Companion Ryan Berley writes about the Ruskin tour of England in May 2019.
In May of 2019, Companions Jim Spates and Nick Friend led a tour for a group of us who had expressed a keen interest in Ruskin to various places in England long-associated with the Victorian master—a fine way, we all thought, of honoring the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth. Our motley crew comprised eight Americans, two Canadians and two Englishmen, and included representatives from the Arts & Crafts Colony of Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, the Roycroft Community in Western New York, The Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles, and The Hillside Club in Berkeley, California. On our arrival at Heathrow, where we met our leaders, we were all appropriately jet-weary and thoroughly saturated with the Ruskin homework that we had been assigned by Professor Spates! What follows is a brief outline of our eight marvelous days.
May 10: After assembling at Heathrow, we took a coach to Oxford, an appropriate destination to begin our “on-site” experiences of the life and work of John Ruskin. Nick, who owns Inscape Tours, and who had made all the detailed practical arrangements for our traveling days, had arranged for us to have a beautiful introductory luncheon in the elegant Randolph Hotel, the place where Ruskin and his parents usually stayed when in Oxford. There, we were immediately given a pin embossed with a Lancashire Rose, the symbol of the “Ruskin To-Day” organization. It was the first of many treasures accumulated on the trip. Moments later, we were introduced to Robert Hewison, former Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford (Ruskin was the first such), and of the world’s leading Ruskin scholars. His talk was on the many years Ruskin was in residence at the university, first as a student, then for many years as a professor.
Following the talk came a tour of the famed Ashmolean Museum just across the street where, by Curator Colin Harrison, we were given a private viewing in the Western Manuscripts Department of many of their invaluable Ruskin drawings. Among the highlights: his Kingfisher and Crab and a large number of breathtaking architectural scenes he had drawn in Venice and France.
After this, Nick took us to see other fine pictures and decorative arts in the Ashmolean, which had been created by members of the Pre-Raphaelite School, including William Holman Hunt, Charles Alston Collins, and William Morris. The most impressive of which was the portrait of Ruskin by John Everett Millais, which was painted in Scotland in 1853, during a time when he and Ruskin’s wife, Effie, were falling in love.
May 11: The Oxford tour continued the following day, beginning with a lecture Nick on other aspects of Ruskin’s life in Oxford. This was followed by visits to particularly important Ruskin sites on campus including Christ Church, where we were especially impressed by the glorious stained glass windows by fellow Oxford alums and Ruskin enthusiasts, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. An additional highlight was the visit to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a truly beautiful building completed between 1855-60 in the creation of which Ruskin played a principal role. From the specimen marble columns upholding the glass ceiling that flooded the collections with natural light, to the virtuosic carving by the O’Shea brothers of various plant forms from life, the Museum was a site that continues to entrance both young and old a century and a half after it opened.
That afternoon, we traveled to Birmingham for a tour of its renowned Museum of Art. Prime among its holdings is one of the greatest collection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks in the world, as well as fine decorative arts by William DeMorgan and some important Ruskin Pottery. Our visit there was followed by a brief but impressive tour of Victorian Birmingham that included an impromptu visit to the city’s cathedral to see its monumental windows created by Burne-Jones and Morris between 1885-1897. A deacon pointed out the Morris & Company fabric pattern on Jesus’ crucifixion loincloth in one window, a subtle advertisement for the firm! Jim Spates gave a lecture after dinner on Ruskin’s remarkable lecture about the critical importance of reading great books, “Of Kings Treasuries,” a fitting end to a very rich day indeed.
May 12: A bright clear morning opened up for a day in the country, where, leaving Birmingham behind, we visited Uncllys Farm in Bewdley, land in the Wyre Forest which had been purchased by Ruskin in his attempt to get people back to the simple life. The farm is owned by The Guild of St. George. Our host, John Iles, guided us about the property, explaining the history of the site and the Guild’s current effort to replant a sustainable native Oak forest known as the Ruskin Woodlands. Our idyllic afternoon was spent amongst fruit trees, lamb pastures, and great oaks, in a Ruskinian cathedral of sorts. Back at the farmhouse, Linda Iles had cooked us a homemade meal of venison stew and tart apple cider that had come from the farm’s land. A warm rhubarb pudding, the kind one can only find in a rustic British farmhouse, topped off our visit.
Leaving Uncllys, we traveled to Lancaster where at The Lancaster Toll House Inn, we dined with two of Jim’s longtime Ruskin friends, Alan Davis and Ray Haslam, both of whom had been integral to the start-up of The Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.
