Chapter 6: Interest Stirs

Rob Airey's Account

Above: Richard Hamilton (far left in white cap) meets Mr Pierce at the Merzbarn 1964, photo Robert Smithies for The Guardian

As the late 1950s drew on, recognition of Schwitters and of the significance of the Merzbarn as his last major work gathered pace, and interest from the art world grew stronger. As it began to dawn that this was a singular work of artistic and historical importance, and that it was decaying, and that it might at long last have a saleable value, interest began to stir.

The most thorough and revealing account of the events in the late 1950s and early ‘60s that eventually brought the Merzbarn to the Hatton was researched and written by Rob Airey, then curator at the Hatton, and published in August 2013 in the newsletter of the Kurt Schwitters Society under the title Opinion Here Is Doubtful. I am grateful to Rob for his permission to include his account here.

Why the Merz Barn Wall went to Newcastle

Schwitters spent only a few months on what he intended to be a three-year project to complete the Merz Barn. A fifty-year Tenancy Agreement was drafted between Schwitters and the Barn’s owner, Harry Pierce, though it is not clear whether it was ever formally signed. The agreement stated:

In the event of the death of the said Kurt Schwitters before 50 years the permanent sculptures are to become the property of the lessor or his heirs on the condition that an offer is made to a) Ernst Schwitters and to Edith Thomas either jointly or separately b) to MOMA and c) to any other art body in England. Any moveable works to be shared by Ernst and Edith, but the permanent sculpture to remain the property of Pierce.

When interest grew in the future of the Merzbarn in the late 1950s, Pierce seems to have acted only on article c) of his agreement with Kurt Schwitters. Ernst was evidently happy to acknowledge Pierce as the rightful owner, while Edith unfortunately seems to have remained unaware of any discussions Pierce held about the future of the Wall until it had been moved. Where MoMA in New York fits into the story is still an area that requires further research. As I understand it, they certainly showed a degree of interest in the Merz Barn after Schwitters’ death, but Pierce never formally offered them anything.

Arts Council - Schwitters' work was deteriorating and ought to be preserved

In December 1958, Sir Lawrence Gowing, then nearing the end of his tenure as Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle, reported to the Arts Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain that the “building in Ambleside” that housed Schwitters’ work was deteriorating and ought to be preserved. What led Gowing to make this all-important report is unclear. However, in the following month of January 1959, a Schwitters exhibition opened at the Hatton Gallery, based on Phillip Granville’s important 1958 show at his Lord’s Gallery. Granville surely knew about the Merz Barn at this stage, had possibly even visited it himself, and may well have communicated a report to Gowing, for whom there is no evidence at all of having visited the Barn.

At that time, the Arts Panel to whom Gowing reported included among its membership the likes of Edward Ardizzone, Henry Moore, Reg Butler, Roland Penrose, Nikolaus Pevsner, Claude Rogers and F. E. McWilliam, and was chaired by William Coldstream. Awareness of the Merz Barn and its plight was therefore already well known among some powerful members of the arts establishment.

Gowing’s report led the Arts Council to immediately commission photographs and a report. Interestingly, they seem to have approached Newcastle’s Fine Art department for a photographer, and recent graduate Noel Forster was dispatched in early 1959 to take the first official shots of the Merz Barn’s interior.

It is currently unclear how much these early connections with Newcastle impacted on the Wall’s eventual transference to the Hatton. On the face of it they are entirely coincidental, though they may well have created an important level of awareness of the Merz Barn within the Fine Art department there.

The Tate would be prepared to find a site in their new wing

A descriptive report was submitted to the Arts Panel by the Arts Council’s local art officer in April 1959, describing Harry Pierce, owner of the buildings and land at Cylinders, as a devoted guardian of the Merz Barn. However, it wasn’t until July 1961, with the permission of Pierce, that the Arts Council approached the Tate about their possible involvement in saving or acquiring the wall. John Rothenstein, at that time Tate Director, initially reported to David Thomas at the Arts Council that the Tate would be prepared to find a site in their new wing and would be willing to store it for four years if needs be. Deputy Tate director Norman Reid did indeed visit the Merz Barn and reported that “the sculpture is quite impressive, and clearly should be preserved, but I feel rather doubtful about the possibility of moving it. Anyway, it was well worth going to see, and may, perhaps, have to become a lakeside Schwitters shrine”.

