Schwitters in Ambleside

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A blog post by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir alerted me to the Armitt Library in Ambleside. So it was on my list of places to visit during our recent holiday in the Lake District. It’s an interesting little place. A library on the top floor and museum on the ground floor.

The Armitt Library was founded by Mary Louisa Armitt in 1909 and formally opened following her death in 1912. It was intended as a resource for the local scholarly community and incorporated the Ambleside Book Society founded in 1828 and the Ambleside Ruskin Library, which dates from the 1890s. The reference library on the first floor is free to use and houses a wealth of books on the local area and its history.

The main exhibition was about the life of Beatrix Potter and her drawings of fungi. It was well curated and reading about Beatrix we were also able to learn a few things about life in the Lake District at the beginning of the 20th Century. But my main motivation for visiting the museum was to see the permanent exhibitions of works by Kurt Schwitters, the German abstract artist who lived in and around Ambleside for the last few years of his life.

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Originally on the fringes of the German Dadaist movement, Scwitters invented the concept of Merz

‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’.

He used any materials he could find – paper, cardboard, scraps of print, bits of wood, string, cotton wool, bus tickets and anything else that came to hand – incorporating them into abstract collage, installation, poetry and performance.

Learning that he was wanted by the Gestapo for an “interview” in 1937 he fled to Norway but when the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had to flee again, this time to Britain. Initially he was interred as an “enemy alien” in Scotland and then the Isle of Man. He was released in November 1941, moving first to London and then, in 1945, settling in the Lake district. He died in 1948.

Although his real interest was in creating his three dimensional collages, he was an accomplished figurative artist and used to paint portraits of local people and landscapes of the area to try and earn a few bob. The Armitt have managed to collect several of these and have others on loan and they constitute the main part of the exhibition, although they also have a few example of Merz.

This is his painting of Bridge House in Ambleside, a tourist attraction now owned by the National Trust and which stands almost directly opposite the Armitt.

bridge-house by Scwitters

This is my photograph of the building

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I enjoyed looking at the paintings as they gave an insight into the artist who had to reel them off to make some money. However,it’s his Merz works that single him out as a significant artist. His collages didn’t impress the locals. But he did manage to win prizes in the local art show for some of his conventional paintings of flowers. 

Flight”(1945). From the Abbot Hall collection.

Kurt Schwitters - Flight

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