May 13: The next morning found us, very early, at The Ruskin Library at the university where the new Curator, Sandra Kemp greeted us. She took us around the landmark building, which had been designed by Richard MacCormac who had used Venice and its canals as his inspiration for its special ship-like form. At Jim’s request, some of Ruskin’s best drawings and a sampling of some of his most important letters had been collected and set out for our examination. Some of the letters incited a lively discussion about the women in Ruskin’s life and his view of women generally.
From Lancaster, we headed north to the Lake District where we stopped at Friars Crag, Keswick, one of Ruskin’s earliest documented memories as a child. The view is storybook stunning, a World Heritage Site and worth the stop. The local stone monument dedicated to Ruskin was erected shortly after his death in 1900.
Next came a beautiful afternoon drive through the rolling hills and scenic vistas of the Lake District, a stop at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Grasmere and finally a full stop in Coniston at the Black Bull Pub for supper. It would be our lodging for the next three days.
May 14: Brisk morning light drew the group early to the tiny churchyard of St. Andrew’s Church, where Ruskin had been laid to rest in early 1900 under a glorious carved stone grave. We were met there by the Curator of the nearby Ruskin Museum, Vicky Stowe who explained that the grave marker had been designed by Ruskin’s dear friend, William Gershom Collingwood, and had been constructed, as Ruskin would have wished, by local craftspeople who specialized in stone monuments. The main panels of the striking memorial symbolize his greatest books, beginning with Modern Painters, and then on to Sesame and Lilies, Unto this Last, and Fors Clavigera.
After our visit to the grave, we walked to the nearby Ruskin Museum which is on the site of the Coniston Institute, established by Ruskin near the end of his life to promote the local arts & crafts that had become central to his philosophy of “head, heart and hand.” In this modest structure, we were delighted to find rich displays of Ruskin Linen and Lace, set alongside beautiful geological specimens that had been owned by Ruskin, as well as sketchbooks from his Venice trips and rare portraits of the man himself. The passionate Vicky Slowe made it very clear that everyone who worked at the Museum was quite proud of the great Victorian whose life and work they memorialized, not least because of the deep and genuine love he always had for the people of Coniston.
From the Museum, we walked to Coniston Water to take a 19th century steam yacht, The Gondola across for our first visit to Brantwood, Ruskin’s home for the last thirty years of his life. Dropping anchor near the original slip location where Ruskin docked, we were met by Curator Howard Hull who walked us up a path of blooming azaleas bursting with every color imaginable, a fitting entry into the paradise we were had come so far to visit.
A lovely lunch was enjoyed at the restaurant known as The Jumping Jenny. Its view of the lake was unparalleled. Next came, after a warm introduction by Howard Hull, a tour—which Howard led—of Ruskin’s house, a tour which included not only the beautiful downstairs rooms but the famous Turret Room which he had built so that he could a nearly 200 degree view of the lake and surrounding countryside. This was followed by a viewing of a special exhibition of paintings by J. M. W. Turner (whose works Ruskin had always championed as the best that had ever been put to canvas or paper) entitled “Incandescence: Turner’s Venice.” To call these works spectacular works seems like faint praise indeed! This was followed by a heartfelt dedication of The Van Akin Burd Library by Howard and Jim Spates. Professor Burd, who had long been Jim’s dear friend, was widely acknowledged at the greatest Ruskin scholar of the second half of the 20th century, and, after his death, his daughter, Joyce Hicks, made arrangements with Howard for all his Ruskin books to go to Brantwood. (The dedication of Van’s Library can be seen here: https://whyruskin.wordpress.com/?s=A+Book.)
May 15: A return to Brantwood, where the group was given the freedom to explore on their own. The weather being absolute perfection, the sky bright blue and clear, and the temperature in the 70’s, a couple of us took a hike up the hillside. First on our list was to find Mr. Ruskin’s favorite perch, a rustic seat constructed of slab stones looking, not at the grand view of the lake but rather at a little mountain waterfall amongst the trees. Sitting in his seat was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for me! Coming down from the mountainside, we partook in a special Japanese Tea Ceremony, held in honor of Ruskin’s bicentenary and led by the tea master Mr. Kimura and assistants of the Urasenke Foundation. This was followed with a lecture on “Mingei: The Japanese Folk Art Tradition” that showcased the collaborative art pottery of Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach. Shoji Sato, a Companion of the Guild who, for years, has been one of the most active of Japan’s Ruskin scholars, arranged all of these special events.
