Jun 09 2021

An overview of Rachel Dickinson's talk for the Art Worker's Guild, June 2021

June 9th 2021

The Guild of St George: Ruskin’s vision of a society rooted in Art & Craft

An account of the lecture, and the ensuing discussion, given online by Rachel Dickinson to the Art Workers’ Guild on 3 June 2021

In introducing the Master of the Guild of St George, the Master of the Art Workers’ Guild suggested that an accurate way of understanding the four Ruskin and Morris inspired organisations of the 1870s and 1880s (Guild of St George, SPAB, Art Workers’ Guild, Society of Designer-Craftsmen) was as ‘Makers and Shakers’. Through being more in contact with one another we could hope to inspire wider audiences and make still greater impact on society.

In her introductory words, Rachel Dickinson said that there were many ways of coming to an understanding of Ruskin and his thought, and that this (a society rooted in Art & Craft) would be her way. She intended to throw light not only on the Guild’s roots and what it is now but about what might come next.

Rachel’s first two images had special significance for Ruskin and herself: Ruskin’s black-and-white 1872 realisation of Carpaccio’s St George & the Dragon signifying a battle of sorts, a good man fighting against evil; and W. G. Collingwood’s 1882 drawing of a chainmail pattern on a pillar at St Lazare, Avallon. The first of these became the logo of the Guild of St George whose declared charitable purpose is to work through the arts and crafts and to ‘promote the advancement of education and training in the field of rural economy’. Ruskin had worked out what he wanted the Guild to be and to do in a series of Letters to the Workmen of Great Britain begun in January 1871 called Fors Clavigera which is the Guild’s source text. Ruskin meant by ‘workmen’ all those who were prepared to work with him in promoting an alternative more compassionate and mutually supportive society, a community of men and women building something solid and skilful together through dialogue.

Rachel summarised the assets of the Guild: the Ruskin Collection, given by Ruskin for the working people of Sheffield and today curated and made accessible in partnership with Museums Sheffield; the Arts & Crafts hamlet of Westmill, Hertfordshire; Sheepscombe, a precious unspoilt wild-flower meadow in Gloucestershire; and Ruskin Land, close to Bewdley, Worcestershire. The greatest assets are the Guild’s members (‘Companions’) and its projects. There are over 300 Companions over ten countries. There is a Board of seven to ten Directors/Trustees; and two part-time staff members.

The Ruskin Collection is rich and extensive and includes books and manuscripts, drawings and paintings, architectural casts (a particular favourite of Rachel’s), textiles, carvings, minerals, &c. The Guild aims to share the collection as widely as possible and to use it to inspire artists and craftspeople of today. The challenge is: where do we go to from here in evolving and extending our use of the Collection? The involvement of Museums Sheffield is the descendant of the Ruskin’s vision of a museum in all cities and towns of any consequence beginning with the St George’s Museum at Totley, Sheffield, in 1875.

Ruskin Land was initiated by a gift of seven acres in Wyre Forest by George Baker, Quaker, Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Ruskin’s successor as master of the Guild. Ruskin visited only once, in 1877. There are now two farms (St George’s Farm, 1908, and the more traditional farmhouse of Uncllys Farm). At Uncllys Farm a barn has been turned into a two-storey studio with facilities for all kinds of educational and training events which have been very successful and have endless potential for further development. There is a faithful adherence to Ruskin’s wish that Ruskin Land should be ‘beautiful, peaceful, fruitful’, in balance with one another.

At Westmill, Mary Greg bequeathed eleven buildings of character in 1949. There is also her astonishing collection of everyday artefacts held in Sheffield. St George’s Field at Sheepscombe was given by Margaret Knight in 1936 and is one of the richest wildflower meadows in Britain.

Our energies as people and our projects are all geared to ‘making lives better’. There was a conscious building of projects and events so that we could suitably mark Ruskin’s 200th birthday in 2019. The response to the several partnered exhibitions was terrific, especially to the fine exhibition of Ruskin’s own work and of work inspired or commissioned by him, at Two Temple Place, London, which received over 40,000 visitors, many astonished at the beauty of Ruskin’s own work.

Famously, Ruskin is characterised as a polymath, and a list of the activities and fields written about, promoted and urged on by Ruskin is prodigious (Architecture, Art, Botany, Clothing, Craft, Economics, Education, Environmentalism, Ethical consumerism, Geology, Geography, Music, Ornithology, Politics, Theology, Walking (including alpine), Zoology, …) They can be categorised under the headings of art, craft, sport and writing. Rachel’s doctoral thesis was on the theme of Terms of Engagement: John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Joan Severn, and covered the 3,000 letters to Joan from Ruskin in the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. She quoted from a favourite letter of hers of 4 March 1866:

 My dearest Joanna,

You have been very kind and good during all this past year. and have helped me, especially, in more ways than I can well thank you for.  If I knew what would make you happy, or if my wishes could bring it you, I might wish you many things; but my judgement is often false – my wishes always vain. I will only trust that your own amiable disposition and the love you win from all who know you, may continue to render life very bright to you: and if in future years, you are able to do as much for others as you have done in this, you will feel yourself to have gained the years, which others selfish people round you will only complain that they have lost, – and you will be richer, with the best riches, for every hour that passes over your head.

