Mike's Pots

The International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles
Dartington Hall 1952

Dartington Conference 1952


By L.K. Elmhirst

Ladies and Gentlemen, Craftsmen, Artists, from all over the world, may I welcome you here this evening on behalf of the Trustees of Dartington Hall and the Arts Department, the head of which is Mr. Peter Cox, and also on behalf of Mr. Bernard Leach, who needs no introduction to you whatever.

Now for many of you this is probably your first visit to Dartington and therefore I am going to say a few words and those of you who know us of old and have been here before will, perhaps, excuse the fact that I have been asked to explain a little about what Dartington is doing.

When we started our enterprise, we were conscious of the impact that an industrialised world, with all its machinery and its new speed of movement, was creating on old traditions. These have survived sometimes over hundreds of years, often attached to rural civilisations and villages, and on these the impact of this industrial society was terrific, explosive, revolutionary.

In the old rural community life the professionals the parson, squire, doctor and school-teacher - used to move freely among the agricultural labourers and the craftsmen who served the village. By the time we began work in 1925 much of this ancient tradition had already broken down. The task we set ourselves was to find out whether the disintegration need go further, whether there was a new economic base possible for the countryside, whether you could build some kind of society that would show signs of life and growth. We knew that the chief tools we had to work with were research and education: research into the conditions of the countryside as we found it when we arrived and such educational activity as would provide us with the experience with which to go ahead.

One of the first questions we had to ask ourselves is one that you will be discussing this week: "What use do we make of the machine? Is it going to rule us or are we going to use it? To what degree? Can craftsmanship survive if we bring it in where we think it is needed?" Well, in our attack on farming and on forestry, on saw-milling and on the other industries that we tried out on the estate, we welcomed the machine where we found it could save us from meaningless or exhausting drudgery.

We knew that a large number of skilled men were still employed in the countryside, but much of their time was spent on exhausting drudgery for which they were paid a wage upon which it was difficult for them to raise a family. They were living in houses with no facilities or conveniences. The standard of education in the villages was about the lowest in the County of Devon and for most of England. The possibilities of getting in to shop, or of getting into the town for any of their needs, were strictly limited. And so we found, even in our own surroundings, a society short of most of the facilities that people in the small country towns enjoy.

Our question was this. Can we so increase the earning capacity of the countryman that he can begin to enjoy, not equal facilities, but comparable facilities with those of his neighbour in the town? Within the first ten years of our coming here some 50,000 Devonshire farm labourers, in spite of unemployment in the town, decamped from the countryside of Devon; either their wives or they would not stand the conditions of life. This was the challenge in front of us.

We had an economic plank in our programme: could we make farming pay at a time when most farms were not paying? We did a survey of 200 farms in the neighbourhood of Dartington and we got enough figures to be able to present the local farmers with something they had never had a balance sheet of their last year's working. We found out from that what a small proportion of farmers were making more than the farm labourers that they paid and how few were really getting a return, not just for their labour but for the capital they had put in the farm and for their expert management of the farm. They were losing out. They weren't being paid as managers, they weren't being paid as capitalists. They were just being paid a little more than their farm labourers and had that extra facility for going in every week to attend the markets and meet their friends.

We worked on a 10 year plan which we drew up at the beginning. Two to three years of survey to find out what the situation was and how we might meet it. Two or three years to build the buildings that were needed to carry on the industry that we thought worth establishing. Two or three years to bring that industry to full production and, at the end, two years to find a market for our full production.

Well, we were about two to three years out. We hadn't calculated how difficult a problem, in a time of deep rural depression, it was to market our products. And then, of course, the war came and solved that problem for us. I suppose three-quarters of our products were welcome to the Government and everything that we had established, or, as I say, two-thirds to three- quarters of the enterprises we had established, went full blast ahead.

In bringing new people into the area to man these enterprises and also to start the co-educational boarding school which we established in the first year of our coming, we had to face another problem. You may be solving the economic problem, you may be putting more money in the pockets of the farm labourers and the workers in your building enterprise, but how are you going to offer to the people who come and work here from the towns the foremen and the managers, who have skills, remember, that were not available in rural Devon at that time how are you going to offer them the sort of life, the creative use of leisure that they were accustomed to when they lived in a town? Was it possible to fill that gap? Was it possible that as a growing community we could find creative uses for chr leisure in an interesting way?

Now I want to turn for a moment to the other side of our experiment. I won't say much about the School, which some of you know of, and which takes and teaches some 230 boys and girls. I would, however, say this. That as yet I haven't met any of the educational pundits who can tell me why they use the arts and crafts in the school or how much of a school curriculum should be devoted to them. We are only at the beginning of a major discovery as to what the field of arts and crafts is in the life of the growing child.

When it came to the question of what we should do with our leisure time we found it extremely difficult to find men or women qualified to hold up standards in the field of the arts. We found that in our community we were much too happy to do third-rate drama and think it was first-rate, to be satisfied with third-rate music and think we were pretty good, and third-rate dance, design or craftsmanship and think it was wonderful. Where were we to find the people to set the standards, to challenge us, to raise our sights?