To cap off a most memorable afternoon, we were indulged by being led on a guided tour of the restored Brantwood Gardens by estate manager Dave Charles, discovering one natural wonder after another in the landscape that had been designed more than a century before by Ruskin and his cousin, Joan Severn. The tour left us reeling, intoxicated with the sites and smells of the flowers in full blossom.
May 16: One last night’s stand at the Black Bull left our group pub weary and bleary the next morning as we departed for Sheffield. We made a stop at the Church at Kirkby Lonsdale to take in the view that Turner had depicted in a famous landscape painting greatly admired by Ruskin. (Jim read the moving passage from “Of Kings’ Treasuries” to the group.) In person, it was just as picturesque as Turner experienced it, still capable of attesting to the wonderful aesthetic vision of both men.
Next we stopped in Sheffield, where Clive Wilmer, Master of The Guild of St. George, greeted us for lunch. After which we headed over to The Ruskin Collection Gallery, where we were given a guided tour of the exhibits by Curator Louise Pullen, among them a sampling of architectural fragments collected by Ruskin when abroad, some of his original drawings and some glorious geological specimens he had collected. Together, all of these brought to light the range and diversity of the man’s talents.
A particularly striking juxtaposition involved the work of a contemporary photographer who had been inspired by the Ruskin rocks that were on display. His new renderings seemed like miniature mountains.
After the Gallery, Clive and Ruth Nutter, producer of the Ruskin in Sheffield programme, took us on a walking tour of Walkley, showing us the building that was the original site of the museum Ruskin created for the use of the working peoples of that then highly industrial city. Included on our tour was a visit to the Walkley Library (funded by Andrew Carnegie, the only one in the UK), and some local graves related to the founding of the Guild and Museum in Sheffield.
We finished at Gerry’s Bakery and Coffee House, a local staple of artisanal breads founded upon Ruskinian principles. There, talking with its owner, Gerry Pert, we learned about his enlightened business practices and were treated to some of his Ruskin sourdough bread, baked from a recipe discovered by Jim Spates that had been folded among the pages of a compilation of Ruskin letters in The Duke Humphries’ Library in Oxford. Delightfully, that evening at dinner we broke Ruskin bread with Clive in the former site of the Sheffield’s Industrial Boys School.
May 17: Our Final Day. On to Manchester, and once there, specifically to the university’s John Rylands Library, being first treated to a tour of its inspired cathedral devoted to the art of the book. It had been built by the widow of John Rylands, a local industrialist who had amassed one of the finest rare book collections in the UK.
Steve Winterson, Head of Collections, guided us through the landmark building, largely a Neo-Gothic cut stone pile ornamented in spectacular wrought iron, with bronze fixtures and virtuosic carved wood and Cumbrian stone all executed in the Arts & Crafts style.
Following our walk through an ample number of passages reminiscent of medieval cloisters, we were ushered into a vaulted chamber with a dozen or so very special books that had been prepared for our viewing: first editions and manuscripts inscribed by Ruskin, along with private press volumes from the famous presses of Kelmscott, Essex House and Doves. Absolutely thrilling.
Our final cultural stop on our tour was at The Manchester Art Gallery, where a spectacular show of artists who had worked during the past 150 years reflected Ruskin’s complex legacy. Including original works by Ruskin himself, there were paintings from the 20th century all the way up to the very contemporary, including a latex casting of one of the walls of Medieval Westminster Hall. This work, entitled The Ethics of Dust (2016) by Jorge Otero-Pailos, takes its name from Ruskin’s book of the same name. The gigantic panel collected a 1000 years of dust, and history, from the stone surface of a wall which had witnessed the trials of Sir Thomas More, Charles I, Guy Fawkes, not to mention the Coronations of British monarchs.
The night appropriately ended with an impassioned lecture by Jim on Ruskin’s great lecture, “Traffic,” one of his most eloquent protestations against the industrialization, a presentation accompanied by a marvelous reading of its key passages by Nick. A lively discussion ensued!
The trip was a wonderful whirlwind, full of art, life, and Ruskin. We are indebted to Jim Spates, who passionately taught and read to us about Ruskin’s life and work throughout our journey, and equally indebted to Nick Friend, our incomparable guide, who organized and curated more cultural stops in a week than most tourists experience in a month, and did it all with the finesse of a fine artist. Perhaps the best testimony to the success of our trip is the fact that, after the tour ended, no fewer than five of those who had been on it, immediately applied to become Companions of The Guild (four others were already Companions). In short, there can be little doubt that we who shared this marvelous experience will always remember it by recalling that most appropriate of mottoes: “There is no Wealth but Life.”
A shorter version of this article appears in the 2020 edition of The Companion.