Kurt Schwitters' last Merzbau: The Elterwater Merz Barn

Public Funding and the Restoration of the Merz Barn

At the conclusion of the ArtBarns project Littoral set up the Kurt Schwitters in England committee at an inaugural meeting at the Courtauld Institute of Art in November 1999.  The founder members present at that meeting or delivering apologies, beside Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, were John Baldwin (Chair), Adrian Glew (Tate Archives), Jasia Reichardt (art critic),  Geoff Thomas (son of Edith Thomas), Dr Sarah Wilson (Courtauld Institute), Klaus Stadtmüller (Hanover), and Douglas Worrall (Elterwater).

In the Merz Barn: attendees at the Schwitters conference visiting the Barn, 1999. This became the first of the annual autumn visits that eventually transformed into the 'KS' Autumn Schools.

In the Merz Barn: attendees at the 1999 Schwitters conference visiting the Barn.  This became the first of the annual autumn visits that eventually transformed into the ‘KS’ Autumn Schools.


Merz Barn working party meeting, February 19th 2000. Jasia Reichardt (right) with Geoff Thomas, Celia Larner, Klaus Stadtmüller, Douglas Worrall, John Baldwin, Adrian Glew, Fred Brookes.

From then until 2006 the KSIE group, with some additions to the core members and funded through Littoral (known as Projects Environment until the end of the year 2000) ran public and in-house meetings, and annual public visits to the Merz Barn at Cylinders, which the owner Bill Pierce, grandson of old Harry Pierce who owned the site in Schwitters’ day, kindly opened for the occasion.


Public visits to Cylinders and the Merz Barn c. 2002

At this point Littoral was an Arts Council Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO), on an annual grant of £38,000,  with a research and development brief.  The Trust was at the top of its financial apogee by 2006.  In that year we received a prestigious Breakthrough Award of £60,000 from ACE, became the overall winner of the N.I. Arts & Business awards, and were also awarded a European Culture 2000 grant of E 150,000 for a three country Arts & Agriculture programme, on which we led.  In 2006 we set up and managed the international ‘Creative Rural Economy’ Conference at Lancaster University, co-funded by the Arts Council and the Lancashire LEADER+ programme (£80,000 total).  Littoral organised the Cultural Documents of FMD: Pandemics and Society Symposium in Manchester Town Hall in March of that year, alongside an Exhibition, The Cultural Documents of FMD, in the Holden Gallery at Manchester Metropolitan University.

That same year, 2006, saw the Save the Merzbarn Symposium event at Tate Britain, at which Littoral raised over £450,000 for the Merz Barn project from national and international artists, from the Northern Rock Foundation, and from the ACE capital fund.  This was used to purchase and renovate the Merz Barn and the Cylinders site over the next several years.  The Arts Council made a contribution of £5,000 from the Grants for the Arts Lottery Fund towards the costs of running the event.

The first public funding received by the Littoral Trust specifically for the Merz Barn project had been an Arts Lottery grant of £2,500 for a conference at Tate Britain,  MerzLand – Kurt Schwitters in England, July 9th and 10th, 2004.  At this point the project constituted only a very small proportion of our annual workload, which was mostly taken up with promoting opportunities for artists within the national environmental programmes being introduced by the Groundwork organisation and the new Urban Forests.  We were for a few years the Public Art advisors to Manchester International Airport, a programme which generated some funding for the trust, which was immediately ploughed back into environmental artists’ projects with children and communities.  The trust also carried out a two year consultancy and artistic programme in  Northern Ireland, ‘Routes’, promoting reconciliation and community relations, a process very close to the heart of Littoral Director Ian Hunter, who is from a dual religious background, unusual for Ireland.

The success of the Save the Merzbarn funding campaign enabled us to purchase the Cylinders site and the Merz Barn (£150,000 + lawyers’ fees and stamp duty), and to open the site up for visits and projects.


Peacock butterfly emerging from hibernation in the Shippon, March 2007

Cylinders was never anything but beautiful, but it has to be said that it was in a sorry state when it was acquired by the Trust.  For a start there were no visible pathways apart from the perpetually flooded track up to the Merz Barn, and even that was cluttered by several large fallen trees.

Walking-the-Boundary Feb 2008

Walking the boundary, Ian Hunter and John Baldwin, February 2007


Grading the landscape, March 2009

The Barn itself flooded with every rain storm both through the holes in the roof and through the back wall, where the trench dug to facilitate drainage had filled with leaves and rubble enabling water to seep through from a considerable height.

The Barn, the Shippon, Ivy Cottage, and several enormous outside rubbish dumps, were full of broken window glass, filthy old bottles and cans, wire bedsteads, broken gardening paraphernalia, bicycle wheels – anything, in short, that had become redundant but could not be burnt.

Only a skeleton was left of Harry Pierce’s old Drawing Studio after we had to remove what was left of the roof in case it fell in on somebody.  The shippon was in the best state of repair but it was still basically a cowshed with dividing stalls and an enormous feed bin made of reinforced concrete.  It took the working party over a fortnight to remove these, install battery lighting, put in a small wood burning stove, and set up display panels for our first exhibition, all in the cold of January and February, when we heard that our patron, Penny Vowles from the Northern Rock Foundation was planning to pay us a visit to meet with the Director of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Ian, Penny, John*

Ian Hunter and John Baldwin with Penny Vowles in the Shippon, 8.2.2007

Ivy Cottage had actually been invaded by the mountain of ivy encircling it.  Outside the cottage was a marvel:  a mature oak tree from which a television aerial was sprouting!  We joked that Kurt Schwitters was listening in on our progress, and were sad when, a couple of years later, the tree came down in a storm.

