Nestled in the beautiful surroundings of East Sussex, some 8 miles in land from Brighton at the foothills of the South Downs, lies the inordinately pretty village of Ditchling. Because of its proximity to both London and the coast, as well as its idyllic surroundings, it was chosen by the artist Eric Gill as the home for a new artistic community known as The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic.
The guild was founded in 1920 when sculptor and font designer Eric Gill travelled with his apprentice Joseph Cribb to found an art colony and experimental village community, and artists Edward Johnston and Hilary Peplar soon followed them. In 1920 they founded the Roman Catholic community, based on similar guild structures from medieval times where they set up to protect and promote the crafts of their workers. The guild was a community of work, faith and domestic life, with a series of workshops and a chapel. Wealth was to be measured by virtue over value and the guild placed an emphasis on manual labour over commercialisation. Everything was centred on emphasising a peaceful existence, as is reflected in their folk traditions building on the stylings and teachings of William Morris and his circle, who began the 19th century desire for a return to rural artisan production as a backlash to the modern anxieties associated with the industrial revolution.
The guild grew and developed with the times – many people joined in the years following WW1 after coming to view commercialisation and industrialisation and dehumanising and venal. A private press, operated by Hilary Peplar was founded in Ditchling enabling the members of the guild to spread their teachings.
The guild received notoriety for its often-viewed as backwards teachings – women were not admitted until 1972, many of its publications were themed on identifying signs of the devil, and its founder Eric Gill wrote in his diary of his affairs, incest with his teenage daughters and sexual abuse of his dog.
Yet this small village in Sussex, changed the nature of British art – what we consider modern British folk art grew from this small community of artisans. Colours are often monochrome or with the odd streak of red, lines are curved but strong and images have a naïve but caring quality. The end product emphasises the laborious hand of production – sculptures, drawings, ceramics and metalwork speak clearly of the hours of study in to production methods and hours of effort gone in to their creation. This is complimented through the extraordinary spectrum of influences – from Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Medieval, Celtic, Indian and Post-Impressionist art – the amount of knowledge of world art speaks volumes to the dedication of the artists.
The guild was abandoned in 1989 and many of the buildings demolished. Near the site currently is a wonderfully charming; small but perfectly formed museum dedicated to this group of crafts people who have shaped British art. The building wonderfully evokes the traditional local architecture of Sussex barns with rusty tiled roofs and weathered boards, yet mixed with striking glass walls that illuminate the interior vibrantly, designed by Adam Richards Architects. The collection is clearly and carefully curated – the objects and artworks are touchingly personal, each told along with the fascinating story of its creator (often disassociated offspring of aristocrats breaking free from their strict upbringings).
Full of beautiful drawings, weavings, silverworks and so forth, the space feels so much at home knowing you are metres from their creation. The museum also has a study space with library, touring exhibition space, and a wonderful café and shop. It is clear the museum still places a large emphasis on community and that personal touch of the guild is still at the heart of their work – with a busy outreach, schools and families programme.
It’s the small museums like this around the country that hold the baton for representing community art outside of London – their vital place in British art and culture is only now slowly being recognised for its full potential as local craft is becoming eventually recognised as just as crucial to our art scene as the big hitting London establishments, and Ditchling Museum of Arts + Crafts is an essential pilgrimage for anyone with a passion for honest, heartfelt British twentieth century art.
By Harry Seymour