I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year. Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display. I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.
Despite my apprehensions about what its collection might contain, I have to admit that the Ditchling Museum itself could not have been in a more bucolic setting if it’d tried. You can certainly see why artists were drawn to this part of England (including the non-molester ones who were presumably less driven by being in a secluded environment to hide their goings-on). We parked out front next to a large pond that was home to ducks and no fewer than three terrapins (I was completely charmed by the terrapins, but much like the Ditchling artists’ group itself, all was not as it seemed on the surface, because apparently locals hate the terrapins (a non-native invasive species) because they eat the ducklings (they’re still cute though, but ducklings are cute too. Can’t they all just get along?)), and the museum was set into a hillside in front of a churchyard and pretty old church, with some tables out front for consuming things from the museum’s cafe (the cakes didn’t look half bad, but I had ice cream in Brighton in my sights).
So my first impressions of the museum were overall quite positive, especially when I got inside and saw “Belonging with Morag Myerscough,” which was essentially a big colourful swing set decorated with lots of images and signs (the wall you were meant to be staring at had images relating to different musical movements of the last few decades – I loved the pink skeleton). Not being one to turn down a swing, I had a good long sit on here (the scariest part was first sitting down in it, as the swings did tend to get away from you, but it was OK once you were ensconced). I also liked that the public toilet had a blackboard on the back of the door for doodling, even though touching the chalk was a bit gross (I did wash my hands after, and the toilet was far enough from the door that you couldn’t actually use it whilst you were on the toilet, but it was still kind of unsanitary, albeit fun if you didn’t think about it too much).
But then I went into the main gallery, and was met with lots of Gill’s artwork, accompanied by virtually no explanation of who Gill was, nor, most importantly, of the terrible things he had done. This seemed quite disingenuous to me, because context is everything in art history – even if Gill hadn’t been a horrible person, I still would have liked to have seen some biographical information so I could understand what inspired him – this felt like they were trying to keep your view on the art from being altered by the kind of man Gill was. This isn’t to say that I hated everything in this section – I liked some of the pieces by other Ditchling artists, especially the little wooden bear made for a man who had broken his leg, but they really needed to have some kind of background explanation on the community as well. After seeing two exhibitions on them, I still don’t fully understand their connection to Catholicism, but clearly there was some Catholic thread running through the artists’ group here, because much of their work was produced for churches, and the other displays here also had Catholic connections.
The temporary exhibition when I visited (which runs until 14 October) featured art by Corita Kent, who was an American printmaker active in the mid-20th century. The most interesting thing about Corita is that she was actually a nun for most of her career (she eventually left the convent in the 1970s, and died from cancer only about ten years later), but still managed to produce bold, fairly controversial work, especially her pieces protesting the Vietnam War (she wasn’t the only member of the clergy doing so (I don’t think nuns are technically clergy, but I forget what heading they do fall under and you know what I mean. They’re not laypeople anyway) – a number of priests were also arrested for their role in anti-war protests). There were actually a series of letters here between her archbishop and mother superior discussing how controversial her work was – basically, the church wanted her to knock it off, but her mother superior defended her, saying that although she didn’t agree with many of Corita’s pieces, she thought she had a real talent. It’s interesting that though we think of nuns as being quite conservative, historically, they have been a refuge for some very progressive women – even as late as the 1960s (or the 1990s, if you count Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. I’m going to choose to, because that’s seriously one of my favourite movies. I’m such a dork).
Her work ranged from the expected religion-inspired pieces to ones more secular in nature, especially on politics and consumerism. I loved “Enriched Bread” (which was a take on Holy Communion), and her circus letter pieces (which I’ve only just realised they cleverly used to spell out Ditchling) – her style in general was pretty cool, even in the pieces where I was less keen on the content. Her life story was also really interesting – in addition to the whole nun thing, she was responsible for the largest and smallest pieces of commissioned art in the US; the largest being a water tower in Boston (which no longer exists, but they saved the paint chips when they took it down, which are now considered their own works of art), and the smallest the Love stamp she designed for USPS. I was glad her pieces were here, because her bright and cheerful style really offset the creepiness of Gill. There were also a couple of short films she made playing in a small movie room, but I didn’t watch them in their entirety.
The other room of the museum contained more Catholic-themed pieces: some cartoons by a priest (the snake in particular cracked me up, biblical reference and all), a delightful photograph of nuns riding camels, and some religious figurines worked in gold. There was also a small display on how printing presses worked, which made me wish there was one you could actually try out. I’d love to learn how to use a printing press – they look so cool, and there’s something magical about seeing your words come to life on a page.
This was quite a small museum, effectively being only two exhibition rooms (three if you count the one with the swing); in fact, Marcus looked through their brochure before we left because he was sure we must have missed something, but nope, that was all there was (it looked like there should have been more from the outside as well, as the museum was split between two buildings, but one of them was just the shop and cafe). It was fine because we got in for free, but had I paid £6.50, I think I would have been rather annoyed at the size and the fact that the museum only took about half an hour to see. I also found the lack of information on Gill’s very chequered past troubling, though I can obviously see why they chose to omit it. They should really have had more information on the Sussex modernists in general, because I still haven’t figured out what their ethos was (as I said in the Sussex modernism post). It’d be a lovely place to have a picnic (if you like eating outside – personally I hate it, and when a seagull stole my long-awaited ice cream in Brighton right out of my hand as I was eating it, I felt justified in my hatred of al fresco dining), and it made a perfectly fine pit stop on the way to Brighton, but I feel that such a new museum really has no excuse for shying away from controversy, and the admission fee is also a bit much (I also didn’t like how they essentially ignored us when we were looking around the shop, but fawned all over the older ladies who came in after us, asking them to do a visitors’ survey and everything. What, our opinion didn’t matter?). 2.5/5.