Above: Harry Pierce at the Merzbarn in 1963. Photo Robert Smithies for The Guardian
In 1965, aged 22, when I was asked to play a part in the efforts to save the Merzbarn, I had already studied art a few years and knew a little about Kurt Schwitters. While his work was then largely unrecognised, his innovative use of collage, the impact of Dada and his sound poetry had some recognition in art schools in the UK.
When Richard Hamilton asked me to be part of the team of students he was bringing together to make a survey of the Merzbarn, that had been gifted to the University of Newcastle, I knew enough to be both thrilled and challenged. As things turned out, I found myself taking a biggish part in an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime project, carrying responsibilities for which I was almost wholly unprepared. I was involved in its preparation and removal, repair, restoration and conservation. I studied, wrote and spoke about it. Fortunately, an artschool education, if it teaches you anything, teaches you to make it up (and so it should.) So that was what I, and the others involved, did. There was no previous practice to rely on, few authorities to consult, nothing like this had ever been attempted before.
An artschool education, if it teaches you anything, teaches you to make it up.
I have been involved with the Merzbarn, more and less over the years, ever since. I have looked at it and thought about it, and talked about it more than any other single artwork of my experience. I want in this account to bring together, as far as I can, the story of the Merzbarn from its inception in the mind of the artist up to the present day, drawing on as much documentary evidence, memoir, science, and academic diligence of scholars as I can gather, together with my own first-hand knowledge.
Aims of this account
The complicated history of Schwitters’ life and times, his works and innovations, his travels and relationships, his trouble and sufferings and, despite all adversities his enthusiasm and zest for life and art, forms the back-story to the Merzbarn that he made right at the end of his life. Other authors, critics and historians have dealt with many aspects of Schwitters’ life and work, and it is not my purpose to cover that here. My aim is twofold: firstly, and mostly, to tell the story of his last large-scale work, how it came about, what makes it like it is, what happened to it and why; and then to set out some speculations from my own understanding of the work about how it can be read and what it means to me.
I am old now, older than the Merzbarn actually, and much older than Schwitters ever was. This work of his has been a companion to me for most of my life, half a century and more. I have tried to set down everything I know about it. I hope that it will be of interest to others, though my main motivation has been to clear my brain’s attic, and hand all this over to the custodial care of the Hatton, in whose hands this account can be improved by the contributions of others.
A note on names
There are complications when it comes to naming the central thing in this account. The building in which the artwork that now survives was made was named by Schwitters the ‘Merzbarn’, ‘Merz Barn’ or sometimes ‘MERZ-barn’, and at different times signs have been mounted on the outside wall to that effect. The artwork that was made inside that building has also been called by different names. Some writers have used the title ‘Merzbarn’ or ‘Merz Barn’. The display at the Hatton Gallery currently uses the title ‘Merz Barn Wall’. From the outset of my own engagement with the artwork at the time it was planned to move it, the artwork was referred to as the Merzbarn, and that is what I still call it. However, in the present context, that will not do, it is confusing to have two widely separated things called by the same name. In this account, therefore, I adopt the current Hatton Gallery style, and call the artwork the Merz Barn Wall.
From this point onwards, reference to the Merz Barn Wall (or, for short, the Wall) should be taken to mean the artwork that is now in the Hatton. Reference to the Merzbarn will mean the building as it was between 1947 and 1965, when the artwork now called the Merz Barn Wall was still in its place of origin. When referring to the building that once housed it, and which still stands in the Cylinders estate in Elterwater but no longer contains any Merz, that I call the barn (though it’s really a shed.)
General note on documentation
The barn’s owner Mr Pierce, a trained landscape architect, could evidently make a measured drawing. When we met in 1965 he showed me examples of the drawings for some of his garden designs. Had he mapped the Merzbarn at the time of Schwitters’ death we would know much more than we do about how it was left.
It is equally frustrating that only four photographs of the Merzbarn as Schwitters left it, providing only a limited view, are available. They were taken by Ernst Schwitters, Kurt’s son, when he came to the Merzbarn after his father’s funeral in January 1948.
I find it hard to accept that Ernst Schwitters did as little photographic documentation of any of his father’s large-scale work as appears to be the case. Despite having lived for some years after the war in the Lysaker house where Merzbau II sat in the garden, Ernst, a first-class photographer by profession, appears to have taken, or perhaps kept, no pictures. Similarly in the Merzbarn, knowing that this was Schwitters’ last big work, he did not document it when he had the chance. I have long felt that such documentation must exist. I am still waiting for it to turn up. For now, we must make the best of what we have.
Many people have helped me to put this account together and I acknowledge their generosity. To name names is invidious but I will do it anyway, with a prior apology to those who should be mentioned but aren’t.
Among the dead, Richard Hamilton got me in to this in the first place; Professor Kenneth Rowntree and Colin Gray sent me to Elterwater; Mary Burkett of blessed memory was a rock; Harry Pierce, Jack Cook and Edith ‘Wantee’ Thomas urged me on and gave their support; my late mother Edna helped me take notes; Murray McShane gave a sculptor’s advice; Ted, Sid and Tommy Niven of Laing’s put up with me; Stefan Themerson; Herbert Read; all helped me with my early research . . . and many more.
Of the living, my thanks go to my first wife Sasha Brookes (whom I had only just met) who got me through the removal project more-or-less intact; current and previous curators at the Hatton, Elizabeth Jacklin, Sara Selwood, John Milner and Rob Airey; Gwendolen Webster, who knows more about this stuff than anybody and has been very generous to me with her time and her knowledge; Heather Ross, artist and scholar; Isabel Schulz and Karen Orchard at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover; former students of the Fine Art Department including Lloyd Gibson, Derek Carruthers, Rose Frain and Mali Morris; industrial historian Ian Tyler; the Armitt Library and Museum; the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers; Jasia Reichardt; Geoff Thomas; Scott Richards for the weather report; Colin Davison for permission to use his superb photographs; Brian Homer for putting this website together; there are many more to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.
And without the support of my wife Monica Stoppleman, an invaluable aid and critic, I would never have got this done.