Mar 29 2021

Rachel Dickinson - Ruskin: A Time for Change

March 29th 2021

Written for the members newsletter of the York Consortium for Conservation and Craftsmanship, 2021

One hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1871, the Victorian art and social critic John Ruskin decided change was needed.

It was period of turmoil.  Seeing the effects of the Franco-Prussian war and the rise of nationalism in Europe; increasingly conscious of poverty in Britain; struck by continuing destruction of the environment and places of natural beauty due to industrialisation and urban expansion; conscious of loss of heritage through the neglect or destruction of buildings and of decreasing skills at traditional craftsmanship, disheartened by an education system which stressed limited learning for employment rather than for living  – Ruskin reflected on these and more negative patterns he perceived and made a public declaration: ‘For my own part, I will put up with this state of things passively, not an hour longer […] I will endure it no longer quietly; but henceforward, with any few or many who will help, do my poor best to abate this misery’.

This statement is in the first letter, dated 1st January, 1871, of Fors Clavigera, Ruskin’s public ‘Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’.  With its publication, he founded the Guild of St George as a body of individuals with shared concern about the ‘state of things’, who actively would work together to make a change, doing what they could to help protect and conserve the precious, and stop the destructive.

As the name suggests, Ruskin consciously chose the medieval Guild system as model and a specific saint as the embodiment of his new organisation.  The image of St George – the nationalist figure George of England but simultaneously the George of other places, nations and traditions who functions as a universal, unifying figure – fighting against evil as embodied in the dragon became a visual representation of the Guild and its members.  Ruskin’s own sepia copy of Carpaccio’s St George and the Dragon from the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice is the basis of the Guild’s logo.

Ruskin visualised the battle against destructive aspects of the nineteenth century through this image of St George on the side of true ‘Wealth’ fighting against the dragon of ‘Illth’ to save the princess – the representation of what is precious and at risk.  ‘Illth’ is a term Ruskin coined, and one that is very useful as we think about what is broken in our world.  It expresses the idea of being ill rather than well in economic, social and aesthetic senses.  It is the opposite of what Ruskin perceived as true ‘wealth’ as expressed in his famous declaration ‘There is no wealth but life’.  He follows that statement with ‘Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others’ (Unto this Last).  Then, he proceeds to decry ‘all political economy founded on self-interest’.

A significant aspect of Ruskin’s aspirations for the Guild – and solution to illth and the destructive pursuit of economic wealth at all cost -- is education.  While the Guild schools he dreamed of have never materialised, his proposed curricula for these schools have much to teach our current policy makers.  He stressed that practical skills in craftsmanship were a necessary part of education for all, and that local curricula should be nuanced to meet local need.  The goal of Ruskinian education is moral development, building real-life skills and learning to live in community; this is very different from the economic goal stressed by education designed to further the ends of rampant capitalism.  He opposed competition, whether in the market places of capitalism or in schools, and argued against ‘the madness of the modern cram and examination system’ (Fors letter 95).  Lockdown has shed light on many of the assumptions within our culture, including about our education system, such as the need for competitive, standardised testing.  If we were to begin to implement Ruskin’s ideas into our schools, then appreciation for beauty -- of architecture, art, and craft as well as the natural environment -- would be key lessons, and all students would learn a craft suited to local need and their own innate skills.  Young people would have the opportunity to discover the thrill of actively making, and the dominant economic system would prize conservation and craftmanship much more highly than a plutocracy.

It is striking that, 150 years later, many of the issues which inspired Ruskin to establish the Guild of St George resonate today.  Nationalism and isolationism are on the rise, as are economic uncertainty and poverty in the wake of COVID.  The environment is still under threat of pollution and climate change and areas of natural beauty are being bulldozed for new buildings, while architectural treasures are decaying due to the cost of conservation and loss of specialist skills.

Today, the Guild of St George has evolved from Ruskin’s original plan.  In its 1875 Memorandum, it was ‘constituted with the object of determining and instituting in practice the wholesome laws of agricultural life and economy and of instructing the agricultural labourer in the science art and literature of good husbandry.’  This focus is evident in Ruskin Land, the Guild’s property in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, which is once again managed for conservation and education.  The rural, agricultural focus expanded in Ruskin’s.  The Guild owns a teaching collection Ruskin put together for the education and improvement of Sheffield’s working class, with an aim to have such collections (St George’s Museums) around the country.  Just as important an asset are the Companions, the members of the organisation who work together to implement Ruskin’s ideas, fighting illth as best they can in their local environment and in connection with each other.

More about the Consortium here.