Little Frames, Big Ideas

‘Cal’, 1947 (Armitt Museum)

I first visited the Armitt Museum in June 2015, on a pilgrimage to visit the Merz Barn site on the Cylinders Estate. I had known for some time about the small collection of Schwitters’ works the Armitt held but was surprised by how brilliantly diverse it was. The Armitt Museum has some 30 works by Schwitters, which it owns or has on loan, and its collection varies from collages and portraits to landscapes and his Merz assemblage Wood on Wood (c. 1945-47). Of its collection, my favourite is a tiny collage titled Cal (1947).
Cal measures at just 7.5 cm tall and 6 cm wide (2.95 by 2.32 in inches) and is, I think, a fascinating collage. Cal’s rough geometry is a sort of Merzing of the abstractionist/Constructivist aesthetic Schwitters had played with much earlier in his career: it is, however, not as clean or pure as those works, and its abstract qualities are betrayed by the inclusion of text. Cal most likely takes its title from one of the few visible words left behind in the fragmented sentence. “The words ‘Cal… are du…” is all that can be read, the rest has either been cut off by Schwitters or is blocked by a strip of card. They are further obscured by being placed upside down. The tiny scale of the collage is as much a marvel as those larger works he produced (like the Merzsäule on Hjertøya, Norway, or the Hannover Merzbau) and his seeming ability to turn any piece of trash or leftover fragment into art, into something beautiful, is shown in microcosm in Cal.
What is most striking, I think, about Cal though, is that in 45 cm2 Schwitters

‘Cal’ at the Armitt Museum

can perfectly encapsulate his Merz aesthetic and show how it has evolved. In this tiny collage, we get almost the full range of Schwitters’ experimentations with collage and assemblage. He uses text and typography as well as graphic design elements as he had done before; including found fragments of text, balancing them delicately with their counterpart components so as not to give any more importance to any singular composite. He builds depth by layering pieces of paper, card and material, and in doing so, plays with our sense of perspective. He leaves parts of the collage ever so slightly loose and pins visible so that we remember that there was a process and that this art work was made by his hand. Behind the process is a rhythm, a dance, a walk, a careful laying of pieces of paper, the rhythm of scissors, of eyes across the canvas. In thinking about this process, we are reminded of his own words: ‘What art is, you know as well as I do: it is nothing more than rhythm…’

Cole Collins

Cole Collins (@c_s_collins) is a fourth year PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art working on the representation of women in Kurt Schwitters’ collages. He is co-organiser of a three-day, international conference exploring the history of collage: Collage, Montage, Assemblage: Collected and Composite Forms, 1700-Present (Edinburgh). He is currently on a short-term fellowship at the Stiftung Arp e.V. Berlin and lives in Berlin.



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Beatrix Potter: A Tale of Family and Fungi (by Nadine Hanwell)

In 2012 It was confirmed that I am a related to Beatrix Potter – her grandfather’s brother (great Uncle Sidney) was my great, great grandfather.

Marasmius porreus (Beatrix Potter, 1894)

Like millions of people, I knew of Beatrix Potter’s talents as writer and illustrator of the ‘little’ books. My biggest surprise was finding out what a clever woman she was… and of her scientific brain and interest in mycology (i.e. the study of fungi/mushrooms).

My background is of the Theatre and Arts – so when I decided that an episode of my web series “The Beatrix Potter Trail” must show this very different side to her, I had a lot of research to do! How fascinating it was to read that her passion for mycology grew from running around in nature on childhood holidays in Scotland, and later in the Lake District. She had an enquiring mind and when she wasn’t drawing fungi she was researching it. (At one point with a microscope in the kitchen of her London home,) hours were also spent in the Natural History Museum, and a lot of persuasive tactics got her into Kew Gardens for more research. Finally, her paper, On Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae was presented to the Linnean Society, quite a feat in those days for a woman! We know Beatrix’s life went in another direction, but she left behind her over 350 of the most intricate and beautiful drawings and watercolours.

Boletus badius (Beatrix Potter, 1894)

How happy I am that she bequeathed this art and personal copies of her ‘little’ books to the Armitt – where she was in her lifetime a member. It’s wonderful to know that after so many years her work is still there, being lovingly looked after in her beloved Lakes.

