Text and images © Chris Wormald 2011 – 2017 – please negotiate a fee before using.
Dartington in April
The day in 1925, when a smartly dressed, upper middle class couple marvelled at the setting of the near derelict ancient house and grounds, they were already half in love with it. Their friend, a tall, thin, robed figure with an amazing hair style had waxed lyrical about South Devon. It seemed the flow had drawn them to this place – so they bought it!
Dartington Hall became the property of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhurst and one year later they began an ongoing experiment of rural regeneration and education that still exists to this day, albeit in a form the Elmhursts and their companion on that day, Rabindranath Tagore, would struggle to recognise.
The Elmhursts were forward thinking and slightly radical. He was an experienced and highly educated agro-economist, she a very wealthy American widow with progressive views and three young children. They were both worldly and well travelled, experienced in all manner of social, political and economic matters.
Inspired by Tagore, his writing, art, educational theories and his shear magnetism – sitting by the beautiful River Dart as it flowed to its navigational head at Totnes – they planned a progressive school which would eventually become one of the freest and most creative in the country; only suffering decline after Leonard and Dorothy’s death and a mistaken choice of headmaster. After the school’s demise in 1987, a notable art college, famed for dance, music and theatre as much as for painting and sculpture, printmaking and illustration grew in its stead. Very recently and very sadly the college has closed and an unknown chapter has begun.
The Elmhursts had visited Tagore’s experimental school in pre-partition India and had seen his ideas in practice, children sitting with their teachers in circles on the floor in the shaded open air, boys revising arithmetic sitting 20ft in the air in trees. There was mutual respect by children and teachers for each other and most definitely, for the culture that had bred them; its music, dance, folk tales and art. Learning was always the goal but fun was not ruled out on the way. The school eventually became the world famous Visva Bharati university in Shantiniketan (Bengali for Abode of Peace), West Bengal (see the “Calcutta and Shantiniketan” and the “Poush Mela” pages on this blog.
Sitting today enjoying a half of Otter Ale outside Dartington Hall’s White Heart and looking out over the Hall grounds in early April with the Japanese Giant Flowering Cherry trees and the Magnolias lining the long steps, all in full bloom, there are just a few garden visitors wandering around but no students with cameras or sketch books, and empty studios and an empty feel. Is it possible the Raw Creative Spirit of Dartington will in future, have no-one to infect and inspire other than middle class conference attendees and evening concert and film goers. Hopefully things will evolve and once again in a new evolution, Dartington will be a formative influence on young creative minds.
In its free-school heyday, children from Dartington School, swam naked in deep pools in the cold river Dart as part of a normal school day, as formal lessons were not uppermost and learning was by experience rather than formal pedagogy. (Imagine filling out a risk assessment for a school day like that nowadays – hearing the health and safety nerds’ strangled cries of outrage – the clipboard wealding, educationalist apparatchiks – just fainting away!) Many of the school’s pupils were the children of forward thinking intellectuals of their time. They revelled in the freedom and choices offered, becoming forward thinking creative intellectuals themselves! But the choices in this day and age are very few indeed.
Over in the art college, students once built huge sculptures out of recycled car parts and wire; dancers danced and choreographed and musicians played ethnic instruments that no-one else had even heard of, potters potted, film-makers filmed, animators animated and actors acted. What now – what next – when everything has been made super safe, when experiment and making has been replaced by countless essays and targets and education is run by accountants and grey suited men eager to swallow up their students’ £9000pa tuition fees, leaving them with decades of enormous debt. The independent art colleges have now all been gobbled up by huge universities run by committees of faceless academic bureaucrats.
As always, I find it impossible to be in Dartington gardens and not to connect and love it, deeply.
Someone come up with a new way forward – please.