Acquisition of the Merz Barn Wall was being “actively considered” by the Tate and their Trustees by October 1961. By November the Ministry of Works had been approached and had come up with an estimate of around £1,500 for the removal of the wall, with Harry Pierce requesting a further £500 towards the “making good” of his property.

In October 1961 William C. Seitz, an Associate Curator at MoMA in New York, wrote to the Arts Council requesting information about, and photographs of, the Merz Barn, adding: “I would appreciate anything you can tell me about it: how extensive a creation it is, its condition, your view of the quality, whether or not it is for sale and for how much, etc.” As far as I can tell, this is as far as MoMA’s interest went, but it probably helped fuel the general feeling amongst the various interested parties in Britain that they had to act or the Merz Barn would be disappearing to New York.

The final mention of the Merz Barn in the Arts Council Art Panel meeting minutes came three years after Gowing’s initial report. In December 1961, following a report about the Tate’s negotiations with Harry Pierce, Coldstream as Chair expressed satisfaction at the role played by the Arts Council in making the acquisition possible.

Early in 1962 the Ministry of Works felt further expertise might be required and duly visited the barn with a representative of Pickfords, who came up with a cost of removal of around £2,500. McAlpine’s were also approached and arrived at a figure of £4,000, with an estimated 85% chance of success. It was at this time, apparently at the behest of the Arts Council rather than the University, that Richard Hamilton, then on the University staff, in the company of Mark Lancaster, then a student in the Fine Art Department, made his first visit to the Barn to assess its condition.

The Tate Trustees regretfully declined the offer of the gift of the Wall

In July 1962 the Tate Trustees formally and regretfully declined the offer of the gift of the Wall because of the costs. The minutes of the meeting record Trustee William Coldstream as saying that if it were worth spending £1,500 on it, then it was surely worth £5,000. He thought that in twenty years’ time, the Trustees’ successors might blame the present Board for not having made a greater effort to secure the original for the Tate.

Pierce had asked his grandson-in-law, architect Harry Fairhurst, to conduct negotiations on his behalf, and in September 1962, extremely disappointed by the Tate’s rejection, he wrote to Hamilton at the Arts Council’s suggestion, asking whether the University might be interested in helping in regard to the Barn and the Wall. Hamilton evidently persuaded his professor, Kenneth Rowntree, who in turn convinced the University Rector that the scheme was worth pursuing. Unfortunately it seems to have taken almost a year before the University was to re-state and act upon its interest.

It was during this hiatus that the negotiations and parties involved became particularly complex. In December 1962 Schwitters’ son Ernst wrote to Harry Pierce:

I have heard that you had made contact with the Tate Gallery about the MERZ-barn, but that, in the end, they were not interested. Further that a museum – was it in Pensanze? [sic] – was supposed to be interested. Also this rumour faded out though.

I myself have made the Marlborough Fine Art Ltd aware of the MERZ-barn, in an attempt to stimulate them into some kind of action to help. Also the Museum of Modern Art in New York has contacted me, but I can, of course, not help them very much beyond advising them to contact you directly, since, of course, I am not the owner of the MERZ-barn.

Marlborough Fine Art - reluctantly sell it - it will leave the country

At about the same time as Marlborough Fine Art’s influential 1963 Schwitters exhibition in London, Marlborough’s director Harry Fischer began to take an active if somewhat murky role. He suggested to the Arts Council that the Merz Barn might be incorporated into the South Bank Centre, and reported to the Tate that he had been in touch with Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal, who wanted to leave the wall in situ and were not interested in acquisition. “I am therefore reluctantly forced to go ahead,” he adds, “and sell it elsewhere and in due course, with the owner’s permission, it will leave the country.” Clearly he didn’t gain the owner’s permission, as just a few weeks later he was writing again to confirm that the owner in fact wanted to give it to a British institution.