After all, we were 200 miles from London and the roads weren't what they are today, and we had deliberately chosen a place out of easy reach of a big industrial town. We had chosen to put the School where the parents couldn't come down every weekend to show what a mess we were making of their offspring. And so here we were, isolated really, and it was out of this need, this need to develop standards, that the Arts Department grow, about which I hope you will persuade Mr. Cox to tell you something.

We tried the experiment of having professional schools, in the field of drama under Michael Chekhov, a studio theatre; under Kurt Jooss, the school of the Jooss Ballet; under Hans Oppenheim, a school of music. We had a group of practising artists and potters who were at least trying to thresh out among themselves some theory of design, some aspiration at least of form and pattern and colour to give meaning to the whole of the arts as we use them in our ordinary life. We hoped that out of these professional schools would come, ultimately, teachers who would go out into the neighbouring villages and towns of Devon and not make things or do things for the people, but offer leadership, stimulus, advice and guidance in helping people to make and do things for themselves.

But things did not turn out quite as we wanted. We found we could get a lot of people who had failed on the commercial side and therefore were ready to come down and do a lot of drama, or teach a lot of drama, though they had never thought of it as a form of life and culture but only as a theory on the stage. Something of the same was true of musicians, musicians who had failed but who had never yet had a training in how to approach a rural community. What could we do about that?

During the war many of our arts enterprises had to close but we retained a school of music and have since turned it, in part, into a training of rural music leaders. We would like to pursue that in the field of drama, in the field of movement, and we hope in conjunction with the School, which needs teachers in all these things, to work out some basis upon which craftsmanship and the arts may be pursued with sense and with meaning.

There is another field in which we have watched the development of the arts in a most creative and productive manner and that is in healing those for whom the crises of the world at the present time, the speed of our industrial civilisation, the effects of the war, have brought such a heavy weight that they have been crushed under it, or are for the moment out of action. We are interested here in a little community that has arisen in Devenshire where people who are feeling the strain can go and live in this small community. If you visit that community you won't know who is a patient, who is a visitor, who is a healer and who is a student, but you will find than an increasing use is made in that institution of the arts.

As soon as a person is able to do something, as soon as they want to do something, clay is put into their hands, paints, colour and paper are put in front of them, and they are invited to engage in movement to music. What is so interesting is that where they can't explain in words what their troubles are, what their frustrations, what their dreams are, the products of their hands or their bodies seems to throw astonishing light on what is the root cause of their trouble. Now I only mention this because for the next ten days you will be hunting for a basis for the arts and the crafts. Here then are two new horizons developing: the one in the school where people are feeling the way in the use of the arts, and the one in this healing process of the mind where the arts are being found to be extremely useful and quite often to point a road.

When the pressure of life becomes considerable I think we would say our hands itch to be doing something creative and simple, and I want to end, really, by telling you what happened in what we call our Adult Education Centre. There came a time when we no longer needed the rather elaborate scientific laboratory which we had set up at the beginning of our enterprise to help us in field and farm and forest. The Government had begun to do these things for us, to pay scientists to help us with our soils and our fertilisers and our dyes and other things. And so we took this series of groups and we handed it over to an officer who took charge of what we called our Adult Education Centre down in the village. He came, of course, imbued with the idea of the W.E.A. and the university tutorial class, with everybody discussing abtruse economics, reading Shakespeare and talking political theory; he was going to engage lecturers almost by the dozen. Pat he agreed with us that in addition to these formal lectures he should equip one or two rooms for making things and for doing things.

One of the rooms was equipped with a pottery wheel and by chance the gas ran along the road and they could have a gas kiln. With gas they could get the kiln up to a sufficient temperature so that they could make a kind of ware that was useable on the breakfast and lunch table in the home. I wouldn't like to say how many people in the Parish of Dartington now use things they have made. I won't say they would all get into the exhibition up in the exhibition room, but they are useful and they are made for use on their own table.

Another room was set apart for stamping and dyeing textiles, and you would be surprised, I think, at the number of cottages on the estate now where, as you go by, there's an obviously home-stamped and dyed curtain hanging at the window. We found that there was a hunger among people who had done their full working day to do something with their hands, something they could enjoy seeing the product of. And they have gone on from there, There is the beginning of a little village orchestra and chorus, and before long there will be some village drama and some dramatic activity.

But where are we going to get people who can hold up the standards in these arts and be both critical and suggestive, where can people go and compare what they are doing with what the leaders in their own field are doing? That's one of the puzzles we are up against and that's one of the things that I hope you will be discussing.

Somewhere along this road of the arts, the artist and the craftsman, there is a way to the discovery of meaning, of proportion, of balance, of rhythm, and I think of a sense of reality to life. And as I go round our exhibition I have a feeling that the people who made so many of those things must have been finding immense satisfaction, and have found for themselves some meaning, some sense of proportion, some sense of reality in life. Anyhow, I hope those are things that you will be discussing. With that sentence I declare the Conference open.

Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.

Dartington Conference 1952