Ever believe me, Joanna dear,

Your affectionate Cousin     J Ruskin

The following quotation captures most accurately with all the power of well-chosen words what Ruskin wished to convey, his key guiding principle:

‘THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. 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 [….] has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others’.

(Unto This Last, 1860-2, Library Edition of Ruskin’s Works 17, p.105)

Rachel also drew attention to Ruskin’s 1859 lecture on ‘Unity of Art’ to the Manchester School of Art, precursor of the Manchester Metropolitan University where she teaches. ‘It is not so much what the present cities of England are, as what we wish to make them, that we have to consider’. (Library Edition of Ruskin’s Works 16, p.335).

Other important texts to which Rachel drew attention included his concept of ‘illth’, the opposite of ‘wealth’ in the sense of all things well. (Unto This Last, Library Edition 18, pp 89 and 105, and Munera Pulveris, Library Edition 17, p. 168). In a letter to Joan Agnew (Severn) of 3 June 1869, Ruskin referred to ‘our ideal society’.

Ruskin’s central idea for the Guild of St George was inspired by Carpaccio’s cycle of paintings of The Legend of St Ursula: ‘to form a society – no matter how small at first, which shall vow itself to simple life’. Rachel showed the painting by John Wharlton Bunney (Guild of St George Collection, 1877) which depicts St Ursula’s Banners.

Another key passage is that in the first letter of Fors Clavigera, January 1871, beginning ‘I have listened to many ingenious persons, who say that we are better off now than ever we were before. I do not know how well off we were before; but I know positively that many very deserving persons of my acquaintance have great difficulty in living under these improved circumstances: also that my desk is full of begging letters, eloquently written either by distressed or dishonest people; and that we cannot be called, as a nation, well off, while so many of us are either living in honest or in villainous beggary. For my own part, I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer’. (Library Edition 27, pp. 1-3). Ruskin planned to promote a co-operative society which would enable museums and schools to be founded and encourage craft and self-sufficiency.

In 1874 Ruskin gave £1,000, about £125,000 in today’s money, to St George’s Fund.

In discerning the future path of the Guild, Rachel mentioned some of the formative steps which had led to a deeper understanding of the Guild’s mission and work. These included:

  • the Campaign for Drawing in 2000, the centenary of Ruskin’s death, which has developed into an independent charity, The Big Draw;
  • the Mastership of her predecessor Clive Wilmer and his 2019 Ruskin Lecture on What the Guild of St George does;
  • the Guild’s ground-breaking programmes of Ruskin in Sheffield and Ruskin in Wyre which have successfully promoted the idea of ‘creativity in the everyday’.

Rachel’s election as the first woman Master itself signals the breaking of new ground, and as a Canadian she has a markedly different perspective from her predecessors. She is clear that the Guild must understand itself as a body that is open to change.

2021 is the Guild’s 150th Anniversary Year, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic the Guild is taking the opportunity to look inwards and build a sense of community as an organisation of dedicated and enthusiastic members. Working through consultation, a new Manifesto will emerge; there have been five Companion Anniversary Grants, the fruits of which will be shared in 2022; there have been regular events, sharing knowledge and insights by Zoom.

In the near future there will be progressive modernisation, in keeping with the Guild’s principles; a process to achieve greater diversity; planning the next big projects; and for all that is proposed, collaboration with other organisations will be key.

Rachel’s talk was followed by a long and enthusiastic session of discussion and questions started off by Kate Mason, Director of The Big Draw, who is also the new Chair of the Society of Designer-Craftsmen. Peter Burman categorised the lecture as ‘a cracker’ (Scots for ‘outstanding’) and emphasised the importance of diversity and collaboration. Past-Master Prue Cooper led those who felt that they had learned a good deal from the lecture which they had dearly wanted to know.

A number of Guildsmen and their guests reflected on the fact that, 60 years ago, the reputations and thinking of Morris as well as Ruskin had been in the doldrums. Today, many people are inspired by their writings or their actions. Rachel drew attention to the way in which authors such as Andrew Hill (a Deputy Editor of the Financial Times) and Suzanne Fagence Cooper had looked at Ruskin with fresh eyes and drawn inspiration from him which they had brilliantly conveyed in their writings and lectures. Ruskin’s own voice has been strongly heard through the exhibitions around the 200th anniversary year which have highlighted his striking accomplishments as an artist with a phenomenal capacity for ‘seeing’, deep and focussed seeing being one of his great legacies to us.

Simon Seligman had been asking himself what contemporary figure of ours commands comparable public attention in the conference room and suggested it might be Greta Thunberg: like Ruskin she is fearless at telling clearly what she sees, and insists on the paramount importance of acknowledging and understanding the evidence. Simon told the story behind the six Ruskin commemorative stamps recently released by the Isle of Man Post Office; and a wall in Sheffield with the text ‘THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE’ and the logo of Extinction Rebellion.

The Master of the Art Workers’ Guild, Alan Powers, instanced the remarkable way in which Grayson Perry has ‘got out there’ and speaks with insight in ways which many people feel they can understand.

Chila Burman added her thanks for the evening, emphasising that there was still a long way to go for our organisations and for the whole country in achieving full diversity in the arts.

PETER BURMAN, 9 June 2021