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For the Elmhirsts, the arts offered a source of unity in an age of division and fragmentation, and they initiated diverse programmes at Dartington in drama, dance, music, arts education, film, crafts and the visual arts to further their unitive vision. The tensions that arose in the course of these activities echoed wider debates about the role of creativity in society: between modernist ‘formalist’ art – eschewing any social or historical meanings – and avant-garde ‘functionalism’ that worked to restore the integration of art and life; between the craftsman-controlled, unified production process and more commercially-oriented notions of the relation between art and industry; and over what type of community art was intended to unify – the local ‘folk’, the nation, or a harmonious, global society. The difficulty in finding a coherent policy for the arts meant that the Elmhirsts gradually gravitated away from making the estate itself a replicable model for how the arts should unite society, and towards it contributing to government-led initiatives instead.
The Elmhirsts emerged from the First World War feeling that orthodox Christianity was no longer adequate as a guide either to belief or to conduct. Like others of their era, they looked for new forms of spiritual meaning, a new guide to moral behaviour, new sources of affective or social fulfilment and different frameworks for understanding the nature of society as a whole. Collectively, this chapter terms these searches ‘socio-spiritual questing’. It considers four approaches taken at Dartington to filling the gap left by Christianity. The Elmhirsts tried re-shaping the Church with the help of the arts, explored the possibilities of Eastern spirituality, worked to advance humankind’s unity through group spiritual exploration and experimented with a planned regime of ‘psycho-physical hygiene’. Interwar socio-spiritual questing was so wide-ranging and amorphous that it defies comprehensive survey. Dartington Hall provides an alternative way of drawing together its various strands: an unusual convergence in a diffuse landscape of seeking.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Elmhirsts saw reforming education as a key to a more harmonious future – a view that that was widely shared. Their vision of an ideal education system was one that promoted learners’ freedom and holistic fulfilment, that was integrated with its rural surroundings and that extended from the cradle to the grave. This chapter looks at Dorothy and Leonard’s efforts to realise this vision, setting them within the context of the flourishing interwar progressive education movement and of wider efforts to promote rural reform, life-long learning and international harmony. Ideologically plastic, unfettered by economic necessity and well-connected, Dartington was the only progressive educational scheme begun in interwar Britain as part of a larger social experiment. It offers a singular demonstration of the cross-fertilisation of progressive education with other holistically-minded programmes that sought to re-think the laissez-faire liberal philosophy of the previous century.
Dartington Hall was built on a strong, companionate relationship between two complex, contradictory people. This chapter explores the paths that led Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst to marry and start Dartington, illuminating a rich early-twentieth-century landscape of philanthropy, humanitarianism, spirituality and international exchange. It shows how affective relationships fuelled far-reaching collaborative reformism. The chapter also gives an overview of Dartington between 1925 and 1945. It dwells on the Elmhirsts’ desire to combine local roots with international horizons (what Kwame Appiah terms ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’); explores the implications of this progressive experiment’s setting in the conservative county of Devon; traces the project’s trajectory from a small, independent-minded venture in the 1920s to one that, by the late 1930s, aimed to contribute to state-led social reform; and situates Dartington amid myriad other unity-seeking reform projects of the interwar period, from the New Deal to Mass Observation.
This chapter looks at the projects that the Elmhirsts instigated on their estate to promote agricultural and industrial revival and democratic participation. It positions Dartington amid the many interwar rural reform ventures with which it cross-pollinated, from the New Deal in America and Sriniketan in India to Rolf Gardiner’s Springhead and government smallholding schemes in Britain. Dorothy and Leonard’s philosophy of rural regeneration – attempting to combine ‘microscopic’ support for community life with the ‘macroscopic’ approach that was international in its outlook – prefigured and helped shape the phenomenon central to the later twentieth century. The sociologist Roland Robertson calls this ‘glocalisation’: a process by which local community is reconfigured, and even strengthened, by global forces. The gradual migration of the Elmhirsts’ vision of Dartington – from a self-governing, holistically integrated collective to an outpost of centralised social planning – dovetailed effectively into plans for national reconstruction during and after the Second World War.
In 1924, a wealthy New York philanthropist, Dorothy Straight (née Elmhirst), married a Yorkshire-born agricultural economist, Leonard Elmhirst. The First World War had made both of them question the self-oriented, market-driven doctrine of laissez-faire liberalism that underpinned the Western world. ‘I found that the bottom of life had dropped out,’ Leonard Elmhirst wrote, ‘and that the old beliefs could not stand the test’. Both wanted to dedicate themselves to creating a community apart from mainstream society, where a better mode of holistically integrated, democratic living could be pioneered. In 1925 they bought a run-down estate in South Devon, Dartington Hall, and began a social, cultural and education experiment that they hoped would ‘set the pace’ for Britain and the rest of the world. They devoted the rest of their lives to this project, which became one of the best-known and most influential of the many small-scale interwar utopian experiments.
Karl Mannheim, who lectured at Dartington in 1941, argued that utopias are always in dialectical tension with the existing order; for all their ‘incongruity’ with the status quo, they remain deeply embedded within a ‘historically specific social life’. The fortunes of Dartington from its foundation to the present day exemplify the messy vitality of the exchange with the real world promised in Mannheim’s formulation. The estate offered countercultural alternatives. Yet its founders were determined that it would develop in symbiosis with the wider world rather than ‘preparing for some hypothetical community’ of the future. Dartington’s communion with the outside world was increased by the international collaborators with whom the Elmhirsts engaged in pursuing their ideal of promoting a unified life. This chapter looks at how, in the ninety-odd years since its foundation, Dartington has offered a reconfigured vision of the outside world, while being both sustained and constrained by this larger environment.
Dartington Hall was a social experiment of kaleidoscopic vitality, set up in Devon in 1925 by a fabulously wealthy American heiress, Dorothy Elmhirst (née Whitney), and her Yorkshire-born husband, Leonard. It quickly achieved international fame with its progressive school, craft production and wide-ranging artistic endeavours. Dartington was a residential community of students, teachers, farmers, artists and craftsmen committed to revivifying life in the countryside. It was also a socio-cultural laboratory, where many of the most brilliant interwar minds came to test out their ideas about art, society, spirituality and rural regeneration. To this day, Dartington Hall remains a symbol of countercultural experimentation and a centre for arts, ecology and social justice. Practical Utopia presents a compelling portrait of a group of people trying to live out their ideals, set within an international framework, and demonstrates Dartington's tangled affinities with other unity-seeking projects across Britain and in India and America.
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