The path of a person’s life can be affected by any number of incidents, but it took a World War and the ever-encroaching threat of military might for one of the world’s best-known artists to move from his native Germany to a small barn in Ambleside. That’s what happened to Kurt Schwitters more than seven decades ago, one of the leading lights in German Modernism and a man who Melvyn Bragg has called ‘one of the North’s great cultural Modernist treasures’ – and his effect on Cumbria was been felt ever since.
‘The Nazis declared all modern art degenerate in 1937,’ explains Ian Hunter of Littoral Arts, a charitable trust which oversees the running of Merz Barn, where Kurt Schwitters eventually pitched up in Ambleside. The effective ban on modern art was a major upheaval in the cultural world, causing vast numbers of artists, architects and composers to flee Germany for safe havens around the world. Some arrived in Britain; yet more in the United States. Kurt Schwitters initially set off for Norway.
The artist used to holiday in among the tranquil fjords of Norway, and so when he was forced to move in 1937, he decided to go to Norway. His peaceable lifestyle would only last for three years, however: the Nazis invaded the country in 1940, and Schwitters was once more forced to up sticks, this time ending up in Britain. At that time, during the war, German immigrants were viewed with caution, so Schwitters spent time in an internment camp on the Isle of Man, before going to London. ‘There, he met a lovely English lady who used to holiday in the Lakes,’ explains Ian, ‘and so he came up to the Lake District in 1945.’
He arrived in Cumbria and began to earn a crust painting portraits, landscapes and flowers – but his dream was to continue with this great architectural experimentation he had begun in Germany. Schwitters saw an opportunity when he was asked to paint the portrait of a Langdale farmer, Harry Pearce, and spotted an unused shed down at the bottom of the land Harry owned. ‘That was the beginning of the great Merz Barn,’ says Ian.
It would become a workshop for the artist, and a work of art itself. ‘It was going to be a labyrinth,’ says Ian. ‘An extraordinary, magic cave.’ In the end, time caught up with Schwitters, who only managed to complete the end wall of the barn, which became a vast, three-dimensional collage of decorator’s plaster and paint, before his death in January 1948.
However, in the artist’s three years in Cumbria, he had a profound effect. ‘He was a funny German guy,’ says Ian. ‘The locals weren’t horrible to him; they just treated him as an eccentric. They knew him as a painter, so they understood what he was doing there, but his abstract work, they just didn’t understand.’ Critical acclaim in London was louder than in Cumbria, but in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, there were more important things to think about than keeping a highly-regarded artist in money.
The wall was taken out whole from the Merz Barn and transported to Newcastle, where it now sits in Newcastle University’s recently-renovated Hatton Gallery. Merz Barn itself still stands in Ambleside, and since 1996, has been under the control of the Littoral Arts Trust. But budget cuts have had a knock-on effect on Arts Council funding, which means that – in the 70th anniversary year of Schwitters’ death – the barn may have to be sold to a Chinese investor.
‘If this were Dove Cottage and we were talking about Wordsworth, you can imagine the outcry,’ explains Ian. ‘Nobody would argue that Kurt Schwitters and his Merz Barn is not a key cultural treasure of the North of England. It belongs to the North, had its birth in the North, connects the North with the great stories of modern art, and everyone is standing back waiting for it to be loaded onto a truck heading to China.’
Ian and Celia Larner, who also runs Littoral Arts, have long propped up the running of Merz Barn, recognising its importance as a cultural touchstone for this part of Cumbria and the wider North. They’ve been supported by the artistic community: a decade or so ago, Damien Hirst, prodded by famed artist Richard Hamilton who oversaw the transplant of the wall from Cumbria to Newcastle, donated £150,000 to the running of the site. Before her death, Zaha Hadid put forward another £25,000. But without wider support from the community, a long-term future for Merz Barn isn’t sustainable. ‘We’re artists in our 70s and 80s,’ explains Ian. ‘There’s an urgency and a responsibility here. We need to do something.’
For more information, or to support
the Merz Barn appeal, visit