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  • Dartington Hall and the Quest for 'Life in its Completeness', 1925–45
  • Anna Neima (bio)

Dartington Hall was a well-financed, internationally-minded, social and cultural experiment set up on an estate in South Devon in 1925 by an American heiress, Dorothy Elmhirst (née Whitney), and her second husband, Leonard, son of a Yorkshire squire-parson.1 Its fortunes between 1925 and 1945 exemplify an influential moment of British – and international – social reform that was triggered by the First World War. Reformers interpreted the war as a sign that the self-oriented and materialist nineteenth-century doctrine of laissez-faire liberalism had drawn mankind 'into a blind alley'.2 For many of them, the alternative to treating individuals as atomized units in the economic market was to pursue an ideal of unity, integration or wholeness. Dartington Hall was one of numerous attempts to turn this ideal into a new way of life. Utopian enterprises of this kind tend to be treated by historians as anomalous, idiosyncratic or marginal to mainstream society.3 Yet as the sociologist Karl Mannheim, who lectured at Dartington in 1941, argued, utopias are always in dialectical tension with the existing order; for all their 'incongruity' with the status quo, they remain deeply embedded within a 'historically specific social life'.4

The Elmhirsts intended Dartington to demonstrate 'life in its completeness', or life as an 'ideal spiral of all feeding in'.5 Instead of being treated as mere economic units, participants in the enterprise were to achieve full selfrealization by living in a democratically-run community that incorporated art, education and spirituality as well as industry and agriculture. The founders drew inspiration from the myriad other holistically-minded schemes underway in the early twentieth century, both in Britain and further afield: idealist philosophers arguing that society was not an 'atomistic' aggregate, but a single, purposive organism embodied in a 'general will';6 progressive educators who emphasized the needs of the whole child, rather than dividing learning up into subjects;7 artists championing the unification of the process of creation, or of art with life;8 social reformers searching for new forms of community living – be it Rolf Gardiner's Springhead estate in Dorset or the Quaker-run Brynmawr Experiment in Wales.9 The Elmhirsts' huge wealth, wide-ranging connections and omnivorous idealism meant that their endeavour became a unique nexus in this [End Page 111] diverse realm of unity-seeking, drawing in artists from the Bauhaus, American spiritual seekers and Danish agriculturists, among others.

The trajectory of the estate speaks in a second way to the wider evolution of reformist thinking in the period. In the first decade of their enterprise, Dorothy and Leonard envisaged society as being perfected from the bottom up, through autonomous local democratic groups, 'schemes outside all the orthodox tracks', of which Dartington would be one.10 Their estate was at its most detached from its social context at this point. As their experiment progressed, however, they began to question the effectiveness of this pluralistic framework. By the mid 1930s, less motivated than they had been by opposition to the dominant liberal mindset and to the power of the central state, and increasingly nervous of the dystopias being constructed in Russia, Germany and Italy, the Elmhirsts began thinking of social reform as better led from the centre and by an elite. They no longer envisaged Dartington as a model of local democracy; instead, they hoped to make it an outpost of research and development for the central state, an outpost which need not itself be democratically run. The Elmhirsts' ideological trajectory – disillusionment with mainstream politics in the 1920s, followed by helping with state-building in the run-up to and during the Second World War – was one shared by many British reformers, and one which helped shape postwar social democracy.11

This article offers a study of Dartington as an intellectually-linked constellation of experiments in education, the arts, agriculture and social organization which has rarely been looked at in the round – a utopian project that can only be understood in a wider context of holistic idealism.12 The first section focuses on the influences that shaped the community; the second gives...


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