Arts reporters and architectural correspondents from across the world descended on the Sussex village of Ditchling last week.

Journalists from The New York Times’ International Herald Tribune and glossy design bible Wallpaper were among those who wanted see how a 1960s Portakabin attached to a rundown Victorian school and dilapidated cart lodge had been transformed.

That Sir Nicolas Serota, director of the Tate galleries and one of the most influential men in British art, found time to help with fundraising for the revamped Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts and later decided to come to the foot of the South Downs to cut the ribbon, obviously turned heads.

“When we have needed a letter of support to a funder or something, he helped, which is always good,” explains soft-spoken museum director Hilary Williams about Serota’s involvement, as we walk around a serene space whose outlook has been realigned to take in Ditchling village green as well as its pond.

“It’s always good to have him on your side,” she smiles, before pointing out the project would not have gone anywhere without the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who contributed a £1.4 million grant.

Together with architects Adam Richards, Williams and the museum team have echoed the approach of Ditchling’s creative ancestors for the museum’s £2.3 million redesign.

Throughout the 20th century, Ditchling was home to artists inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, many of who formed the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, as well as the duo who created the museum in 1985, Hilary and Joanna Bourne.

Now the museum is hoping to triple its visitor numbers to 12,000 a year thanks to new additions and creative design.

“The architect said they wanted it to be the antithesis of a white box gallery. So it has a human element, which centres on warmth, texture, textiles and local production.”

Sheep’s fleece insulates much of the building. Keymer tiles are on the roof. The architects have opened up vistas to the landscape and village. “We want to remind you where you are, so you are anchored here. The artists were influenced by this landscape and the people and the village.”

A sign above the entrance is printed in Gill Sans. The man who designed the simple, sans-serif font, which is used as type by Apple for its Mac operating system, is Eric Gill.

He founded the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in 1920 with his apprentice, Joseph Cribb. Edward Johnston, the designer behind the London Underground type, Hilary Pepler, a Quaker-turned-Catholic printer, and artist and poet Desmond Chute, who in later life became close friends with Ezra Pound, were other founder members.

The guild lasted until 1989 and met in a chapel on Ditchling Common. Its ethos was influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris and influenced by John Ruskin’s writing.

Primary concerns for the religious fraternity “for those who make things with their hands” were economy of materials and a search for truth in the way they were used.

“Because workshops and tools were so important,” explains Williams, “we have included their methods of working. There is a spine of tools that run though the displays.”

The original Stanhope press, St Dominic’s Press, bought and set up by Pepler in 1916, is in a room alongside posters designed by Eric Gill (which formed a sort of education on typeface for the pioneer) and his colleagues.

There are designs for theatrical events and beer labels for pubs next to puritanical handbooks for villagers. One on health advises on hygienic underwear, mustard and fish hooks.

“Pepler wrote about how, when he brought the press back to Ditchling, it brought the traffic to a halt,” jokes Williams. “It was the same when we did it.”

Walk past Gill’s early childhood sketches, made as he stared over the railway from his Highcroft Villas home (it was his interest in trains and visits to the Booth Museum which inspired his interest in lettering) and on to Edward Johnston’s desk, on which he designed an original Brompton Road underground sign, hung to the right (pictured right).

At the far end is silversmith Dunstan Pruden’s work bench, donated by his grandson, Anton. The latter still has a workshop in the village, Pruden and Smith.

“It is rare to be able to see work in the environment it was made in. Obviously, come to Ditchling and most of it was made here. At larger museums you might be seeing work from all over world. What we are doing is showing it in the context in which it was made.”

Religious ideals

Gill’s guild dreamed of a utopian society of work, faith and domestic life. The ideology was based on Roman Catholicism and Distributist beliefs, where everyone has enough land to grow their own food and be “men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses”.

“There are religious undertones and that is why the press was so important. For the first time they could use it as a means to spread their ideas. It influenced what people did, what they made. At times they were teaching, but at other times they were a jobbing printer.”

Williams admits the guild’s attempts at self-sufficiency failed. “They tried but it didn’t go too well. They had their own farm and chickens, but there was some reality in that they needed help from the outside world to survive.”

Philip Hagreen’s work for Cross And Plough magazine has messages relevant today. Trying To Make Ends Meet shows a suited businessman sitting on a tightrope above a young couple tied up and unable to pass food to each other.

“They feel so contemporary and he has a sense of humour but the puritanical side is still there.”

The group, which believed wealth should be measured by virtue rather than by money, were joined by other artists in Ditchling who did not join the guild. The steely stylist and master engraver Frank Branwyn used Ditchling residents as models for his work.

Photographic plates taken by Branwyn as studies hang beside a painting of Joy Sinden, sister of actor Donald, which ended up as the centrepiece for his commission for the Rockefeller Centre in New York (which was actually painted in Brighton Museum).

Another highlight by non-guild members (ladies were not allowed) are textiles by native villagers the Bourne sisters, who founded the museum at the tender ages of 76 and 78.

Photographs show Joanna and Hilary were a formidable pair. When asked to follow a commission for the Royal Festival with a shawl for Charlton Heston to wear in Ben Hur, they refused.

“Hilary died in 2004 and I knew her for the final few months of her life. She was great fun and still very full of life. She told me they didn’t have time to do the Ben Hur commission, so thought of a figure and multiplied it and gave it to MGM.

“MGM then said fine. And it was such good money that, by that point, they couldn’t turn it down so they had to do it. It turned out to be a great commission.”

  • Ditchling Museum Of Art And Crafts, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling
  • Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 5pm, Sunday, noon to 5pm, bank holidays, 11am to 5pm. Call 01273 844744