These letters inspired the Tate to seriously reconsider their position, but in May 1963 they once again rejected any involvement on the grounds of cost, despite their belief that “every effort must be made to preserve this unique work”. Fischer had, perhaps intentionally, misunderstood or misrepresented Abbot Hall’s intentions, as in May 1963, their director Helen Kapp wrote to Fischer asking if Marlborough might be able to provide financial assistance towards bringing the Barn to Kendal. His reply is wonderful:

Unfortunately the art dealer is a sphinx in that on the one hand he is deeply interested in the arts but on the other he is forced into the economics of it… If the restoration costs of the Merz Barn cannot be met by a British Institution, I know I could make a very considerable profit on it by placing this monument in America. You appealed to my patriotism, and I do feel that in refusing to act until all possibilities have been exhausted in this country, I have already made my contribution to the Merzbau.

It is perhaps a measure of the man that on the very same day he was able to write to Norman Reid at the Tate, saying, “Thank you very much for all the trouble you are taking over the Merz Barn. It would be wonderful if this time we were successful”.

During the summer of 1963 matters were further complicated by an apparent internal Pierce family dispute. Unaware that the Tate had again rejected acquiring the wall, Harry Fairhurst rang Reid on June 7 to say that Pierce was going to decide between the Tate and Kendal, but on balance, he favoured the Tate. Five days later, however, he wrote to say that Pierce’s son, based in Kent, had now taken the matter into his own hands. C.B. Pierce soon wrote to Norman Reid that:

I have no doubt you are aware that interest has been expressed by other Art Galleries & Dealers regarding the future of the work…The suggestion that the wall might be preserved on site which, whilst an admirable and logical solution, is I am afraid unacceptable. It would mean in the first place, because the barn is situated in the centre of the property, depriving the occupier of much of his privacy, and secondly possible complications involved in the event of the occupier wishing to dispose of the property at some time in the future could well present difficulties…since the initial offer of a gift, …interests of a financial nature, which I regret cannot be ignored, have now been made from other parties. I must, therefore, ask you to accept this letter as a decision not to renew the original offer of a gift.

Nonetheless, by September 1963 Harry is evidently back in charge and writes to Helen Kapp to confirm that “I have heard nothing further from Fischer and do not expect any more from that quarter.” Abbot Hall subsequently opened negotiations with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation regarding possible funding and the Friends of Abbot Hall agreed to pay a Dr Werner of the British Museum laboratory to visit the Barn and make a detailed report on its condition.

Meanwhile, at the end of October 1963, artist Joe Tilson and a few weeks later Hamilton and a representative of the University’s civil engineering department finally managed to visit the Barn, where they also learnt of the interest of other parties.

Richard Hamilton and Newcastle University engineer visit

In November Pierce wrote to Helen Kapp to confirm that despite a second visit from the University, he had told them that he had promised the Wall to Kendal and that he preferred it to stay in the county.  However, in that same month, Dr Werner’s rather negative report put off any interest from the Gulbenkian Fund and also apparently ended Abbot Hall’s interest in the Barn. As Kapp wrote to the secretary of the Gulbenkian:

Mr Fischer is a devious gentleman, and as I know that he has been trying to sell the Merzbau for a client, what he says has no significance…I am glad you are in contact with the Tate though I believe Harry Pierce, who owns the mural, does not want them to have it. He is rather annoyed at their treatment of him…Dr Werner was distressed at the amount of deterioration in the plaster work and I am even more distressed at the change of it during the last eight months.

From January 1964, negotiations re-opened between Pierce and the University, which again rather dragged its feet, with the civil engineering department struggling to find a contractor willing to undertake the work. By July, Douglas Hall from the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art had also visited the Barn and was showing a keen and active interest.

Pierce wrote in August, admonishing Rowntree for seven months of inactivity, which led in October to John Laings in Carlisle finally coming up with an estimate of £5,000 for the removal. The University then had to start looking for funding. These delays again encouraged other parties. The Friends of Abbot Hall wrote to Rowntree in November suggesting they had funds to preserve the wall in situ.  And the University Vice-Chancellor was also having second thoughts. As he wrote to John Rothenstein:

Opinion here is doubtful . . .

