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Cult fictions: Ditchling Museum of Art by Adam Richards

A finely crafted museum celebrating Eric Gill’s creative cohort is an exercise in references, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Brotherton-Lock

Take one architect of phenomenological inclinations. Let him loose on an ensemble of tired old buildings at the edge of a beautiful village green in Sussex. Give him a brief that requires a revived museum celebrating the once local lives of Eric Gill and the artists and craftsmen of the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic. And then stand back, and expect to experience a meaningful narrative of light, space, materials and atmosphere.

Adam Richards Architects’ design of the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft duly gives us a vessel-cum-Veseley crammed with historical, religious, and contextual references. The intelligence of Richards’ content is admirable. But do we experience the references subtly, or rather too instructively, or perhaps not at all?

If the latter, no matter: the aesthetics alone will be pure heaven for those visitors of the Duchy Originals or Farrow & Ball persuasions, though it must be said Richards has certainly delivered an engrossing Wunderkammer worthy of the priapic genius who was always ready to brandish ‘man’s most precious ornament’.

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Adam Richards has arranged his subtextual narrative in a series of internal tableaux that are meticulously framed, yet also faintly tense. This equivocal effect is heightened by the equally precise sense of materiality and making that most obviously characterises the architect’s response to the brief, which was to revitalise the original Ditchling Museum, housed in former school buildings between 1985 and 2012.

His scheme for the Heritage Lottery-supported project renovated the listed 18th-century cart lodge on the edge of the green, inserting a link building to connect this small barn to the new-build segment containing the introductory gallery and collections store. This segues into the compaction of old school buildings that contain the main galleries, reading room and print gallery. The school rooms at the north end have been remodelled as an education centre. A key environmental issue was insulating and ventilating the small gap between damp brick-and-flint walls and the new gallery walls.

The buildings are continuous but, externally, read as a collage of different forms and styles: cart lodge, archaic; the link building, an almost detail-free hummock of locally made Keymer red tiles. The introductory gallery, sheathed in black metal with sharply angled decorative overlaps, is a nod to the glossy black mathematical tiles on Cotterlings, a house across the green, but also references Victorian railway architecture: Gill travelled to London from the nearby Hassocks station.

The idea of making, in the medieval guild sense, is essential to this scheme

The idea of making, in the medieval guild sense, is essential to this scheme, and Richards’ approach recalls a phrase in The Anathemata, a complex poem by the notable early Modernist poet and artist David Jones. The Welshman, who worked with Gill in the unremarkable schoolhouse in the 1920s, described the truly creative person as a ‘form making proto-maker’ – the giver of new meaning to original things.

And it is those original things – the art and artefacts of the Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic – that Richards and his project architect, Sam Dawkins, have rendered anew, with a fastidious spatial and material artifice that, in the gallery segment, is superbly illuminated by an ecclesiastical approach to natural light – a Catholic approach, in fact: Gill and Co were converts.

Richards’ control over the architectural narrative is immediately obvious: one enters the well-designed café and reception area in the barn through an extruded, splayed wooden portal. This slightly forced moment of compression is released on entering, across a slate-over-limecrete floor, by the opened-up roof space of the barn. The old timbers are a pleasure to behold: original things, precursors to the finer crafts that await.

Turning left into the link section, there are stairs up to the introductory gallery and a short lift unit, partly concealed behind a raised and deliberately ‘presented’ slab of engineered wood. The dark slate underfoot signifies sleep and death, explains Richards, leading to ‘a line of light, a glimpse of the introductory gallery, like a glimpse of something in a Baroque church. You’re intrigued’. Having ascended, there is a nicely contrived view through the window above the lift to the village churchyard.

The introductory gallery is filled with light because of the full-height glazed central section of the west-facing gable-end. The single, large display case has the same truncated gable-end section as the Guild’s tiny 1921 church on Ditchling Common, which was demolished after being irreparably damaged by the 1987 hurricane. The big vitrine, with engineered wood shelving, contains artefacts such as posters typographed by Gill – ‘Lenny Nosworthy, Painter’ – and objects including ox vertebrae dressed as a priest.

The display case, suggests Dawkins, is ‘a bit like a shroud to the exhibits, like the black exterior of the gallery, another shroud’. The massive engineered wood beam above the portal leading to the main galleries through the original eastern brick end-wall of the school is likened to a proscenium arch.

We experience very skilful manipulations of light in relation to volume and section

The design of the main gallery is elegant, and the exhibits are well-lit and engrossing. And here, we begin to experience very skilful manipulations of light in relation to volume and section – and, of course, there are yet more signifiers.

The gallery’s Guild Room is a symbolic chapel, with the same truncated gable-end section used as a two-sided display unit. It’s charcoal-grey, softly haloed with light from the window behind it. This skilfully arranged room deals with craft, social engagement and faith: Richards says the table-like vitrine has ‘an almost altar-like relationship with the black wall’. There’s no almost about it, surely. From the window, one can see the grave-mounds in the churchyard.

But it is the print gallery, containing the original Edwardian Stanhope press operated by Gill’s printer, Hilary Pepler, that delivers the most surprising effects of light and space in the museum – and, for the first time, a compellingly numinous formal and spatial quality.

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The room’s section recalls a Byzantine chapel. By chance, unnoticed by Richards, the base of the altar-like press has an outline very like the room’s section. Natural light washes into the gallery at its gable end, where the press sits, through two vertical windows facing north and south. The only other notable architectural features are two pairs of slate-clad timber columns. The phenomenological coding does not entirely explain the room’s remarkable atmosphere, which seems counter-factual (or perhaps counter-metaphysical) to the relative simplicity of its form and details.

‘In the prepared high-room,’ wrote David Jones inThe Anathemata, ‘he implements inside time and late in time under forms indelibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made out of time, before all orogenesis on this hill at a time’s turn, not on any hill but on this hill.’ On the edge of this green, at this time’s turn in Ditchling, how apt that the architectural cult fictions prompted by Adam Richards’ encounter with locale and incidence are only a few steps away from Hilary Pepler’s grave under a scrawny old yew swagged with pagan mistletoe.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Precious is such a funny, double-edged word. I must say this building reminded me of visiting Leslie Martin in his wonderfully civilized new-in-old simplicity outside Cambridge and eating oatcakes off beautiful Leachish plates and sipping not quite identically coloured tea out wonderfully elegant simple porridge-hued mugs. But, instead of the Romish mumbo-jumbo with the Gill gang, at least there was Ben Nicolson on the wall.

    I urge visitors not to be feart of intellectualised phenomenological Anathemata, and just enjoy Richards/Dawkins sensual enjoyment and achievement of little things that matter, in their lovely new building.

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