Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Around a hundred years ago, in the years just before WW1, Great Britain was anything but calm. This country was in turmoil - working people were unhappy with their standard of living and went on strike in their thousands, suffragettes were causing havoc and Fabian Society members were wringing their soft, uncalloused hands in dismay. 
This was known as The Great Unrest.
In the smoke-blackened city of Leeds teachers, students, including Herbert Read and the Whitby-born novelist Storm Jameson, forward-thinking businessmen and eager, artistic young ladies concerned themselves with huge changes in art, politics and society. Schoolteacher Alfred Orage (orage by name, tempestuous by nature) founded the Leeds Arts Club in 1903. This was an iconoclastic group that mixed radical socialist and anarchist politics with the philosophy of Nietzsche, Suffragette Feminism, the spiritualism of the Theosophical Society and modernist art and poetry.

An unlikely mix for this conventional Northern city, as George Bernard Shaw noticed. In one of his lectures he encouraged his audience to burn Leeds down and build a better town;
"Art is the thing that can finally make you believe that Leeds as it exists is a very intolerable place, that it is a place where no decent individual ought to live...
Unlovely Leeds

...and that you individually have no right to be alive at all. It even has the power, finally, of driving you, under certain provocation, to burn down your town."
This statement caused the art-critic of the Yorkshire Post to refer to him thereafter as George Burnhard Shaw. 

In the years just before the Great War, Arts Club members Frank Rutter, Director of the Leeds Art Gallery, and Michael Sadler, Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, organised ground-breaking exhibitions of new art, showing paintings by Cubists, Vorticists, Futurists.

For some life was changing fast, before the war to end all wars interrupted their uneasy idyll. Provincial young women like Storm Jameson went to university, had careers, stayed out late at night and even thought about free love. Sleepy corners of Britain housed artistic communities, who chose to retreat from the turbulent new world outside - living alternative, scandalous lives...
 ... as they did here at Ditchling, West Sussex, with its community of artist-craftsmen. This is the newly refurbished Museum of Art & Craft and everything is beautiful.

But there is an elephant in the room - a lurking danger (Eric Gill, actually). 

And so it was in the world outside, in 1913.


Ditchling Beacon 2013



  1. I love your description of Eric Gill - he was indeed a maverick. Have you read Fiona MacCarthy's book on Gill?

    1. I've just started to read it!
      Thank you for looking, Rosemary.

  2. I saw a "blue plaque" on a house a while back, it read NOTHING PARTICULARLY INTERESTING HAS HAPPENED HERE IN THE LAST TWO CENTURIES. . .

    The name Storm always makes me smile- how could anyone named as such be anything but a blast?

    Hope all is well with you and yours xx

    1. Love that blue plaque!
      Not sure that Storm lived up to the name, though she was quite a modern girl.

  3. Replies
    1. Ditchling is a fabulous place to visit. Not sure I can last until Spring before heading South again.

  4. Another very interesting and informative post Nilly.

    1. For a change we headed North to Morpeth on Sunday. Lovely to see Julie but we didn't find many treasures this time.

  5. Such an interesting post. Thank you for all the information and images in it.

  6. Wonderful post, Nilly - your photographs actually gave me goosebumps! Axxx

  7. I went to the 'smoke-blackened city' of Leeds art school. I can remember a winter of choking smog where visibility was non-existent. I picked my way to the city library to look up details about Tasmania, where a teaching job was on offer, (but opted for post-grad at Goldsmiths' followed by an unglamorous college post in Birmingham!)
    Such strange contradictions with Gill, sexual perversion and serenely beautiful artwork.

    1. Just found your interesting comment. My ex did his foundation year at the Jacob Kramer Art College in Leeds in 1965/66 and then came down to Canterbury College Art, where I was studying, to do the new Dip A.D. At the same time several Leeds tutors came down to establish the new course; Tom Pemberton and Tom Watt were among them. Visiting tutors included Stass Paraskos and Judith Penny - and a governor was Quentin Bell who was in Leeds at the time I believe. I wonder if any of these names ring a bell?