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Modernism on the Road: Rural Touring in 1922

4 November 2022

Emma West, University of Birmingham

 

In June 1922 a curious sight appeared in the Lake District. Along the banks of the Derwent and the Honnister Pass came a grey Lancia van with the words ‘The Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre’ emblazoned on the side. Grey vans were uncommon then, so sightings sparked much interest. Residents in Borrowdale and Rosthwaite, The Sphere reported, were ‘agog with excitement’.[1] The van’s contents were even more surprising. Upon its arrival out climbed no fewer than ten players with their baggage, including props, costumes and, most remarkably, a ‘proscenium stage, curtains, lighting set and switch box’.[2] As the players erected their stage, a complicated system of interconnecting ladders, a crowd began to gather outside.[3] A photo survives of them waiting at Rosthwaite’s new village hall, the Borrowdale Institute, queuing up in their Sunday best.

It might not look like it, but there’s a revolution going on in this photograph. When we think about 1922 and the ‘shock of the new’, we might not think about places like Rosthwaite, but ‘the new’ was emerging here too. The only thing that isn’t new in this photo are the conifers and sloping sides of the valley. Everything else was freshly minted in 1922, from the Institute to the grey Lancia van to the audience itself. Together, they represent the confluence of two of the defining movements that emerged in the aftermath of the First World War. First, the move to democratise and decentralise the arts; second, efforts at postwar rural regeneration, which culminated in the building of hundreds of village halls. In this short essay, I want to think about what happens when we focus our attention on a photograph of a single performance. What can the ALS’s visit to Borrowdale tell us about 1922? And what can a focus on 1922 tell us about the ALS, and performance during this period more broadly?

We might take these modest buildings for granted today, but as the historian Jeremy Burchardt argues, the village hall was ‘the first secular and non-denominational public building in the post-medieval history of many villages.’[4] They were uncommon in the early 1920s, but by 1939 hundreds of halls had sprung up, around 600 of which were memorial halls dedicated to local men lost during the First World War.[5] The building of a hall like Borrowdale’s marked a new phase in the story of many villages: they provided a communal space for education, entertainment, and the arts. They enabled communities to come together, perhaps for the first time, to watch lectures, performances, and films; to take part in amateur dramatics, charity fundraisers, and social dances.[6] Halls had existed before WWI – the ALS themselves played a beautiful 1909 Arts and Crafts village hall in Caputh, Perth and Kinross in November 1922 – but these were mainly built by the lord (or lady) of the manor for local residents. As the 1920s wore on, many village halls were planned and managed by residents themselves. They were democratic spaces: Lawrence Weaver, writing in 1920, described the village hall as the ‘centre of communal life and activity—a place where all the members of the community, of whatever degree, can meet on common, and equal, ground.’[7] Such halls began to change not only what events could take place in a village, but how villages, and their residents, thought about themselves.

postcard

Postcard, The Arts League of Service Travelling Theatre and their new Lancia van in Rosthwaite, 1922. Image: Emma West.

A parallel revolution was occurring in the arts in 1922. I’ve written elsewhere about the explosion in arts organisations seeking to democratise and decentralise the arts in the years immediately following the Great War.[8] Formed in late 1918, the ALS aimed ‘To bring the Arts into Everyday Life’: key to this mission was getting the arts out of cities and into the country. Between 1919 and 1937, their travelling theatre gave thousands of performances in villages and towns across Britain and Ireland. Their aims were ambitious: they sought not just to entertain rural audiences but to mount a ‘comprehensive and effective educational programme which will bring art within the reach of all.’[9] They placed an emphasis on modern – and sometimes modernist – art, design, and performance, but not at the expense of more traditional forms. Their repertoire ranged from avant-garde ballet and experimental poetry to hits from the music hall. Village or town halls were crucial to their activities: without them, there was often nowhere to play. A 1922 Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (CUKT) report noted that there were two main barriers to rural touring: large enough spaces to perform (the ALS needed a minimum stage of 18 by 12 ft), and the costs of visiting rural venues.[10] Over the next couple of decades, the CUKT provided assistance in both areas, providing grants for village halls and subsidising touring groups like the ALS. In 1922, they awarded the League grants ‘towards the cost of tours in rural areas’ and for a reconditioned Lancia van, with its ‘specially designed van body to accommodate [their] company and baggage’, making their rural tours viable for the first time.[11] The demand in rural communities was there – The Sphere reported that in Borrowdale the ‘interior of the little hall was absolutely packed, and almost as many were left outside’ – but ticket sales in such small venues could not cover the company’s costs.[12] Funds from CUKT provided groups like the ALS a lifeline at a time when there was no formalised state sponsorship of the arts in Britain.

