Tag Archives: John Amis

The history of an experiment: Dartington’s historical roots

Recently I have been delving into the history of Dartington, as background to the presentation I will be giving at a conference in Portugal in a couple of weeks. I started getting really interested when I discovered a book about Dartington written by a distant relative of mine – a slightly spooky coincidence… Dartington is a complicated place  which is constantly seeking to reinvent itself, as evidenced by a recent blog post from Vaughan Lindsey, chair of the Dartington Hall Trust. Exploring the history of Dartington – and by that I mean the Hall, the School, the College of Arts and the Summer School – has shed some light on its search for an identity.

One of the first issues I have come up against in attempting to make sense of Dartington’s past is the intensely personal nature of the accounts documenting it. The two main books available – ‘The Elmhirsts of Dartington’ by Michael Young, and ‘The Arts at Dartington’ by Peter Cox are written by people extremely closely connected to Dartington, as a pupil of the school and protégé of the Elmhirsts in the former case, and the first principal of Dartington College of Arts in the latter. This inevitably impacts on the objective value of their texts. There are also some interesting accounts of the summer school in the autobiographies of William Glock (the first Musical Director) and John Amis (the first Administrator, who sadly died this summer); but again, these are highly personal, laced with anecdote and in the case of Amis considerable underlying conflict. However, by comparing all these sources – my GCSE history teacher would be proud of me! – I’ve been starting to make some sense of the story.

Three main themes emerge; the first is a financial one. According to John Amis, the supposed financial backer of the first summer school at Bryanston in 1948, a man called Gwynn Jones, claimed to have the necessary funds to support it – and in actual fact turned out not to have enough money. This financial insecurity has been a constant feature of the summer school’s past, present and future; the current uncertainty  surrounding its survival seems somehow less dramatic in the context of this long-running state of affairs.

A second interesting theme is the extent to which the history of the summer school and of Dartington as a whole has been dominated by individuals. The whole Dartington project was the brainchild of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, two immensely creative and innovative individuals, whose vision and perhaps more importantly funds purchased a crumbling fourteenth century estate in 1925 to begin their ‘English Experiment’. The exact purpose of this experiment, beyond a commitment to the Arts, to education, to social justice and to agricultural reform, still remains somewhat opaque – as Michael Young states in his book, anyone who tries to define it has missed the point of it entirely. One thing is clear though: that the Elmhirsts had some very strong ideas about how they wanted things to be done, and even after establishing a board of Trustees continued to make decisions based on personal conviction. The Summer School too is a story of individuals: it  had only four Artistic Directors  between 1948 and 2012 (William Glock, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gavin Henderson, and John Woolrich), two of whom served for considerable periods of time. Their personal networks and connections attracted the most eminent musicians of their age to the summer school; Glock in particular through his post as the Controller of Radio Three.  Other key posts, the Administrator and the Registrar, were also held for many years by the same people.This personal touch has made the Summer School what it is, in both positive and negative ways, and presents a significant challenge to its sustainability.

The third theme which has emerged and is obviously of particular interest to me is that of the conflicting status of the amateur and the professional at Dartington. In the earliest days of the project, the arts were envisaged as a means of enriching the lives of all those on the estate; but in a strictly hierarchical sense, where the ‘amateurish’ participation of estate workers was seen as a barrier to performance standards. Later on, following a report published in 1941 by the Arts Department, there was a volte-face in the perception of amateur artistic participation. The focus changed the training of teachers specifically to work with amateurs, under the influence of Imogen Holst, who can be seen conducting in this wonderful film from the school’s Foundation Day in 1948.  This was the origin of Dartington College of Arts, but again, suggests a relationship of inequality. A similar situation occurred in the early Summer Schools, which John Amis described as catering to all levels of ‘musical competence and incompetence’ – but catering in very different ways, with activities strictly segregated on the basis of ability and with the amateur musicians frequently providing an audience, rather than participating themselves. As Amis states, the promising young conservatoire students who gave the summer school energy needed financial support to attend, which was provided by the music-loving amateur participants.

This process of historical enquiry has been revealing both in terms of Dartington’s past and its future search for an identity – I will soon be making a trip to Devon to view the summer school archives, so no doubt I will be posting more on this subject before too long.


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