Discussions have shown that opinion here is doubtful about the permanent artistic value of this construction, and it was agreed that it would be of the greatest help to us if we could get advice from you and from Robin Darwin and Lawrence Gowing about the whole proposition…We want some reassurance that this construction – in 10, 20, 30 years’ time – is likely to be regarded as an artistic work of significance.

Reid replied on Rothenstein’s behalf:

Our Trustees eventually withdrew when Mr Pierce’s son took over negotiations and placed a price of £10,000 on the Merzbau in addition to the cost of moving it and making good the garden. I am happy to see Mr Pierce has now returned to his original intention of giving the Schwitters to a public building…I can…give the assurance for which you ask that we most certainly regard this as a serious work of art and really in urgent need of preservation if it is to be saved at all.

In the Hatton’s file, a note from the Vice Chancellor to Rowntree is attached to Reid’s reply, stating that “this suggests to me that it would be a graceful act for us to allow the Tate Gallery to resume negotiations with Mr Pierce. What do you think?

Fortunately negotiations were by then too far advanced, and on March 26, 1965 a formal deed of gift was signed by Pierce, an act celebrated, according to Richard Hamilton, with a bottle of champagne that he had persuaded Rowntree to pay for out of the Fine Art department’s petty cash tin.

The Merz Barn Wall is saved

In the end Harry Pierce’s valiant efforts to ensure the future of the Merzbarn, to which he had devoted a great deal of time and effort in his own declining years, proved successful. The deed of gift, signed by Pierce on 26 March 1965, passes ownership of the ‘sculpture or construction’ absolutely to the University, subject to covenants that the University will remove the work from the donor’s property within twelve months, and that it will make good any damage caused by the removal. There is no provision in the deed about what will happen to the work subsequently, where it will reside or how it will be treated, nor any provision about exhibition or public access. All of that was left to the University to determine. In the event the steps already under way to prepare for the removal, and for the accommodation of the Merz Barn Wall in the new Hatton Gallery, moved apace. In May the survey was undertaken and in June, contractors moved in. The wall moved on 25 September 1965, well within the stipulated time.

Sadly, Harry Pierce did not live to see his efforts accomplished. He died a few months after the Merz Barn Wall moved, while it was still in storage, and he never saw it installed in the Hatton.

Hamilton’s role

It might be worth an observation on the role that Richard Hamilton played in bringing the Merz Barn Wall to the Hatton. Without his early visits to Cylinders and Harry Pierce, and his vigorous advocacy of the project within the University and elsewhere, it would certainly not have happened. Richard led the survey team and directed our work in anticipating the move. The fundraising and planning of the removal process was managed by the University, largely under Colin Gray, the Registrar, and his clerk of works, together with the Civil Engineering Department. By the time the Merzbarn arrived in the gallery, Richard was engaged in his major project to re-create Duchamp’s Large Glass, busy in his upstairs studio in the old building, and had little time to be involved in the Merzbarn project. While absolutely all credit is due to Richard in bringing the rescue of the Merz Barn Wall about, accounts have sometimes misrepresented the extent of his involvement.

Where the money came from

My recollection is that Colin Gray, then the Registrar of the University, had made an application to the Rothley Trust, founded in 1959 by Mr Mungo Campbell, a local businessman who had made his money in shipping, and which provided grants for a wide range of charitable organisations in the North-east. Alas the Trust no longer holds records back to 1965, but as far as I recall an award of two thousand five hundred pounds was made. There is evidence in the Hatton archive that the V&A offered a grant of £2250 at this time. My understanding at the time was that the University had made up the rest of the cost of the project from its own resources (including paying for my accommodation near the site).

Richard Hamilton suggests in a 2009 MoMA interview that the Percent for Art scheme was used to provide funding. However the Per Cent for Art scheme, a government initiative whereby 1% of the cost of any publicly funded capital, infrastructure or building development can be allocated to the commissioning of a work of art, was first introduced in 1978, and so did not play a part in the Merzbarn project.

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