A couple of weeks ago The Art Fund announced its Museum of the Year 2014 award. The six-strong shortlist featured winner Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Tate Britain, Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum…and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. How come I hadn’t been to the last one? Given its illustrious company, clearly I had to go and check it out.
A pretty South Downs village near Brighton, Ditchling makes a great day trip from London. I hopped on a train at Victoria and in less than an hour had disembarked at Hassocks station and was striding past a white windmill above meadows full of poppies along what’s known as the artists’ walk. I soon arrived at the cluster of old cottages that have attracted a community of creative luminaries from sculptor Eric Gill in the early 1900s right up to today. The village has a strong association with the written word: in addition to the man behind Gill Sans lettering, other craftspeople with studios here have included Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground typeface, and printer Hilary Pepler.
There has been a museum in Ditchling since 1985, when it was set up by two sisters who knew many of the artists whose work is now on show. But it was transformed by a major refurbishment and reopened in September 2013 with engaging, fresh displays and those other must-haves of the modern museum, a cafe and shop.
The displays bring together hand-printed books, paintings, wood carvings and rural implements. I enjoyed the woven textiles by Hilary Bourne who, when reluctantly approached to make costumes for Ben-Hur, tried to dissuade MGM by asking four times the going rate—to which they promptly agreed.
It was also fun to encounter a display by silversmiths Pruden & Smith, which also has a workshop and boutique in the centre of the village. Its co-owner, Anton Pruden, is the grandson of the silversmith who was part of Eric Gill’s original craft guild. Visitors to the shop may be invited to tour the warren of work rooms underneath. Be warned, though, that once you’ve seen what goes into these stylish pieces you are unlikely to emerge empty-handed.
On a ramble around the village I stopped at the churchyard to admire lettering in stone carved by Gill. A visit to one of the tea shops was another must. I then walked out into the fields and up onto the South Downs, en route to Brighton on the other side. From there, it was easy to catch the London-bound train—but not before I’d come across an extraordinary sight, which I’ll tell you about next time…
Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, open daily from 11.00-17.00 (Sun from 12.00).