Out of the house
Well, it’s out of my house anyway. Yesterday I installed ‘teatime‘ in the former kitchen at High Cross House along with some nice glow in the dark garden pebbles in the backyard, on an original piece of kitchen furniture designed (we think) by Lescaze and built by Staverton Builders specifically for the house. The original plan was for the piece to sit on the sideboard in the Dining Room, but for the usual last-minute logistical reasons, it’s going in the Kitchen instead. I’m happy, partly because of the piece of furniture it’s sitting on, and partly because it’s in a slightly quieter place which will make it easier for people to dwell and listen. The other artist who is currently installing in the Dining Room apparently wasn’t too happy with sharing the space with a jabbering teaset, but the artist who is now hung in and around the kitchen is making work in response to music, which makes me much happier. She’s also happy to share, and I like people who share.
Having solved the technical issues around the tea tray, the last few weeks has been focussed on content. I’m tremendously grateful for my ‘voices’ (Mark Leahy, Hugh Nankivell, Alicia Grace, Lucinda Guy, Catherine Guy) and to Jon Stein who has been a resident writer/pianist over the summer and who played a lovely 20-minute set for me on the piano in the Living Room. I’ve also decided to publish a book of these writings. Over the past months the House and what it represents have grown close to my heart. I’ve known this house since I was 18, and have observed it go through several lives, very much from a remote viewpoint. The house has struggled, having several flushes of delight at finding a new purpose, and at other times sitting unloved and unremarked. One of those high points was in the 90s (during much of which I was living in the US) when the house was renovated and became the home for the Trust Archive. At some point – I don’t know how things worked in the sequence of time – the Archivist was made (largely) redundant and the Archive was given to Devon County Council and moved to the Devon Heritage Centre (what used to be known as the Devon Records Office until some marketer decided that wasn’t sexy enough). This means that it is properly stored and catalogued and widely accessible, but it means it is no longer ‘at home’. Had tea yesterday with Mary Bartlett who has lived and worked at Dartington for pretty much all her life, and was musing on just how many people visit the archive now that it is on an industrial estate north of Exeter rather than being ‘at home’.
What I don’t know is where National Trust fits into all this. It seems like there was a significant gap between the Archive moving out and the public announcement about National Trust taking on the lease of the building, but back-room negotiations can take years, so who knows the wheres and whys and wherefors.
Nevertheless, the process of building content has caused me to reflect further on what has been lost here. Despite its faults and contradictions, the School that was so dear and so central to the vision of the Elmhirsts, was a place of wonder in terms of reflecting a deep belief in the goodness and innate intelligence of young people. Curry absolutely believed – as did the people he gathered around him – that with nurture and guidance and the best possible conditions, all young people would find their own way to thrive. Many of the tenets of child-centred education have of course become the mainstream in the past fifty years, but within a state systems predicated on measures of value and success that have nothing at all to do with the individual and everything to do with convention, the essence of child-centredness doesn’t stand a chance. Clearly the vast majority of young people who attended one of the Dartington Schools for however many years had an incredible experience and many went on to live extraordinary lives. Most however also came from privileged, educated and non-mainstream families so that their chances of success in life were already set, and they could (possibly) have thrived at any school. Who knows? It’s also interesting to realise that the golden years of the school were those few years between Curry arriving in 1931 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. During the war years the school struggled tremendously: many parents removed their children to America as a safe haven, others were of nationalities who were not allowed to remain at large because they were ‘the enemy’ and either also went into exile or, presumably, into internment camps. Some of the school buildings became the home of evacuees. The finances of the school were hit very hard, and never, it seems, really recovered. After the war much of the talk seems to have been of financial struggle, and increasing compromise.
By the mid-1908s all the schools had closed, many with sad tales of financial disarray, sexual misadventure, and even death due to drugs or alcohol. These closures left a deep scar on this place, and today both the Junior School and the Senior School sit empty Two years ago I designed a sound installation for the old Junior School as part of a school reunion during which the boarded-up building (which is rife with asbestos and home to many bat colonies) was opened up for the duration of the reunion and exhibition. I think for most who visited (the majority of whom had been at the school) it was a deeply troubling experience. So many spoke of the Junior School as a magical place, a special time in their lives. To see this building abandoned, empty, and apparently without hope of a new life, seemed like a body blow to everything the school stood for and the lofty ideals and vast amount of capital that went in to its creation. Such, it seems, is the destiny of all great ideals.
High Cross House, however, was abuzz with activity yesterday as the new (last?) show was being installed. There is some gorgeous work and I look forward to seeing it all finished. I had the simplest install ever! The piece is completely self-contained, and (despite the fact that in the last few days some gremlins have been appearing in the technology) it was simply a matter of arriving, setting the tray on to its furniture, plugging it in, and well… leaving. I hope it’s all working today! The show opens tomorrow.