Micro-museum dedicated to garden designer Harry Pierce to open in Elterwater

Harry's drawing office

Harry's drawing office - Credit: not Archant

A new micro-museum honours an innovative garden designer who played a key role in one of art’s great 20th century creations, writes Mike Glover.

The portrait of Harry by Kurt Schwitters

The portrait of Harry by Kurt Schwitters - Credit: not Archant

At just 4.3 by 3.2 metres, it could be the smallest museum in England. The micro-museum is dedicated to garden designer Harry Pierce and is located in the reconstruction of his drawing office on the Cylinders Estate at Elterwater in Langdale.

It will be officially opened during Heritage Open week, on Sunday September 15, in a ceremony attended by Mr Pierce's family and guests prominent in the landscape architecture movement.

The micro-museum contains a desk, drawings, books and plans Mr Pierce drew up to convert the Cylinders Estate from its industrial past as part of a gunpowder works into experimental gardens.

The office is where Mr Pierce met German-born artist Kurt Schwitters. The couple became close friends and Pierce rented a barn on the site for Schwitters to use as a studio to resume his life-long attempts to create an installation in his own Merz style.

Harry in the Merz Barn

Harry in the Merz Barn - Credit: not Archant

Schwitters completed one wall of The Merz Barn before his death in January 1948. Nearly 20 years later it was lifted and moved to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle Upon Tyne where it is still on view.

It has been valued at £15 million, although it is considered priceless as the only remaining example of Schwitters's installations. Previous examples in Hanover and Norway were destroyed.

The micro-museum has been created by the owners of Cylinders Estate, Littoral Arts, a charity which promotes rural arts.

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Director of the Merz Barn project, Ian Hunter, said: 'Littoral Arts is keen to promote Kurt Schwitters and his memory, but it is equally important to acknowledge Harry Pierce as he gave Schwitters, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a place to work in his gardens.

'It is remarkable that in Spring 1947 one of the leaders of the European Avant Garde art movement was having tea with an English landscape gardener. They hit it off and as a result Schwitters, who had been living out of a suitcase for ten years, was finally able to resume his great European experiment, at the birth of modernism. Harry Pierce was equally ahead of his time, planning to create gardens in the blasted, sterile industrial site.

These are the two narratives we aim to acknowledge in the micro-museum.'

Mr Pierce was chief landscape designer for the great T H Mawson, originally from Scorton, who designed the gardens of many stately homes in the Lake District.

He bought the Cylinders estate in 1940, with the ambition of turning it into a garden to suit all purposes: part landscaped arboretum, part sanctuary for wild life, and part small-holding.

From 1824 until 1928 Cylinders had been owned by the Elterwater Gunpowder Works, which had used it for forestry to produce the charcoal which is a major ingredient in gunpowder.

Mr Pierce cleared the land and converted some buildings and built others while transforming the site. By 1946 he was selling soft fruit and preserves to the holiday camp opposite, now the Langdale Hotel and Timeshare. He continued to develop Cylinders through the 50s and 60s and allowed Schwitters' end wall with the artwork to be removed to Newcastle in 1965 for conservation.

Cylinders has examples of Mr Pierce's efforts with magnificent and rare tree rhododendrons, the diversity of the conifer species and profusion of spring bulbs.

The site was sold to Littoral Arts in 2006 by the Pierce family. Harry's grandson Bill said: 'I remember well the little cottage and having tea in front of it and playing with grandad's dogs in the glorious summers of the early 1950s,' he said. 'Littoral has done a tremendous job reviving the spirit of Kurt Schwitters and I am delighted it will now be joined by the spirit of Harry Pierce.'

Littoral Director, Celia Larner, said: 'Littoral is the custodian of Harry Pierce's meticulous daybook, compiled between 1944 and 1967, containing his plans and sketches for the Cylinders gardens, together with extensive planting lists. 'We also have the Pierce family archive of photographs from the 1940s and 50s, and a typescript copy of the book Pierce was writing 'Cylinders An Experiment'. We are happy to share all this in a more structured way through the new museum.'

The charity has plans to create The Merz Shed, a visitor and arts centre on the site of the original Dutch barn.