New Companion of the Guild, Nicholas Mander, reflects on his lifelong engagement with John Ruskin
At the Guild's AGM on 19 November 2022, Companions were, as always, invited to speak about some aspect of themselves or their work, and new Companion Nicholas Mander agreed to talk about his lifelong engagement with Ruskin. We reproduce his words here with his kind permission
It is an honour to be accorded this slot in such busy proceedings, with many thanks, particularly to my old friend, fellow-traveller and henceforth fellow-Companion, Peter Burman, who encouraged me to take up the companionship of the Guild of St George, by chance just after returning from the Venice Biennale, where I had re-encountered Carpaccio’s metaphor of St George, tilting helmetless, with the force of a revelation.
In my spiritual Odyssey, Ruskin was always there, as the miglior fabbro—the better craftsman—in Dantesque phrase, apt in its reference to a poetics of workmanship in medieval and classical times; Ruskin there as the guide, the prophetic voice, with his seven lamps. His birthday on 8 February 1819 was the centenary of my mother’s birthday. My earliest memories include seeing a quotation from his Modern Painters carved over the fireplace of a family house, where Millais’ portrait of Effie Gray hung on the walls.
His aesthetics--with that of William Morris--inspired the building of a group of family houses still appreciated and visited today, and influenced their collecting habits in art—as well as their interest in geology, represented by giant specimens of erratic boulders, all identified and labelled, in my great-great-grandfather’s garden. More deeply, perhaps, my Ruskinian forebears were involved in parallel activities as philanthropists and social reformers, who, to the consternation of their neighbours and the curiosity of many visitors today, installed central heating in the servants’ bedrooms. I still treasure their copies of Ruskin’s major books.
Then, in my youth, on family holidays in Bembridge, James Dearden was one of the first to introduce Ruskin the artist and maker to me, sharing his collections in the little museum—which had been an adjunct of John Howard Whitehouse’s Ruskin-inspired school, near the windmill—like his own private sanctum, and proudly showing me the order of service he had printed for his daughter’s wedding.
And years later, I was to acquire Owlpen, a Tudor house and group of outbuildings which had been an uninhabited ruin for 80 years through the 19th century, admired in its picturesque desolation as ‘a paradise incomparable on earth’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne in a letter to William Morris in the summer of 1894. It had been carefully repaired in 1925/6 by Norman Jewson, a pupil Ernest Gimson, working in the ‘crafted Gothic’ tradition of John Dando Sedding, who preached the Ruskinian principle that “working by hand was working with joy”, and later a pupil of William Weir, who like Gimson was in his generation putting into practice the ideals of Ruskin and Morris as promulgated by the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Norman Jewson was to be a friend and mentor in his final years, handing on, as a last living link, that tradition he had learned from the great Victorian Titans, as well as on his death a few pieces of his Gimson and Sidney Barnsley Arts and Crafts furniture, his chisels, and the sketch books of his travels in the Tuscan hill towns. Some of the furniture had been commissioned by Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley, a past Master of the Guild. Henry E. Luxmore, whom Ruskin had ‘[swept] off his feet at the age of sixteen’, was well known to my grandfather as himself an Eton schoolboy. So, I believe, John James Ruskin, Ruskin’s father, was well known to one of my three times great-grandfathers, who was in his circle as a wine merchant in London and south-west Spain.
Norman Jewson opened me to the joys of conservation, the respect for the living stones of old buildings like “jewels of a crown”, the preservation of the weathered surface, the life of craftsmanship, the study of ruins, “feebly or fondly garrulous of better days”, as Ruskin describes them, which embody the deep memories of our culture. Here I met Ruskin again and again, discovering his voluminous writings in pursuing my passions for art and architectural history, for conservation and education, photography, for the Lakes and the mountains of the Alps, for “the fragments full of imperfection that raise up a stately and unaccusable whole“ in the French cathedrals, for Venice, the Serenissima itself. By chance, some of his Turner Liber Studiorum prints have filtered down to me, which the master’s hands have touched and fondled, and his eyes beheld.
As a scholar, writer and historian, as a pilgrim-traveller, teacher and curious seeker, Ruskin is always a living presence. As a reader, I find poets, polemicists and politicians I admire have been inspired by Ruskin. Plucking stars at random from a rich firmament, they might include Gerard Manley Hopkins, the sinew of whose aesthetic language was imbued with Ruskinian and Christian concepts of obedience, sacrifice, and the Divine presence in forgèd features, inscapes and pied beauty. Or Marcel Proust, who saw him like Goethe as expressing a universal lamp of truth, and who in vain searched, as I did, for the ‘vexed and puzzled’ little figurine on the ‘Porch of the Booksellers’ at Rouen Cathedral that Ruskin had illustrated. Or Ezra Pound, another devotee of Venice and Torcello, who figures securely within the aesthetic and economic tradition which Ruskin inaugurated—a tradition which might embrace also the cultural economics, the welfare economics ‘as if people mattered’, of Gandhiji, the great-souled, of E.F. Schumacher and Amartya Sen, sometime master of my Cambridge college, and his colleague Martha Nussbaum. Finally, my late friend and neighbour, the poet Charles Tomlinson, whose deathbed I attended, draws attention to ‘the sheet anchor of having read Ruskin’; the precision of feeling, the evocations of leaves, clouds and water in Modern Painters.
As an activist and advocate, I have spent hours on committees and boards inspired by Ruskin, primarily involved with the repair and conservation of historic buildings, such as the Diocesan Advisory Committee and the Woodchester Mansion Trust. I have devoted a large part of my life to preserving and reviving the life, work and buildings, the lands, woods, micro-economy and community at Owlpen, where I have lived now for nearly 50 years as a custodian, steward and caretaker, breathing in and interpreting its history, guided and steadied almost without knowing it by Ruskinian principles. Of trusteeship.
The companionship of holy, happy and humble men is of course at the heart of the Guild, and of Ruskin’s philosophy of political reform and social justice, of spirituality and sacrifice. In his words on the screen today, “There’s no wealth but life”. The Guild of St George was founded on a powerful and generous vision by Ruskin for others to co-operate and learn, and thereby to take his work and ideals forward in many practical and honest ways represented by the Companions here today of the Guild: to benefit the community, specifically working and craftspeople, to benefit future generations, to protect and care for the living landscape, buildings, and nature. This is as urgent in our day as in his.
The sentiment of Ruskin’s aphorism from Modern Painters, with its transcendent truth—or platitude—carved above the Italian Renaissance fireplace of Wightwick Manor in this Midland country, that family house of my childhood, still resonates:
To watch the corn grow and the blossom set; to draw hard breath over plough-share or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray,—these are the things that make men happy. 1
1 Modern Painters, vol. 3, Part 4. Ch. xvii
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