I look forward very much to seeing the Image and Reality Exhibition when I visit the Lakes in the Spring…

I look forward very much to seeing the Image and Reality Exhibition when I visit the Lakes in the Spring…

Nadine Hawell
Nadine Hanwell is an actress and writer. Follow Nadine’s excellent web series ‘The Beatrix Potter Trail’ at . She also has a website at




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Kurt Scwitters’ Portrait of Ambleside Grocer, Charles Simpson

Molly Varty, c.1945 (Kurt Schwitters)

Molly Varty, c.1945 (Kurt Schwitters)

I love the Kurt Schwitters’ portraits in the Armitt Museum – Molly Varty is one of my favourites.

We now have a new one on loan – a portrait of Charles Simpson (the Ambleside ‘grocer and tea dealer’) painted in 1946 – and this is how it came to the Armitt. One day, chatting to a neighbour who is a member of an old Ambleside family, we were talking about the Armitt and Schwitters. Then she told me that her family have a Schwitters’ portrait of her grandfather, painted in lieu of his grocery bill. It has never been on public display because the family didn’t like it, so they put it in the loft!!! At least they didn’t burn it…..

So I enquired if perhaps the cousin who has inherited the portrait might allow the Armitt to show it in our Schwitters gallery. She seemed to think that might be possible, and promised to find out.

Charles Simpson, 1946 (Kurt Schwitters)

Charles Simpson, 1946 (Kurt Schwitters)

A few months later the portrait was brought into the Armitt, much to our delight. The frame was damaged so the Armitt asked for permission to reframe it (at our expense), and this is when a collage was discovered on the reverse. This is probably by Ernst, as Kurt was so short of money and materials he would use his son’s boards for his own works.

The portrait has now been reframed and hung in the Schwitters gallery, where my neighbour came to see it. She was deeply moved, especially as her grandfather died many years ago and the portrait is a permanent and touching reminder of a man to whom she was close.

Photo of Kurt Schwitters painting

Kurt Schwitters at work

Schwitters was well known in Ambleside, even if people didn’t quite ‘get’ his work. One friend who, as a child, lived next door to Schwitters when he and Wantee lodged in Millans Park, remembers looking over the garden wall and seeing a HUGE man. She ran back into the house to tell her mother that ‘a giant has moved in next door’…

Marj Waddecar (Armitt Friend)
The Armitt Museum houses a collection of art works created by Kurt Schwitters during his time in Ambleside.

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The 1851 Great Exhibition Souvenir Book

1. Introduction by the lithographer Digby Wyatt

1. Introduction by the lithographer Digby Wyatt

The first illustration is the
title page of one of my favourite
books in the Armitt Library. This
volume was printed in 1853 and
shows the very best in
manufacturing of the time,
not only from Great Britain
but also from
all around
the world.
2. An illuminated book cover

2. An illuminated book cover

3. Samples of ribbon from a French manufacturer

3. Samples of ribbon from a French manufacturer

Britain, at the time was enjoying the fruits of a myriad of its many new inventions, and many patents were being registered daily.

The volume itself is 13 inches high 9 inches
wide and over 3 inches thick, weighs a
great deal (too heavy for me to lift). Covered in
red morocco with gold tooling, there are illustrations of everything from ornate
fireplaces to statues of goddesses and

4. from the sublime to the ridiculous, a bureau

4. From the sublime to the ridiculous, a bureau

bizarre furniture such as the bureau seen in
illustration #4 (glad I don’t
have to clean it!).

Claire Brockbank
(Friend and Trustee of the Armitt Museum & Library)

Visitors and locals are welcome
to consult the books housed
in the Armitt Library’s
collection in

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‘Norah Slater’ – A Portrait by Kurt Schwitters, 1945


Schwitters painted many portraits during his time in Ambleside, some as commissions, some in lieu of payments for groceries etc, and I find them stunning.

This one of Mrs Slater is a favourite, since the day I got very close to it, holding it against the wall while it was being rehung after the flooding of 2010. I saw properly for the first time how he had painted her jewellery: her rings, bracelet and necklace. Tiny blobs and splashes of colour close up, they meld to form delicate jewellery when viewed from a distance. Everything sparkles and twinkles to draw the eye – which is why we wear jewellery!!

Although the paint is applied thickly and boldly, the overall effect is delicate and suffused with light. How did he do that?

Marj Waddecar (Friends of the Armitt)

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