Petra Tegetmier nee Gill Hilary Bourne Marjorie Kenney outside Ditchling Museum during an exhibition of Eric Gills work c.1985 credit David Bedford

Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts new exhibition celebrates an extraordinary contribution to British art

Nestled at the foot of the South Downs, surrounded by glorious countryside, Ditchling appears to be an idyllic and unassuming part of the world. But behind the perfect gardens and polite demeanour, there’s an artistic legacy of preserving traditional skills, innovative communities and gentle social change. 

Peggy Turnball with gallery assistants Edith and Mary Flint outside The Little Gallery 1930s Craft Study Centre

“Despite Ditchling being rural and feeling like a long way from London, it was still quite easy to get back up there.”  Steph Fuller, Director of the village’s art museum, is explaining why the area saw a huge influx of important artists during the early 20th Century. Beginning with the celebrated painter and writer, Amy Sawyer, some of the leading lights of the British Arts & Crafts second generation came to the quiet Sussex community. Soon she’d been joined by Eric Gill, Edward Johnston and Hilary Pepler, who were already good friends and living near each other in Hammersmith.

They all rejected industrialisation and the trend of burgeoning consumerism, so wanted to get away from the city and set up where they could work more in harmony with nature. ditchling

“Gill would have known the area because he grew up in Brighton. I think once the whole thing became catalysed, Ditchling developed critical mass and just kept going.” They were soon followed by the mother of English handweaving, Ethel Mairet. She knew Pepler and moved down from the Cotswolds. 

At this point of the story, we should mention Joanna and Hilary Bourne. Both of them knew the village well, having been pupils at the nearby Dumbrell’s School – coincidentally an alma mater of Queen Camilla. Hilary later learnt to weave in Palestine and would briefly work in Mairet’s workshop, learning a range of dyeing skills. Together with her partner Barbara Allen, they’d go on to become some of the most of important, simultaneously broadly overlooked, stars of the movement. The pair would use traditional methods and futuristic designs to revolutionise modern attitudes towards textiles.

“They were very forward looking, pioneering the use of new materials like lurex.

“But they also dyed with blackberry tips. It’s a real mixture. They used old techniques… yet weren’t afraid to try something different.” Allen and Bourne would go on to be chosen to design textiles for the Royal Festival Hall (built for 1951’s Festival Of Britain exhibition) many of which are still in place today. Fuller tells me the pieces have stood up to wear very well. While some people might think natural dyes fade over time, if they’re used professionally they can last as long as anything the petrochemical industry might offer. 

The pair also found their way into Hollywood, creating garments for William Wyler’s, Ben Hur. Producers were at pains to make the film as authentic as possible, searching out artisans like armourers and weavers who deployed traditional methods. “There was a great story which I was told by their nephew. Apparently, a big car drew up at the house, with a woman from MGM who was seeing if they would take on the commission. They didn’t really want to do it and were already quite busy. So, they named a ridiculous price, yet were told ‘yes’. It was a huge rush to get everything made in time. But it was very successful.

“It’s amazing to watch the film and know that certain pieces are now in our collection store.”

In 1985 Hilary and Joanna Vaughn, then in their 70s, bought a local schoolhouse and opened the forerunner of the Ditchling Museum of Arts And Crafts, intending to reflect the tremendous impact this small village had. The whole building was remodelled and extended in 2012, adopting an 18th century cart lodge next door and providing an award-winning centre to house all the precious artifacts. All the exhibits link back to local makers and artists in some way, looking how they’re relevant now and inspiring the next creative generation.

“Originally the museum was mostly fixed displays,” Fuller tells me. “Since the redevelopment, we’ve done lots of bigger exhibitions alongside the collection. There’s more change to keep visitors returning.” Because the museum meets modern art conservation standards, it’s now able to borrow irreplaceable items from other institutions, both nationally and internationally. 

The core of the collection revolves around the Arts and Crafts movement.

Popularised by William Morris and his intricate textile designs, it offers both a return to older production techniques and a new way of building communities. “It was very much about reviving skills, working in a traditional way and not using machines. Morris was a Victorian and the cost of producing things was really high. So, to live that kind of life you needed to have quite a lot of money.” Gill and Johnston were a generation younger. Prior to moving into Ditchling, they had contact with Morris and his workshop. 

The first world war affected that generation enormously. They become extremely focused on making good quality things out of traditional methods but applied a more modern aesthetic than their predecessors in the movement. “The style of the objects would be quite simple. There aren’t any unnecessary embellishments. It’s moving into that kind of mid-century modern clean lines. Simple things made from good materials. It’s quite a change from the ornate decorated William Morris era. The philosophical underpinning of it is quite similar though.”

