May 03 2024

Remembering Companion Frank Field

May 3rd 2024

Former Guild Master Clive Wilmer remembers Companion Frank Field, who died on 23rd April 2024

Official_portrait_of_Frank_Field from wikipedia 2024.jpg

Remembering Frank Field MP (1942-2024)

Frank Field, who has died aged 81 after ten years of illness, was an unusual politician. In forty years as Labour MP for Birkenhead, he maintained a position of sturdy independence. Apart from about a year as Minister for Welfare Reform in the Blair administration, he was the classic backbencher, sometimes voting against his party without ever inspiring distrust. On the contrary, he was widely liked and admired for speaking in what he saw as his constituents’ interest, regardless of party line or party advantage. He brought to the modern House of Commons the sort of decency and rectitude associated with ‘Mr Attlee’s government’, as he persisted in calling the post-war administration.

I don’t know how much he knew about Ruskin, but he was aware of him as the inspiration behind much of what had led him to the Labour Party. He was certainly delighted to be associated with Ruskin. What motivated him was the sympathy and concern he felt for the poor, and his whole life was spent seeking to eradicate poverty. He felt with Ruskin that ‘luxury at present can only be enjoyed by the ignorant; the cruellest man living could not sit at his feast, unless he sat blindfold.’ 

Much of his conviction derived from religious faith. He was, like some of Ruskin’s contemporaries and allies, a Christian Socialist, and in some ways – again like Ruskin – inclined to be both radical and conservative. I first met him in 2009 when he was chairing the Trust set up by Parliament to celebrate the Quatercentenary of the King James Bible of 1611. Conversation about that great translation naturally led to the Bible in Ruskin’s life and Ruskin to the state of the economy, then reeling before the impact of the Credit Crunch. Readers of Ruskin had been newly struck by the prescience of Unto this Last and the extraordinary relevance of his analysis to the crisis in which we found ourselves. Ours was an economy undermined by the pursuit of profits which, in the longer term, are not enriching but harmful to society as a whole. This is what Ruskin means by ‘illth’, as opposed to wealth.

A few months later, as the Guild’s new Master, I set up the first of a series of Guild symposia about the big concerns of Ruskin’s work seen in relation to modern life. Unsurprisingly, our first topic was economics and our venue the Art Workers’ Guild. Frank agreed to set the tone for our discussions with a brief introductory address.

It was suggested, soon afterwards, that the Guild might publish the symposium papers as a Guild booklet, and I asked Frank if he could write up his introductory talk as a foreword to the collection. He delivered with exemplary promptness, but, alas, the plan to publish fell by the wayside and his foreword was never used. In tribute to him, therefore, we publish it here fourteen years late. 

In 2010 Frank joined the Guild and, though he never took part in our activities, he was proud to be a Companion, every year making a generous donation. Many of us were likewise proud of having him among us.

Clive Wilmer, 2024

John Ruskin and the Modern World: Can there be an Ethical Economy?


In early February I went in low spirits to the seminar John Ruskin and the Modern World and left with a renewed sense of political hope.  The reason for this transformation is to be found in the papers which were given after my introduction.

The morning’s proceedings began with my commiserating with the large seminar that we lived in an age witnessing the true success of Thatcherism.  There was now no political party of any substance who argued, let alone believed, that there was an alternative to the rampant capitalism that dominates practically the whole of the globe.

Up to Mrs T’s remarkable success we had a Labour Party whose leaderships’ minds had been crafted to some degree by Britain’s home-grown ethical socialism.  This tradition held out the possibility of a New Jerusalem one day being established in Britain’s green and pleasant land.  The roots of that ethical socialism dug deep over four centuries of radical politics and had, towards the end of that period, been much influenced by the prophecy of John Ruskin.  

At the first ever meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party almost every Member, when asked what were the determining influences on their thinking, answered ‘the works of Ruskin’.  Clement Attlee, Labour’s Prime Minister in the immediate post war period, recorded that Ruskin was the door through which he entered into the ethical socialism that so beautified his life (Frank Field, Attlee’s Great Contempories, Continuum, 2009).

I cannot help thinking that Ruskin would have had even greater influence if only he had chosen titles for his books that were intelligible to a reader like myself.  Even so, here in this publication, we again have our spirits raised by Ruskin’s work, and particularly Unto This Last.  Amongst all his works – 39 volumes when collected into a uniform edition – here was the book, according to Kenneth Clark, that ‘is one of the great prophetic books of the nineteenth century’.

Kenneth Clark continues:

'It pierces through the smoke-screen of classical economics, and reveals true human reality.  It does so in a language of an apparent simplicity, but an attentive reader will recognise the style of a great virtuoso holding his passion and eloquence under control and concealing his skill with a show of innocence.'  (Kenneth Clark, Ruskin Today, Penguin Books, 1964)

So, good reader, read on and hopefully your spirits will be raised as mine were that Saturday morning not so long ago.  And then I hope these two instructive essays will lead you to a good modern edition of Unto This Last.

Well done, and thank you, Mr Ruskin.

Frank Field, February 2010