Chapter 1: How the Merzbarn Came About

Schwitters Came To Ambleside

Above: Gwyneth Alban, Wantee, Jack Cook, Schwitters, Harry Pierce and Hilde Goldschmidt at Cylinders, 1947 (photographer unknown) Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover

The Merzbarn was created at Elterwater, a small village in Langdale near the town of Ambleside in what was then Westmorland, a remote place and a long way from Schwitters’ home country. A very brief account of how he came to be there would be something like the following.

It is well known that in his native Hanover Schwitters was characterised as a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazi regime. At risk of persecution, he fled to Norway in the late 1930s, leaving behind in his home his huge masterwork of fifteen years, the Merzbau. His son Ernst went with him, his wife Helma remained in Germany to look after her parents and her mother-in-law. She visited Kurt in Norway when she could, but this was no longer possible after the war broke out in 1939. Following the Nazi invasion of Norway in April 1940, Schwitters and Ernst fled again, leaving behind a second unfinished Merzbau in Oslo and another proto-Merzbau in a hut on the island of Hjertøya. After a terrible trek north in Norway, they escaped on an icebreaker, landed in Scotland at Leith and were interned as enemy aliens. They were imprisoned in several places, lastly on the Isle of Man.

In his absence, the Hanover Merzbau was destroyed by allied bombing, and Merzbau II in Lysaker, Oslo, was eventually destroyed by a fire. Schwitters was not to see either of them again.

Kurt Schwitters Photographer and date unknown

Released from internment before the war ended, Schwitters went to London, and made connections there, significantly for this story with Mrs Edith Thomas. They met living in the same boarding house in Bayswater and she, half his age, became his companion for the rest of his life.

Edith Thomas, known as ‘Wantee’ Photo courtesy Kunstgeographie

To him she was ‘Wantee’ and to her he was ‘Jumbo’. By now aged 57 Schwitters’ health was declining, he suffered a stroke and some paralysis around this time, and he was in poverty. They survived the war, and when it ended left London for the Lake District, where they had taken a holiday in 1942.  It is not entirely clear why the pair chose to settle there. Gwendolyn Webster reports that Schwitters said living in London was too expensive and he could not afford the rent. At least in the Lakes he could make a living painting portraits and landscapes. I was told by several people who knew him well that Schwitters’ wanted to return to Norway (borne out by correspondence with Ernst, who had gone back there). Unable to do so because of poor health and lack of funds he chose to go somewhere in England that might remind him of it. He found the mountains and lakes reminiscent of the fiords and islands of the north. Whether for that or another reason, Schwitters and Mrs Thomas found a flat to rent in Ambleside, and set about making a life there.

Royal College of Art connection (or not)

Another reason for their move to Ambleside might well have been to put the blitz and the traumas of wartime London far behind them. This, at any rate, was the reason why the Royal College of Art had evacuated to the town in December 1940, being accommodated in the Charlotte Mason College and local hotels among other places. Schwitters and the college overlapped briefly, he arrived in June 1945, while the RCA was still in residence, it left in September 1945. Alec Vickerman, then a student, recalled to me in 1973 that he learned about Schwitters’ presence and visited him in his lodgings in the town. However there seems to have been no contact with the RCA’s management or tutors. Whether they were ignorant of his presence or were not interested is not known. William Feaver quotes a professor from the RCA who lodged at the same house as Schwitters and was very proud of the fact, but didn’t dare approach him. Certainly what Schwitters was doing as an artist would have not been seen sympathetically in the then prevailing ethos of the college.

Schwitters meets Harry Pierce

Selling portraits and landscape paintings locally, plus a small stipend from Walter Dux, a Hanover industrialist and fellow emigré who lived in London, made a bare living for Schwitters and Mrs Thomas, and it helped to make connections with people in the town. Many portraits exist of Ambleside personalities who sat for him, the doctor, tradespeople, local notables. Sometimes he exchanged portraits for food. He and Wantee made friends in the locality, Schwitters played chess with his doctor, Dr Johnston. The couple took long walks and by all accounts were conspicuously in love. In the spring of 1947, through a connection with Dr Johnston, Schwitters met Harry Pierce, a distinguished landscape architect whose family home, Walthwaite, lay in nearby Langdale, and who owned a small estate in Elterwater. He asked Schwitters to paint his portrait.
Harry Pierce was a cultured man of about Schwitters’ age and seems to have had an intuitive sympathy and understanding with him. He had recently retired as the senior garden designer and landscape architect with the Mawson company in Windermere that was responsible for many major park and garden designs in Britain and internationally. In 1935 Pierce’s book Shrubs Their pruning and arrangement, with notes on garden design and upkeep, written with Alec Robert Mawson, had been published in Kendal.

Pierce was one of the few people who took his non-figurative work seriously

Though he had no particular knowledge of modern art, he was impressed by Schwitters’ painting and was one of the few people who, at this time, took his non-figurative work seriously. Their meeting was to prove pivotal in the last months of Schwitters’ life.