Site works undertaken 2007 to 2011:

There were many stipulations as to the use of the Capital Grant from ACE, so that around £50,000 expenditure was incurred on employing a full time site manager for two years from March 2008 to May 2010.

Basically the first tranche of the ACE capital funding was used to:  a) to employ a full time site manager, David Joddrell;  b) to engage architectural and landscape professional consultants (chiefly, after a couple of mis-hits, architect Andrew Shepherd, and woodlands management consultant Edward Mills) to advise on the work to be undertaken, and draw up plans and drawings to enable us to access the required planning consents; c) to employ local contractors to undertake tree felling and clearance of fallen trees, remove the accumulations of broken glass and metalware, stabilise unsafe walls, and restore and surface the access pathways, grade the slopes, and generally open up the site.  A new entrance gate was eventually installed to replace the beloved old blue one, but it was apparently made of unseasoned wood and has not lasted well.  We are not proud of its present state.

The next stage was to have the site re-connected to the grid and install electrical wiring in the Shippon and Ivy Cottage, install a small water tank (later updated), pipes and heaters for hot and cold running water, install drainage and sewerage, and subscribe to a telephone line, and broadband.

We then entered a phase of radical consolidation.   The side wall of the Merz Barn, where the beam above the picture window installed in 1965 to replace the Schwitters artwork, had rotted, was taken out and a replacement built, again by a local contractor, who also repaired the interior of the Barn, and the Cake Room.

The shippon was roughly converted  from a cowshed to a usable space;  the old dairy with its slate slab working surfaces was turned into into a kitchen with a sink, fridge, microwave, and calor gas stove.

Ivy Cottage

Old Harry Pierce built Ivy Cottage in 1947, according to the date on the lintel, at the very time Schwitters was working on the Merz Barn.  Harry lived in the cottage for many years, and after his death his assistant, the locally famous climber Jack Cook went on living there.  His Thursday evening hotpot suppers for his fellow climbers in the cottage are the subject of legend, or at least of many anecdotes.  Perhaps less well known is the fact that the climbers, still using ropes made of sisal that needed to be dried after each damp expedition, sometimes draped them over the projections of the Merz Barn artwork to dry them.

By 2006 however the cottage was serving as a storeroom for obsolete materials that ‘might come in useful one day’.  Littoral persuaded photographer John Darwell to document the resultant Schwitterian installation (see above).

During 2009 to 10 Ivy cottage was renovated, and utilities and equipment installed, but the work was only intended to be temporary.  It really needs to be rebuilt, and the trust has so far not got either planning permission or the funding for this.



Drystone walling


Replacing the old roof of the Merz Barn, March, which had originally been of corrugated asbestos, but mended in 1965 with an alien plastic material.


Reroofing the Merz Barn, April 2013.


Contractor Mike Edmondson arriving to start work on the Merz Barn drainage system. Note the newness of his jacket and the digger!


Behind the Merz Barn: work begins. November 2012.


Paving the Plaza, March 2nd 2013


Merz Barn Consultancy Programme

Artists’ Programmes in association with the Merz Barn project


Art critic Marina Vaizey (seated) with international artists, curators and academics at the opening performances of the Merzdorf Exhibition, RCA, 5.5.2009

Up until 2012 Littoral was still running a swathe of arts development projects of which the Merz Barn programme was only one.  The core development funding from ACE, which lasted throughout that period, covered, or almost covered,  salaries (not more than £18,000 per annum and latterly far less), accountancy (annual audits), Public Liability insurance, printing, advertising, postage, telephone and internet charges, public services at Cylinders, and travel to meetings and conferences, some of them international.

As an RFO we were also encouraged to submit applications to the Grants for the Arts (GfA) programme for specific projects, and some of these related to the Merz Barn project.  In all we applied for and received a total of £25,000 over 6 years, towards the costs of the 2007 and 2008 Autumn School arts programmes (£10,000), the  MERZDORF 2009 exhibition and performance programme at the Royal College of Art (£5,000), and coordination of the MERZMAN 2011 programme of exhibitions, performances, film showings, seminars, and artists’ residencies in Manchester (£10,000).   This support was crucial to the artistic development of the legacy of Kurt Schwitters in England, and the Merz Barn project, and we are very grateful to ACE for their generous and far-sighted support over the years.


Creating the ‘Merzsäule’ sculpture, ‘MERZDORF’ project, Royal College of Art, May 1-7 2009.

Whilst the sums may seem large in aggregate it is important to note that in each case they only represented a fraction of the actual costs of the programmes undertaken, and also that the money was spent directly on support for artists in the form of fees, residency and exhibition opportunities, technical support, advertising, and travel and networking costs.  All artists and contractors were and are paid according to the agreements made, often upfront, and appeals for work or support are always listened to.


In 2014 Littoral was awarded £38,700, roughly 50% of the costs of a major consultancy regarding the future of the Elterwater Merz Barn.   Sadly we have heard that the Arts Council has rejected the idea of lending support to any of the options for development recommended in the consultancy report.  We remain sanguine, will continue with our work, and hope that times become better as we go forward.


Merz Barn Project Consultancy Report 2015