Kurt Schwitters' last Merzbau: The Elterwater Merz Barn


The Merz Barn project began in earnest in 2005 when a campaign was launched to buy the Cylinders estate and the Merz Barn in Elterwater, near Ambleside in the South Lakes.  The property was finally acquired at the end of 2006, with funding from the then Northern Rock Foundation, Arts Council North West, and many national and international artist donors.

23 Cylinders farm

‘Cylinders Farm’, c. 1950. Harry Pierce’s photo of the Shippon, dairy, and lean-to, with the Drawing Studio on the right, and Ivy Cottage hidden behind a bush on the left.

Cylinders was beautiful but it had been neglected for many years.  Although it is difficult to believe now there was no sign of the original paths:  they were all completely overgrown, dead trees lay everywhere and, owing to Harry Pierce’s predilection for greenhouses, the whole place was littered with broken glass and twisted metal amongst the mud and weeds.

The buildings were in an equally sorry state.  The Merz Barn was the best of them, having been cleaned out several times over the years to allow for the annual Kurt Schwitters in England visits, but the window frames were rotting, the replacement perspex roofing leaked, and water was also seeping through the back wall so that the barn was perpetually damp.  The artwork that had given the building irs meaning was gone, transported to the Hatton Museum in Newcastle, and in its place was a picture window with a rotting lintel and broken panes.

The Shippon was fitted as a cowshed, more or less as this woodcut by Gwyneth Alban shows, but with concrete partitions for the cows.  They took a lot of moving, being reinforced with steel, as did the enormous feed-bin.


The Shippon in 1945, woodcut by Gwyneth Alban Davis.

The first jobs in January and February 2007 were to fit the Shippon out as a temporary gallery, and clear the dairy-room of half a century’s pile-up of empty gin bottles.  We also set about clearing the grounds of broken glass and metal, filling a wheelie-bin each time we visited the site and taking it back to Lancashire, there being at that time no recycling depot in Ambleside.


Artist John Baldwin in the Shippon, after helping to paint the display panels. February 2007.

There were two other buildings visible in Harry Pierce’s photograph:  the Drawing Studio on the right, and Ivy Cottage on the left.  Both were unsafe, and were left alone for the time being.


Shippon and Dutch barn photographed from the rear, with the newly planted orchard in the foreground, and the soft fruit garden beyond. Dated 1952.

Early in 2007 the trustees were sent additional family photographs showing Cylinders from a variety of viewpoints, and these proved very helpful in understanding the lay-out of the original gardens.  Cylinders at the time was totally overgrown by self-seeded sycamore, willow and birch trees.  The photo above allowed us to see the importance of the apple orchard, the beginnings of our rampant box hedge, and the lost soft fruit garden.  It was clear that some of the invasive trees had to go, but still rather a wrench when the day came.  The box hedge, so neat and tiny in the old photo, so lush and tangled with other shrubs by the time we came to it, was spared, providing the finest natural cover for the birds and animals that inhabit Cylinders.  It is by no means an eye-sore when viewed in that light, and serves Harry Pierce’s original purpose of providing a shield against the winds that roar down the valley and across the site.

There was an enormous amount still to be done:  drainage, electricity, hot and cold water, telephones and wi-fi, toilet and washing facilities, wood-burning stoves to be installed, roofs and guttering to be fixed, premises to be cleaned and decorated, driveways to be excavated and metalled, car parking to be provided.


Enough was achieved during the first year or so to make it possible to allow groups of young artists to camp on site, and it was soon discovered that there was a beautiful, if slightly dilapidated, bunk barn at Chapel Stile where visitors could stay in heated accommodation with proper facilities.


Weirside, the bunk barn accommodation owned by the TOC H charity.

Restoration landmarks over the following years were the re-building of the end wall of the Merz Barn by a local craftsman in 2009, and commissioning a life-size photograph of the original artwork for installation in the barn.


Photograph of the Merz Barn installation in the barn, 2009. Photo Nick May 2009.

Ivy Cottage was partially restored in 2010, and re-roofed in 2013, when the car-parking areas were re-surfaced, and the new ponds dug.


The top pond in 2015. Photo Martin Campbell

This was also the year when a grant from the RDPE/Cumbria Fells & Dales scheme allowed us to comprehensively install drainage in the slope behind the Merz Barn, re-roof the barn itself, and construct the new ‘Merz Plaza’.

Much remains to be done.   In the Merz Barn the Cake Room wall needs to be replaced, and ideally the glass house re-built.  The Shippon roof needs to be repaired, the lean-to comprehensively re-built and modernised, and the dairy/kitchen modernised.  Jack’s Cottage is in urgent need of restoration/modernisation.

That is just the refurbishments.  What Cylinders also needs is a simple new-build unit to hold toilet facilities adequate to the needs of the site, office premises, storage space, and a workshop/gallery space.

One day there may also be an eco-built Kurt Schwitters Museum behind the Merz Barn, sunk into the hillside so that it is barely visible.  Various architects have come up with exciting plans for such a structure.  But at the moment we feel that this is for the future to decide.

The Trust is in discussion with the University of Newcastle and Tyne and Wear Museums about the restoration of the Merz Barn artwork in the Hatton Gallery.   Once this work has been completed it is proposed to make a high resolution 1:1 replica of the artwork and to install this in the Merz Barn in place of the missing work.