Leonard Elmhirst came from a land-owning but impoverished family in Yorkshire.  His father was a rural parson and he was always interested in social issues.  In 1919 he went to Cornell University in America to study farming techniques.  Whilst there he met the Bengali writer and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore (for whom he worked as secretary and collaborator during the early 1920s).  He also met wealthy heiress and widow, Dorothy Straight (Nee Whitney), and after a long courtship, partly constructed by correspondence (much of this is quaint and touching and can be seen in the Dartington archives), they married.


That same year (1925) they bought the derelict Dartington Estate in South Devon and, deeply influenced by Tagore’s ideas and previous social experiments, began at once with new construction, reconstruction and repairs.  Their experiment was to create the estate as a home for themselves and as a pioneering vision of the economic regeneration of rural areas (then in a state of almost unimaginable poverty in many cases) through a combination of enterprises spanning business, education, the arts and country crafts. 


Forestry and farming, sawmills, textile manufacturing and a dairy were all designed to create employment in the area.  But the Elmhirsts’ vision recognised that, for a community to be vibrant and sustainable, economic development was not sufficient.  The arts were always seen as part of the remit for the estate, and the pioneering Dartington Hall school was also set up.  The school is still seen as part of the great triumvirate of English open education pioneering experiments (with Summerhill and Bertrand and Dora Russell’s Beacon Hill).  The school placed emphasis not only on equality between children and adults and freedom of choice, but also on linking the school and the local community.  Children at the school learnt practical skills from farmers and local estate workers. 


The Elmhirsts’ ideas for what they called An Experiment in Rural Reconstruction are summarised by Peter Cox, the first Principal of Dartington College of Arts.


Based at Dartington Hall in South Devon, its concern was to revivify a country estate through a many-sided and concerted effort to restore the historic and almost derelict Hall at the centre of the estate and modernise the estate’s farms, woodlands and horticulture based on programmes of scientific and economic research. Small industries were to be created to offer added value to the products of the soil and alternative employment for those driven off the land: textiles, sawmilling, cider-making, building and joinery. Education and the arts activities were to be provided to enrich the personal opportunities and cultural life of the community, together with the essential services of water and electricity and new houses built for those working on the estate. It was essentially a practical experiment based on a specific place, but the results it was hoped, would have national, even international, application. So the arts at Dartington developed as part of this wider, experimental and imaginative enterprise which aimed to bring about economic and social change from which people there and elsewhere could learn and benefit.[1]


It is interesting – and part of the legacy of the Dartington experiment – that no one aspect was privileged over the others.  This reflected progressive thought at the time, which saw a connected, holistic life as necessary – a bit like Morris’s vision and that of the Bauhaus, without socialism but including aspects of Indian spirituality.


This emphasis on spirituality was furthered by the influence of Maurice Ash, who was married to the Elmhirsts’ daughter Ruth.  He agreed with Leonard and Dorothy’s view of the arts as a vital part of community life, he was also critical of the idea that participation in the arts was sufficient.  They should be monumental, profound, and spiritually engaged and engaging.  He saw the potential of Dartington as a ‘traditional alternative’ to the role of the monasteries in medieval Europe; he saw them as great centres of learning and innovation and therefore as civilising forces.  He saw the development of country estates as squirearchies as disappointing and maintained that estates like Dartington should aim more for the example of the former than the latter, not in terms of religion (though spirituality should be part of it) but in terms of an integrated, environmentally respectful endeavour.


It is as possible to be critical of the Elmhirsts’ experiment and of Ash’s views as it is to be critical of William Morris’s working methods.  In all three cases the utopian experiments were underwritten by the privilege and power conferred by money, and to this day, when Dartington is managed by a Trust and is ostensibly run in a transparent and accountable manner, there can seem an element of remote and patronising attitudes towards those not within the elites it recognises.


However, the Trust still maintains its links to the original ideas promoted by the Elmhirsts.  It sees itself as working towards advancement of the arts, sustainability and social justice.  This manifests in a published set of values which include (among others) the beliefs that everybody has the potential to improve the world, if only given a chance; that a mastery of craft drives deeper understanding; and that learning by doing educates the whole person.

This emphasis on learning by doing continues to drive articulations about the value of craft up to the present day.  At High Cross House the Trust’s ceramics collection, including studio pieces from Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Marianne de Trey, David Leach and Michael Cardew can be viewed. These potters were among many who were brought together at Dartington Hall in 1952 by an international conference attended by the foremost craftsmen in ceramics and textiles from around the world.  Dartington has a history of bringing in outside excellence whilst working consciously within a locality, a community. The crafts at Dartington were originally part of a joined-up business strategy which nevertheless recognised that profit is not the only “bottom line”; that is, that social inclusion and ecological sustainability are just as important.  Therefore the crafts exist alongside the waterwheel at the old woollen mill which is being adapted to provide electric power for the mill itself and also for the electric vehicles used by the estate workers.  They exist alongside the estate’s management (forestry and farming among other management strategies), small enterprise, social justice initiatives and charity work.


And Dartington has always had an educational remit.  In 1961 The Trustees of the time accepted the idea that the existing Arts Centre should become a college, and saw the new college as a focal point for staging and presenting the arts, teaching them, and serving the local community.  That remit seems for the moment to have passed to Schumacher College.  Schumacher has already initiated courses in food and farming in collaboration with Duchy College, and more training is forthcoming in this area in the next 18 months. Schumacher is re-engaging strongly with craft as an ethos in the development of a vocational platform within the College.  At the moment this development is in a conceptual planning stage but is based on an understanding and acceptance of the need to transition to a low carbon society (see Transition Movement and Sustainable Makers for more information on this issue).  Development Director of Schumacher College, Jon Rae, writes,


          “In three areas of basic needs – food, energy and shelter – the abundance of fossil carbon has resulted in stark dependencies, narrowed interpretations of quality, and stimulated a broader shift to quantity in method and vocational practice…We have distinguished our contribution with an ethos of craft and an emphasis on values in both work and education.  In the coming decade and beyond, a renewed focus on quality in land management, sustainable energy and the built environment will be critical to the successful transition…A dedication to craft and the location of vocation within ecology at Schumacher, will be the demonstration of quality and a foundation of evolving society.”


The proposed vocational training and support will be focused between foundation degree and master’s level accreditation or equivalent where not accredited.  Vocational training will be integrated with short and long courses at Schumacher and in partnership with other organisations and institutes.  The Dartington estate’s natural and built environment will be used for inspiration, demonstration and research and is intended to act even more as a hub for related enterprises and training.


Dartington has a long history in supporting vocations such as construction and building trades, forestry, horticulture, artistic careers, and the crafts, by inspiring, researching, demonstrating (skills and lifestyles) and skills training.  The tapestries that hang in the Great Hall represent the main pillars or aspects of Dartington’s remit or experiment and include forestry, the dairy and the pottery.  As a stand-alone business, would the pottery or craft gallery at Dartington work?  We may never know.  But I would argue that as part of an integrated strategy which sees craft, community, and ecology as three mutually supporting elements of a system, the system is much stronger.




[1] (Peter Cox, The Arts at Dartington)