In just this one photograph, then, we get a glimpse of changes happening in 1922 that defined (rural) Britain throughout the interwar period. We see the Lancia van, a symbol of charitable investment and a precursor of public funding for the arts. We see the Borrowdale Institute, one of the many village halls built following the seismic losses of the First World War. And we see an audience, able now to gather in one space for art, culture, entertainment, and education. It’s with this audience that I’d like to close. We’ve heard a lot about artists, writers, and their work this centenary year. What we’ve heard less about is rural communities, and the revolutions they underwent during modernism’s annus mirabilis: hopefully this piece begins to act as a corrective.

 


Dr Emma West is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She recently completed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, Revolutionary Red Tape: How state bureaucracy shaped British modernism, which examined how public servants and official committees helped to commission, disseminate and popularise modern art, design, literature and performance. Her work has been published in Modernist Cultures, Modernism/modernity and the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies; she is currently writing her first book, Art for the People: Everyday Encounters with the Arts in Modern Britain.


Image Credit: ‘The Audience Arriving at Rosthwaite, Cumberland, in 1922’, from Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service (1939), opposite p. 192.

Sources

[1] G. D. Abraham, ‘The Play in the Mountains’, The Sphere, 23 December 1922, p. 320.

[2] Eleanor Elder, ‘Introduction’, in Entertain Yourselves: Suggestions to Amateurs. Prepared by the Combined Arts Groups, ed. by Eleanor Elder (London: National Council of Social Service, 1945), pp. 3-4.

[3] Mary Macleod Moore describes crowds of ‘silent, breathlessly interested villagers’ gathering around the ALS van in ‘Wandering Minstrels A La Mode’, The Graphic, 14 May 1921, p. 578.

[4] Jeremy Burchardt, ‘Reconstructing the Rural Community: Village Halls and the National Council of Social Service 1919 to 1939’, Rural History 10, no. 2 (1999): 193-216 (p. 213).

[5] The estimate of 600 memorial halls comes from a 2014 Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) Report. See Claire McGine, ‘National survey paints picture of village hall life’, ACRE. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20141020041657/https://acre.org.uk/news/2014-09-15-national-survey-paints-picture-of-village-hall-life [accessed 14 October 2022]. The actual figure may be higher, around 10% of the UK’s 11,000 village and community halls. See ‘Village Halls History’ on ACRE’s 100 Rural Years website. Available at https://100ruralyears.uk/stories/village-halls/history/ [accessed 14 October 2022].

[6] Michael McCluskey explores how interwar rural electrification allowed village halls to show films in his chapter ‘Change in the Village: Filming Rural Britain’, in Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention, ed. by Kristin Bluemel and Michael McCluskey (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 33-49 (p. 47).

[7] Lawrence Weaver, Village Clubs and Halls (London: Country Life, 1920), p. 3.

[8] Emma West, ‘“within the reach of all”: Bringing Art to the People in Interwar Britain’, Modernist Cultures, 15.2 (2020), 225–252.

[9] ‘Programme and Policy of the Arts League of Service’, in Bulletin of the Arts League of Service (London: Pelican Press, 1920), pp. 5–7 (p. 6).

[10] Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, ‘Appendix IV. Music and the Drama’, Ninth Annual Report (1922), pp. 45-55 (p. 48-50). Available at https://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/search-archive/?query=carnegie&collection=meta-frontend&f.By+Type%7CFUNcmr0lon86036dxlfaubrqclxl=Minutes [accessed 13 September 2022].

[11] Eleanor Elder, Travelling Players: The Story of the Arts League of Service (London: Frederick Muller, 1939), p. 64.

[12] Abraham, ‘The Play in the Mountains’, p. 320.

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