The barn

Image courtesy of Langdale Leisure Ltd

Mr Pierce had acquired what became Cylinders in 1943. It is important to understand that this land was at that time what would now be called ‘a brownfield site’. It had been part of the former Elterwater Gunpowder Works (sometimes referred to as the Ambleside Black Powder Works). This was originally established to produce explosive powder for the mining industries in the 1820s. Later it incorporated a piece of land across the road from the main site for production of charcoal and, later, for powder storage. The large cylindrical burners used for the charcoal-burning gave their name to this patch. The whole business, which became part of Nobel Industries, was later acquired by ICI, and in 1930 it closed down and the land and extant buildings were sold.
On the powder works’ closure, for safety, the majority of the buildings had been demolished and burned, including a powder store on the Cylinders site. Buildings where the powder was made or stored were risky and, for safety, substantial earth or stone banks were raised around them to deflect the blast were there to be an explosion, and these banks remained after demolition. The powder store at Cylinders, surrounded by such banks, was mostly razed to the ground, though its foundations, boulders set in the ground, remained. Mr Pierce bought Cylinders in 1943 and set to work to create his small estate, gardens and smallholding. Pierce gave an extensive account of this project in 1952 in his unpublished memoir “Cylinders Farm: An Experiment” (which can be seen in the Hatton archive.)

One day, walking in the garden, Schwitters found the barn

On the old foundations of the powder store Mr Pierce had had built, at some point in 1943, the small stone barn that was to play a vital role in Schwitters’ last large-scale work. One day while working on the portrait, walking in the garden, in the same way that he picked up useful material for his artwork on his walks, Schwitters found the barn, which was to become the biggest of his collection of found objects. Schwitters asked if he might use it to create a new artwork and Pierce agreed. At this point, some good news arrived that would make a vital difference to Schwitters’ last big-scale artistic effort.

Grant from MoMA

Schwitters and Wantee were very short of money. Schwitters made many appeals for help from potential sources of money to enable him to recreate the Merzbau, his lost artwork in Hanover, and one came good. The possibility of an award, initially intended for Schwitters to return to Hanover and re-create the Merzbau there, had been mooted earlier in 1946. Perhaps through the good offices of his long-term friend and patron Katherine Dreier, the Oliver M Kaufmann Family Foundation awarded him a grant of $1000, administered through the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, “in order that you may proceed with your plans for continuing your work in creative fields and including such restoration of the Merzbau as is possible . . .” Eventually confirmation of the award arrived on 31st July 1947, and the first payment of $250 a few weeks later. His aim had been to restore the Hanover Merzbau, or failing that to complete the Lysaker one and render it removable, but restrictions on travel and his declining health were against him. Reluctantly he determined to make a new Merzbau. Schwitters made a deal with Mr Pierce to rent the small barn on his property, and set to work. After a further application from Schwitters, the grant was increased to $3000 in November 1947.

Schwitters starts work

By the time Schwitters found it in 1947 the barn, though only recently built, was in a poor state. The roof let in water, the windows were open holes, it had no door, the floor was earth and stones and in heavy rain a stream of water ran across it. There was no electricity, or services of any kind.

Despite the conditions, Schwitters would not wait and set to work, though before long Mr Pierce had put the place in some order. This included a new roof, in which Schwitters asked him to include a skylight over the top right-hand corner of the wall he was working on, opposite the door. At the same time he had a very tiny window installed against the door jamb, which he may have planned to incorporate into the work.

Weather report

The weather is relevant to this story, since Schwitters and those who helped him were working in an unheated and uninsulated building, and the weather conditions outside would have been keenly felt. My thanks to Scott Richards for his analysis of historical daily weather charts. The picture of the artist struggling in the cold barn is often over-drawn. The famous winter of 1946-47, earlier in the year, had seen the coldest February for generations, and the conditions made life difficult in Ambleside for an already ailing Schwitters.

1947 ‘a year of extremes, unique in meteorological history’

But the Meteorological Office described 1947 as ‘a year of extremes, unique in meteorological history’, and that winter was followed by a less well-known but no less exceptional summer, characterised by heat and drought. Mean temperatures exceeded the average in April and for all the remaining months of the year. May, June and July had high-pressure anti-cyclonic weather and hot temperatures. The image of Schwitters outside the barn, with Hilde Goldschmidt (another emigré artist then living nearby) in her summer frock and hat, is a reminder of this unusually good spell of weather.

Photo: Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover

As far as I know this is the only photograph of Schwitters at the Merzbarn,  possibly taken by Bill Pierce (Harry’s son) using Hilde’s camera.

August, when Schwitters began working in the barn, was the hottest then on record in the UK. One of the Lake District weather stations recorded no measurable rainfall through the whole month. September and October, very unusually, continued warm and dry with occasional thunderstorms. These storms account for Schwitters’ reports of the stream of water across the barn floor. November had wide variations of temperature. It began mild and sunny, temperatures falling steeply at night under the clear skies. Later the exceptionally long high-pressure period finally ended, and a very cold north wind set in. This was punctuated by incursions of warm, wet air from the south producing heavy rain. On 11 November Ambleside received 3.36 inches and Rydal 3.62 inches, which must have created what Schwitters, in a letter, called ‘the river’ across the barn floor.

For most of the period Schwitters spent in the barn, then, conditions were quite favourable, possibly too warm for comfort rather than too cold, until the last few weeks, when the paraffin stove that he acquired would have been needed to enable work to carry on.

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