The desire to create a new ideal of working and community compelled Gill, Peplar and another rising artist called Desmond Schute. They relocated to Ditchling Common and formed The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. “Gill decided that it would be good to move out of the village, to somewhere more remote and quieter.” The Guild adhered to Distributism, a Catholic social philosophy concerned with everybody having enough land to be self-sufficient. They were one of very few communities which were trying to put it into practice. So, there was a lot of interest in what they were doing, prompting idealists like GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to visit.

Women weren’t allowed to join the Guild, so instead started forming their own networks back in and around the village.

“One of the things they all had in common was an interest in teaching and sharing their skills. Meret trained up lots of people in her workshop, like local young women who came in to help with the dying and weaving. She also ha d a lot of visitors from Scandinavia and Germany. So, there was quite a big international community who passed through.”

Vaughn and Allen were a bit younger than most of the Guild members but knew them through Johnston’s daughter. Vaughn, in particular, was an avid and influential promoter of craft. A satellite community formed, everyone helping each other, recommending associates for work and bringing them in on big projects. “Hilary was quite a charismatic person. She seemed to be one of those people who found opportunities in all sorts of places.”

Now the groundbreaking work of Vaughn and Allen is under fresh scrutiny with a new exhibition.

Double Weave offers a glimpse into the life and practice of these two unsung heroines of the textile world. “We started a research project about three years ago. We are looking at interesting stories which were present in our collection but haven’t been told. Some of the researchers were very interested in Hilary and Barbara. They’d an amazing career as a weaver and dyer.” Despite having a close relationship with the pairs’ families still living in the village, there was still a dearth of formal research on their works. There are no books, and few people knew a great deal about their lives, particularly Barbara Allen’s.

“So, we started digging. It’s meant we’ve been able to look at some of the textiles we had in the collection and link them up with the buildings they were commissioned for. Some of the things are just samples, and we didn’t necessarily know what they were for. It’s all being fantastically interesting.”

It’s a great time for such an exhibition in Ditchling, due to renewed interest in modernism as both a design approach and period.

“Bourne and Allen were absolutely at the forefront of that, but hardly anybody knows who they are.” It’s curious that the pair should get brief mention in the mainstream art world. Architecture review magazines covering the Festival Of Britain go into great detail about the design and fittings of the hall which formed its centrepiece. The architects and the people who created the furniture receive credits but Bourne and Allen aren’t even mentioned. Even despite their textiles being in nearly all the photographs It’s interesting in how recognition for their work has evaporated. 

“I think that’s a mixture of things,” says Fuller. “It’s partly to do with crafts, and particularly textiles, as being considered less important or artistic. Architects would commission work but wouldn’t think of it as being a creative discipline. Or maybe they would, but the client didn’t. There are some great quotes from Hilary Bourne in later life about how hard it was for them to get established and make a living at the beginning. She said, quite briskly: ‘Everybody expects a woman to become somebody’s wife and just get on with running the household.’ If you wanted to do something different it was an uphill struggle.”

Ethel Mairet’s workgirls

As well as highlighting the work and intriguing story of Bourne and Allen, Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft carry out a range of educational work. From early years right through to running courses for professionals who want to learn some of these historic skills. Backed by a huge sense of ownership amongst the community, there’s a thriving local friends group. Plus, there is an army of volunteers keeping the institution open for generations to come.

Fuller says they’ve learnt to adapt and react to a changing cultural landscape during the last 40 years.

Their Museum Key scheme, launched in response to the cost-of-living crisis, breaks down barriers to entry for people who need it the most. “The hands-on part of making and crafting is really well recognised as having positive benefits for health and wellbeing. So, we try to share that as much as we can. Hilary Bourne was very much about people knowing how to make things, as they can help them in their lives.” Fuller says when people start making, it’s a revelation for them, as it’s so absorbing. They also invite schools in for workshops. Some of the children don’t understand what weaving is or that their clothes are made from woven material. “By the end of the sessions, they’ve made something they can take away. They’re almost infallibly excited by that…”

In fact, there’s renewed focus on creative achievements, both past and present, across the whole of Sussex at the moment. Especially with the Turner Prize coming to Eastbourne this autumn and focussing the art world’s attentions on the county. “But, there have always been a clutch of fantastic and interesting galleries,” says Fuller. “It’s been an area where artists have moved out of London and set up home. Whether that’s the Guild or Lea Miller and Roland Penrose going to Farley’s Farmhouse in Chiddingly. There’s always been these pockets of radical artists in the countryside, not necessarily visible but doing their own thing. It’s great to bring them out and say: Look at this!’”

Double Weave: Bourne and Allen’s Modernist Textiles runs at Ditchling Museum of Arts And Crafts until Sun 14 April. 

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