ballet director Kurt Jooss with members of the Ballet Jooss outside the Children’s Playhouse at Dartington College of Arts, 1934. Courtesy: Dartington Hall, Devon; photograph: © Fritz Henle  

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Avant Gardens’.

Jessica Lack is a writer based in Cambridge, UK. Her forthcoming book on global art movements will be published by Thames & Hudson.