Last year I visited Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn and the Cylinders site in the Lake District and I was inspired by the setting and by the work of Royal Academy students that was being hosted. The Cylinders site is now under threat – (see article in the Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/oct/16/art-kurt-schwitters-lake-district-merz-barn-sold )
Schwitters was one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th century. I feel that the Merz Barn and the Cylinders site are of great importance to our understanding of his final years and definitely worth preserving.
The following statement was released by the Kurt Schwitters Society in response to my enquiries:
INDEPENDENT STATEMENT BY THE KURT SCHWITTERS SOCIETY REGARDING THE FUTURE OF CYLINDERS ESTATE.
It has come to the notice of the Kurt Schwitters Society that the sale of Cylinders estate and the Merz Barn has been scheduled to take place in the coming months. This is not the first announcement that has been made to that effect, but this time it may well be serious, as both the Barn and Cylinders are apparently in poor condition. In particular, the devastations of recent storms have made the upkeep of the land surrounding the Barn extremely arduous.
We have been asked to prepare a statement on the sale of the Merz Barn, but must emphasize that the Kurt Schwitters Society is basically a research and communication institution, and as such has no immediate interest in the Cylinders estate, as none of Schwitters’ work remains there. Nonetheless, Cylinders retains for many of us a certain nostalgia, indeed aura, as the site of Schwitters’ ultimately tragic efforts to complete his final Merzbau Environment – in its time a ground-breaking concept understood by hardly any of his contemporaries.
Ian Hunter and Celia Larner have made improvements to Cylinders over many years and organized numerous popular projects, including artist residencies and conferences. There are, however, several long-established institutions in the North who have proved themselves more substantial guardians of Schwitters’ British heritage. The Armitt Museum in Ambleside houses a number of Schwitters’ artworks plus a reference library, archive, oral history collection and reading room. Abbot Hall in Kendal, the Manx Museum in Douglas and of course the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle all have Schwitters collections. It is a matter of great regret to us that Littoral Arts Trust have invariably opted to forge their own plans without regard to such existing facilities. This is one of the reasons why over the years, Littoral’s much vaunted ambitions have generally proved unrealizable. Even more importantly, their achievements to date have been revealed as largely unsustainable, despite years of energetic fund-raising and generous financial grants from national and international bodies. Such factors will no doubt prove a disadvantage in the search for a new owner.
We have been in touch with our colleagues in Norway, as they have also been confronted with the problems of maintaining an empty ramshackle hut that formerly housed parts of an installation by Schwitters (and in this case, a not inconsiderable amount of asbestos). The difficulties of preserving the hut and removing its contents to a museum were compounded by the fact that the Merzhytta, as it is now known, is accessible for only a few months in the year. The farsighted establishment of the ‘Schwitters in Norway’ project by Karin Hellandsjø in 2010 has meant, however, that the relevant institutions in Norway have since then voluntarily cooperated to preserve Schwitters’ Norwegian heritage on a national scale. Needless to say, nothing of the sort exists in Britain.
The future of Cylinders evidently lies in the hands of various parties, but how much say each of these will have in the final decision is not clear to us. The list of Littoral’s Trustees over the years has seen many rapid and wide-ranging changes, but at present three Trustees, not all of them experts, are charged with the general administration of the site. Cylinders, only accessible via narrow roads and an often muddy entrance, stands near the end of a valley in a National Park, which certainly implies restrictions for future owners. Whether an earlier National Trust covenant is still valid we do not know. The affairs of Cylinders are not particularly transparent at time of writing, but in any case, as regards the future, the Kurt Schwitters Society will not be among the decision-makers. On the other hand, we have a number of distinguished members who have concerned themselves with various aspects of the Merz Barn over many decades, so that we can certainly offer advice – if it’s asked for.
We would certainly plead for more collaborative efforts, a sustainable digital platform and a long-term solution on the model of the ‘Schwitters in Norway’ project.
We at the Kurt Schwitters Society are confident that sale of Cylinders and the Merz Barn will offer the chance of a new beginning and a new opportunity to make this attractive site of local, historical and art-historical interest available to the public in a less vulnerable and more sustainable form.
Gwendolen Webster, on behalf of the Committee of the Kurt Schwitters Society, 24.11.2022