a beehive for Kurt Schwitters and Harry Pierce

This photograph was sent to me by Ian and Celia, of Littoral Arts, who have the Merzbau and Cylinders Estate in their care. It shows the house that belonged to Harry Pierce and his family as it was not long after Schwitters death, in January 1948.

The generous spirit in which Ian and Celia are preserving Cylinders is apparent in the efforts that they have taken to research not only the 'Great Life', Schwitters, but also Pierce, the artists' friend, who inspired him to begin work on his final Merzbau.

Pierce's kindness to Schwitters is preserved in the ethos of this living museum.

Paradoxically, Cylinders is liberated by the very absence of any original Schwitters artworks. The Merzbau exists here as a simulcra, a blown-up phantom of the digital age. Here the act of remembrance is more truly alive in the candle that burns in the dark shed, where Schwitters planned his final unfinished work. Dare we admit that this flame, and the landscape, the attitude of the keepers, will stand in the stead of the incomplete masterpiece? 

Imagine the same thing in terms of Stonypath, or Yorkshire Sculpture Park. 

Life flourishes at Cylinders in the welcome one is given. It resides in the renewal and maintenance of the paths that Pierce planned and in the elegiac atmosphere of the old apple trees, and the chickens that wander in and out of the kitchen.

The plan and key for the orchard – planted by Pierce in 1943, not long before Schwitters would arrive – are shown here. If you look carefully at the photograph of the steading, the young apple trees are visible, top left.

Beneath the apple trees are some beehives; a traditional pairing, of mutual benefit. Again, one thinks of the Englishman and his stooping German friend.

Pierce was a landscape gardener and market gardener, with a crofter's eye to the plurality of incomes – we can count the pennies earned from renting the shed to Schwitters among them – and  he ran Cylinders as a going concern. 

His innovative approach, so in keeping with Schwitters' attitudes, is outlined in this extract from an unpublished memoir, in 1952:

'Cylinders is an experiment and, like all experiments in which Nature takes a part, it may be a long time before it can be decided truthfully, whether the experiment is successful. The hope is that the land may be developed economically and that it may provide a modest living, at the same time associating with its natural economy a beauty that will increase year by year, a beauty that must be achieved if the holding is to warrant its position in the heart of one of the most beautiful valleys of the English Lakeland. The amenities of a large estate should be secured in miniature, and an attempt is being made to show the response of shrubs and flowers to naturalization; to obtain the maximum result from the minimum of labour costs; to create a reserve for the preservation and lavish growth of wild and semi-wild plants, and a sheltered seclusion for bird life.'

'... I desired the fulfilment of three ambitions; a wood or coppice of my own; a lane of my own; a stream of my own. A dream, perhaps, but one that opened up many possibilities. I visualized a coppice, principally of Birch under whose light shade many bulbs and woodland plants would flourish: I imagined the joy of a footpath along a rippling stream: I conjured up visions of a country lane, with no fast traffic, hedged with Thorns, Wild Roses and Honeysuckle, with Palm Willow in Spring and Nuts for the picking in Autumn. It all seemed possible and it has been accomplished largely, though perhaps not quite as imagined at first, and all on a miniature scale with the result that Cylinders supplies the amenities of a large estate compressed into a pocket edition.

Along such lines we have proceeded, and I dare to say Cylinders is a lovely spot. Purists may cry ‘But how much more lovely if left to Nature alone’ and gardeners criticise ‘A rough spot with some interesting things, but what a lot has been left out’. The ordinary man, and most of us are ordinary men will, I hope, say ‘Well, there’s something about it; I like it, it’s different to other spots’.

Interest is there as you wander around; the views are there, too, and make it outstanding. The undulations of the land, its irregularity, and the fact that only small portions are visible at a time give, from the inside, an extraordinary impression of extent. It is only when viewed from some other hill that one realizes how tiny it all is, and how the preponderance of native trees that have been encouraged to grow, cause it to be absorbed into the landscape, and form part of it without offence or advertisement.'

Pierce's text reminds me of my mother, Sue Finlay, and her writings on the making of the garden at Stonypath, by trial and experiment; also of G. F. Dutton's wild garden in Perthshire, now best known through his books on marginal gardening.

In their parallel histories these three landscape gardens offer different museumological models: Stonypath, where the Great Man theory has tended to obscure the reality of the garden's creation; Dutton, whose Perthshire garden has no public status and exists unknown; and Cylinders, which has succeeded in offering itself as a landscape open to the general public, but one which, in Ian and Celia, has found folk whose presence evades museumological convention. Their generosity and words brought me closer to Schwitters than the Merzbau in the Hatton gallery. Again, the question is asked, what is art if it does not inhere in the art object; is it then a place in which we meet and share?

As soon as I saw the photograph with the beehives (above) I wrote to Ian and Celia and asked if we might bring a hive back to Cylinders. They replied that Ian had always been keen to do so, despite Celia's allergy to stings. And so I prepared this proposal, which will be installed later this Spring.

The word schwirrlauf refers to a whirring dance performed by worker bees, to initiate swarming. Kurt Schwitters referred to his sound poetry, such as the famous ursonate, as being composed in ‘primal sounds’. In the vibration of the text one can hear both the bee and the poet. 

The text that I am using is derived from a pair of one-word poems that I wrote this winter, themselves adapted from Thomas Seeley’s contemporary classic, Honeybee Democracy, which describes bee behaviour and offers it as a model for human decision making in an era of ecological catastrophe, as if the bees were demanding of us that we confront the reality that imperils their survival.

a sense of decision


taken with germanic precision


Photo: Littoral Arts, 2013

Photo: Littoral Arts, 2013

Finally, this photograph, by Guy Moreton, who took me to Cylinders, gives a sense of the old orchard as it is today; it only awaits the schwirrlauf of the bees, whether real or imagined.

The Orchard, Cylinders, Langdale, Guy Moreton, 2011

The information on Harry Pierce is from his unpublished memoir: Cylinders Farm: an Experiment (1952), edited by Celia Larner for Littoral. The photographs and archival material is reproduced courtesy of Littoral.

This project is related to an animation, inspired by Kurt Schwitters sneeze sound poem, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella for MerzBank, launching March 2013.

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