An insight into the Helen Lowenthal Collection of Historic Buildings guidebooks within the West Dean College Library
By Teresa Shergold, Librarian
Many years ago, the Library was given a collection of guidebooks relating to historic buildings and gardens. This collection has sat within our College Library collection uncatalogued and underused. Gathering dust, you might say. The collection was given to the Library by Helen Lowenthal; one of the College’s very early trustees.
It seems fitting therefore in our year of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of West Dean College to look at this collection and reflect on its insight into the College, and Helen Lowenthal as the collector and the trustee. In so doing the aim too was to catalogue the collection and make it available for use to students, staff, and researchers as a teaching, learning and research resource.
West Dean College opened its doors to students in 1971. The list of trustees in 1971 included E.F.W. James (Founder), W.E.G. Churcher, W.G.D. Cox, Major General C. Lloyd. The first Honorary Principal was Major General Lloyd, and the Agent was M. Heymann. Helen Lowenthal was appointed in the spring of 1977.
Correspondence from Anne Jacobsen from the Charity Commission states that we now have four trustees permanently in residence in England, and intimates that this was seen as a positive outcome. We also know in and around this time, Christopher Gibbs was appointed as well.
Helen Lowenthal was an educator, born in Belfast on the 21st June1904 and had a ‘lifetime of practical involvement in the crafts field where she was highly esteemed’.[i] She had worked at the V&A Museum as an Educational Advisor (1953-69), was the first Vice-President of NADFAS (National Association of Decorative Fine Arts) and most significantly was one of the Co-Founders of the Attingham National Trust Summer School (1951)[ii]. She was course director of this Summer School between 1952-1976. This began an ongoing relationship with the Attingham Trust, which to this day still visits and hosts its Summer School at West Dean College. She was awarded an OBE 1970 and died in London on the 30th March 1993.[iii]
Various letters in the West Dean College Archive indicate that Helen Lowenthal was introduced to Edward James at Leixlip Castle; the home of Hon. Desmond Guinness in either 1976 or early 1977. It seems that Edward James was an admirer of Helen Lowenthal’s work and professional knowledge, writing ‘Her appointment will also fulfil the pressure we are under form the Charity Commissioners to produce a trustee with a standing in the educational field’[iv]. He continues in the letter to say that she is a ‘dynamic woman; but also, a lady with dignity and reserve’. [v] For Helen Lowenthal, the work of West Dean was considered important. On 5th July, 1978, she writes to Noel Simon (the Executive Trustee): ‘At a time when we value of craft education is increasingly esteemed, the influence of the College is likely to grow in importance’.[vi]
We also know that Helen was instrumental in creating and promoting one of the early courses on Architectural Conservation, as can be seen from the first letter below.