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60 years of Digswell Arts Trust

PUBLISHED: 13:38 09 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:26 13 October 2017

Allistair Covell's workspace at Fenners. He creates bold, colourful abstract paintings which form the patterns for striking rugs woven in Nepal and Afghanistan

Allistair Covell's workspace at Fenners. He creates bold, colourful abstract paintings which form the patterns for striking rugs woven in Nepal and Afghanistan

Allistair Covell

Sandra Smith explores the past and present of the innovative Herts arts charity as it celebrates its diamond anniversary

The printing facilities at The Forge enable large scale works to be produced The printing facilities at The Forge enable large scale works to be produced

It was 60 years ago that Henry Morris persuaded Welwyn GC Development Corporation to support professional artists by establishing a trust. Morris, a visionary and educationalist whose passion for the arts equalled a gift for lateral thinking, believed artists are a necessary part of a healthy society. During his time with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning he energetically focussed on his educational ideal for British new towns – colleges and community schools where buildings, which he called ‘silent teachers’, met the local community’s needs and reflected an ongoing desire for access to cultural and educational learning regardless of age.

The trust’s first home was Digswell House, a Grade II listed mansion in Welwyn GC. Originally a country estate, the property had been used as a hospital and nursing home during the First World War and later a conference centre and a boarding house. In return for a modest rent covering the trust’s lease, the corporation agreed to restore the property in the manner of studio accommodation – providing artists with accessible space at an affordable rent for up to five years.

Since then Digswell Arts Trust, as it became known, has provided a springboard for many artists. One of the most internationally renowned is sculptor John W Mills, who is still a strong supporter of the trust. He recalls his time at Digswell: ‘In 1958 I was at the Royal College of Arts Sculpture School when I heard of Digswell through another student who was in touch with Henry Morris. I had a custom built studio, which was very tall and very cold, it filled the courtyard of the stable block. Most of us at that time were ex Royal College. Digswell was a continuation of that and it was interesting to take strides into the professional world of art. It was stimulating – everyone just got on with their work.’

Bright and Hazy (ink and gesso on board) by Alex McIntyre Bright and Hazy (ink and gesso on board) by Alex McIntyre

John’s portfolio includes works owned by the royal family, while his Women of World War II monument in Whitehall and Blitz, the National Firefighters Memorial, outside St Paul’s Cathedral are two of his many public commissions.

The cost of ongoing repair work to Digswell House eventually rendered the venue financially unviable and, after a spell at nearby Attimore Hall Barn, the trust relocated to the former forge at Digswell. The purpose-built building has 10 studios and a dedicated print area with a large printing press and etching equipment. The Fenners building – a former light industrial unit in Letchworth converted to 17 studios and a teaching area – was added to the portfolio in 2012.

Current trustee, Steve Rogers, explains the objective of the charity: ‘We have a dual role – supporting emerging artists as well as art in the community. We have £10,000 worth of print facilities at Digswell. Two kilns are used by fellows (artists) as well as the community. We also offer support by contributing to exhibition costs.

Print and stitch workshop at The Forge. The large printing press wheel can be seen in the background Print and stitch workshop at The Forge. The large printing press wheel can be seen in the background

‘Artists learn from each other and we expect them to partake in local activities such as running classes and helping with Herts Open Studios or Letchworth Festival. We currently have 16 fellows in Letchworth with 10 in Digswell.’

Alex McIntyre is a visual artist who recognises the value of the five years she spent with Digswell Arts Trust.

‘I felt lucky to have a space I could afford,’ the 35-year-old explains. ‘And having other artists around me was emotionally supportive. The application process involves submitting a statement explaining why you’re interested, how it will benefit your career, what you can bring to the community. You send a CV and images of your work then there’s an interview in front of a panel – one trustee and two fellows. They ask to see your work and invite you to talk about what you want to achieve. Fellowships start at £70 per month for the first year which goes up by £10 a month to a maximum of £120. If you take on duties such as social media or buildings administration that reduces your monthly rent by £10. This is for a maximum of one year. It’s quite democratic.’

Teaching and support is an important part of the Digwell Arts Trust's ethos Teaching and support is an important part of the Digwell Arts Trust's ethos

Alex appreciated the ‘fantastic light’ which flooded her ground floor studio, enabling her to infuse climate and weather into her abstract landscapes.

‘Quite often my work has a broad horizon. Clients say it helps them to breathe, gives a sense of space and calm.’

She is clear about the relationship between trust and artist.

John W Mills' Women at War sculpture at the Cenotaph in Whitehall John W Mills' Women at War sculpture at the Cenotaph in Whitehall

‘You get out what you put in. The trust’s emphasis is to support artists to build sustainable careers. Starting your career is frightening and exposing so sharing support and resources with more established fellows is useful.’

Digswell Arts Trust creatives vary from ceramicists to jewellery makers, while mixed media drawings, oils, printmaking and taxidermy are all explored in the studios.

Allistair Covell says his artistic direction shifted dramatically with the trust’s support.

John W Mills with his National Firefighters Memorial, Blitz before its installation outside St Paul's John W Mills with his National Firefighters Memorial, Blitz before its installation outside St Paul's

‘I started off doing fine art but ended up designing rugs – a piece of artwork for your floor or wall – via textile design and fashion design. I joined Digswell in 2014. It’s fascinating – possibly the oldest art institution of its kind in Great Britain and I’m part of that history.’

After winning a rug design competition, Allistair decided this was the path to take: ‘Rugs can last for 500 years – they have more longevity than fashion’. He works with weavers based in Nepal and Afghanistan and his designs stem from his paintings.

‘My first floor studio is long and thin with an emergency exit on to a balcony. I have shelves of books and magazines and piles of small canvases. There’s plenty of natural light and I look out over rooftops, offices and trees. Digswell is a wonderful environment to be part of.’

Two years ago, Allistair, along with artists from across the world, took part in the Cambrian Mountains Wool (CMW) International Design and Make Challenge run by the Cambrian Mountains Initiative, which was instigated by the Prince of Wales.

Invited to create a piece of art to showcase, Allistair met the royal patron and his work, Digital Stitch Print, takes pride of place on the CMW website. Six decades after its inception, Digswell Arts Trust continues to nurture artistic talent. It’s ongoing commitment to the aims and vision of Henry Morris not only launches careers but enriches the community.

For more information about Digswell Arts Trust, exhibitions, workshops and fellowships, go to digswellarts.org

See Ashwell-based photographer and filmmaker Chris Frazer Smith’s short film about John Mills, Tommy the Portrait of a Sculptor:

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