The Guild of St Joseph and St DominicEric Gill, the sculptor and letter cutter, came to Ditchling in 1907 with his apprentice Joseph Cribb and was soon followed by other craftsmen. In 1921 they founded the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, a Roman Catholic community of artists and craftsmen, inspired by ideas of the medieval guilds and the Arts and Crafts movement. The community had its own workshops and chapel, and thrived for many years. Its affairs were finally wound up in 1989, and the workshops demolished.
A Community of Craftsmen in England
Published: September 15, 2013
Ditchling, England — Whenever Eric Gill was working on a sculpture in his dilapidated workshop in the tiny English village of Ditchling during the early 1900s, his apprentice Joseph Cribb was instructed to stand guard outside the door to ward off inquisitive villagers.
Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
Cribb was there partly to save Gill from unwanted distractions, and partly to stop anyone from seeing what was happening inside. Not only was Gill an accomplished artist and typography designer, he was an incorrigible eccentric, who strolled around Ditchling in a craftsman’s smock and thick woolen socks. What the villagers did not know, or so Gill hoped, was that he was entangled in sexual relationships with many of his models.
Several other artists, designers and artisans lived in or near Ditchling at the same time, including Edward Johnston, a calligrapher and historian who designed the typeface and roundel symbol of the London Underground, and the textile designers, Ethel Mairet and Valentine KilBride. Their work and that of other gifted villagers is to be exhibited in the newly restored Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, which opens to the public Saturday in a deftly renovated building beside the village church and duck pond.
The museum was founded in 1985 when two sisters who had lived in Ditchling as children, Joanna and Hilary Bourne, then 78 and 76 years old respectively, bought the village school and schoolmaster’s cottage. Their family had been friendly with many of the local artists and designers, and was especially close to the Johnstons. Having accumulated friends’ work and other mementoes of village life over the years, the sisters decided to convert the school into a museum devoted to Ditchling’s history.
When the museum’s director, Hilary Williams, and its chair of trustees, the weaver Jenny KilBride, Valentine’s daughter, started to raise funds to renovate and expand the building in 2008, they decided to focus the program on Ditchling’s artisanal heritage. Thanks to the sensitivity with which the architect Adam Richards has integrated a higgledy-piggledy collection of buildings, including an 18th-century lodge where carts were stored, as well as the 19th-century school and cottage, the new museum paints a vivid picture of the picaresque characters who turned an obscure village on the South Downs into a fulcrum of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Ditchling’s transformation began in 1907 when Gill, who had fond memories of visiting it on childhood holidays, moved to the village from London with his wife and three daughters. Living there enabled the girls to grow up in the countryside, without disrupting Gill’s work, because London was a short train journey away. Other artists and intellectuals lived nearby, including “the Wolves,” as the Gills called the novelist Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. Gill also saw the move as a chance to create a rural community like those established by Arts and Crafts Movement architects in other villages, including Charles Robert Ashbee in Chipping Camden and Ernest Gimson in Sapperton.
Cribb moved to Ditchling with him, and Johnston, who had befriended Gill while teaching him calligraphy in London, arrived with his family in 1912, taking the train to meetings at the London Underground. He was soon joined by Hilary Pepler, a social worker, who reinvented himself as a printer after installing a printing press in a stable behind Johnston’s house. One of his first jobs was to print labels for the beer at a neighboring pub, the Sandrock Inn. The three friends met regularly to discuss other local printing commissions, including their occasional magazine “The Game,” and taught themselves Latin at a weekly Latin Club.
During the 1910s, Gill and Pepler converted to Roman Catholicism, and became involved with Distributism, a movement that combined their religious faith with the anti-capitalist belief that workers should own land and live off its produce. Together with Desmond Chute, a young wood engraver working for Gill, they founded the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic as a craft community that organized their lives along Distributist principles. The members (originally all male) met for prayers three times a day, and wore the guild’s symbol of a cross on the palm of a hand on their craftsmen’s smocks. There was also a gregarious side to the guild in the plays its members staged, and the community suppers to celebrate special occasions.
Johnston did not join the guild, and was gradually distanced from its members. Chute left Ditchling in 1921 to train for the priesthood, and Gill moved to the Welsh mountains three years later. Despite his departure, artists, designers and artisans continued to flock to the village, and the guild continued, eventually disbanding in 1989.
The critical fortunes of Gill and his contemporaries have oscillated over the years. Gill was embroiled in posthumous controversy when Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography revealed that he conducted incestuous relationships with several relatives, including two of his daughters. Yet interest in his work and Johnston’s has since risen steadily in recent years, reflecting the growing enthusiasm among artists and designers for craftsmanship, folklore and rural communities like the one they formed in Ditchling.
The craft renaissance is partly a reaction against the dominance of digital technology in contemporary life. But for typography designers, there are also parallels between Johnston’s work as a historian in exploring the way in which pioneering 15th-century printers embraced technological change and their own efforts to do so in the digital age.
The museum tells this story with aplomb by combining the work of Ditchling’s artists, designers and craftsmen with their tools, including Pepler’s printing press, in the spirited setting of Adam Richards’s architecture. By juxtaposing the timber and flints of the historic buildings with contemporary materials, like black zinc, he evokes the impact of the smock-clad newcomers on the village, as well as the rural and religious inspirations for their work. The windows offer enticing glimpses of Ditchling life: from the village green and the graveyard, where Johnston and Pepler are buried, to the war memorial with lettering carved to Gill’s design by the loyal Cribb.
October 20, 2015 | by Sadie Stein
It’s no great shock that Leonard Woolf was recorded on film, not when you think about it—after all, the writer, publisher, and widower of Virginia lived into 1969.
And yet! And yet! It seems somehow magical that here he should be, modern and in color, talking about Maynard Keynes for all the world as if he is not a living bridge to a storied past, most of which went as unfilmed—as though Bloomsbury had not belonged to modernity at all, let alone invented it.
There’s less than a minute of footage of Leonard in the video above, and he’s not saying anything particularly revolutionary; just praising his friend Keynes’s famously lively mind. Perhaps because Virginia Woolf was never filmed, Leonard’s sheer normalcy lands with a lot of force. (I say “Leonard” and “Virginia” as if I know them, as if they are public property.) It’s hard not to think of his own words: “Whenever one really knows the facts, one finds that what is accepted by contemporaries or posterity as the truth about them is so distorted or out of focus that it is not worth worrying about.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.