John Ruskin (1819-1900) – his prophetic vision, ideas and principles and their relevance to our contemporary world - A lecture given on Sunday 9 February 2020 in St Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, Malta, by Dr Peter Burman MBE FSA, Arts & Heritage Consultant, a Director of Ruskin’s Guild of St George founded in 1871
‘THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and 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.’ [Library Edition 17.105]
- This passage comes from Unto This Last, four essays advocating an ethical and socially responsive economy, first published in 1860. It was the book by which Ruskin himself most wished to be remembered.
John Ruskin’s personal background
John Ruskin was born in London on 8 February 1819. His family background was London-Scottish, and he spoke with a mild Scottish accent. His parents were Evangelical Christians. As the music of his prose often shows, he was steeped from an early age in the 1611 ‘King James Bible’ and in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Moreover, he often quotes from Scripture. His parents’ aspiration for him, on realising what a deeply intelligent and spiritual son they had, was that he might become an Anglican Bishop, or even Archbishop. Like many of us, his spiritual life had its ups and downs, its twists and turns, but one thing was absolutely certain: he was always guided by the ‘love principle’ and never by the ‘money principle’. His commitment to the ‘love principle’ guided his generosity, which expressed itself in many ways: for example, he bought cottages and houses in Marylebone, so that his friend and disciple, Octavia Hill, could evolve an exemplary way of managing them to house members of the urban poor; his gift of St George’s Museum, Walkley, to the people of Sheffield; his gift of thousands of items of art and artefacts to the Guild of St George.
Ruskin first came to prominence in the intellectual life of mid-19th century Britain as an art critic. In 1843, when only 24 and describing himself anonymously as ‘A Graduate of Oxford’, Ruskin published the first of what were to become five volumes of Modern Painters extending over 17 years to 1860. This first volume contained his defence of the landscape painting of that time and especially the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner. The five volumes collectively amount to a richly idiosyncratic cornucopia of a treatise in which artistic themes are interwoven with scientific analysis, literature, political history, and emotional appeal.
In sum, he is often described as a polymath, a man with many sides to his nature and achievements. For example, he was a superb artist and a consummate recorder of both the natural and cultural worlds. There was hardly a field of knowledge or a natural phenomenon which did not interest him and which he did not attempt to record – the structure of rocks, plants and trees, cloud formations, the movement of water, and so on.
His radical thinking embraced the roles of women, advocating total equality with men. He advocated free and appropriate education for all. He had prophetic ideas about conditions of employment, the nature of meaningful work, the need for good social housing, community health and well-being. The Slow Food Movement, the welfare state, the National Health Service and the Arts & Crafts Movement all owe much to Ruskin’s thinking and advocacy.
It is well-known that the Mahatma Gandhi translated Ruskin’s book of four powerful essays advocating a socially responsive and moral economy, known to us as Unto This Last, into his native language. Less well known is the fact that he gave it the title Sarvodaya, which means ‘The welfare of all’. That phrase is the crux of Ruskin’s prophetic vision: the welfare of all.
As a child he showed a talent for drawing, which he combined with acute observation of the world around him. During the past two years, numerous exhibitions about him and his work have made many more people aware of what a gifted artist he was in his own right. He himself denied being an ‘artist, regarding his particular gifts as being directed towards recording what he saw as accurately as possible rather than interpreting it – whether it was a peacock’s feather, a mountain glacier, or anything in between.
Two exhibitions in particular have show-cased his extraordinary capacity as a recording artist. One was the exhibition in the Doge’s private apartments in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice in the Spring and Summer of 2018. The other was an exhibition at Two Temple Place, London, from 26 January to 22 April 2019, entitled John Ruskin – the Power of Seeing. Almost 40,000 visitors attended the London exhibition, and many more than that visited a variant of that exhibition at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. The Millennium Gallery is also the permanent home of the collection of paintings, artefacts and specimens of the natural world that Ruskin gave to the Guild of St George.
I always feel goose pimples when I read the following passage from the fourth volume of Modern Painters:
‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion - all in one.’
The context is which he makes this remark is a discussion of the characteristic humility and lack of affectation of Sir Walter Scott and J. M. W. Turner, a writer and a painter respectively for whom Ruskin had the greatest admiration.
This emphasis on deeply and truly seeing is one of the greatest gifts he gave his contemporaries, or that he has given us. It is not simply a gift to artists, but an insight for all humanity. Ruskin argues that we need to see clearly in order to understand the world around us, and to lead happier and more fulfilled lives. By focusing our attention on an object in a sustained way we exercise and improve our powers of observation: and we thereby improve our powers of understanding.
One of the several organisations that Ruskin founded or encouraged is the Ruskin Drawing School at Oxford, now incorporated into the University. His handbook on The Elements of Drawing has never been out of print.
Ruskin himself gave lessons in drawing and painting to a favoured few, including the social reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912), who acted as one of his artist copyists in her spare time. In the 2019 ‘Power of Seeing’ exhibition at Two Temple Place there was the 1859 copy by Octavia Hill of a portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredano by Bellini, astonishingly faithful to the original. Octavia Hill managed, as did Ruskin himself, to combine great talent as an artist with a deep and abiding concern for the urban poor and for the terrible conditions in which they all too often lived. In 1865, having by then inherited his father’s wealth, Ruskin acquired for £750 the leases of three cottages of six rooms each in Paradise Place, Marylebone. In 1866 he acquired the freehold of five more houses for Octavia Hill to manage in Freshwater Place, Marylebone. Her system of regular weekly inspection and rent collection was immensely successful and was firmly based on managing not only the buildings but the tenants. She insisted that ‘you cannot deal with the people and their houses separately.’
Gradually, her work and her intuition led her to realise that one of the deepest needs of her tenants was for fresh air and ready access to areas of countryside where they could walk, play, picnic, and re-charge their batteries.
As a step towards this, in 1876, Octavia’s sister Miranda founded the Kyrle Society under the slogan ‘Bring beauty home to the poor’. This initiative was also supported by Ruskin. The idea was to bring art, books, music and open spaces into the lives of the urban poor. It was a precursor of the ideas which led to the foundation of ‘The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. This full title of what we all know as ‘The National Trust’ neatly links cultural and natural heritage as being equally valuable and needing equally to be valued and cherished. This was Ruskin’s passionate belief, and was precisely what he was attempting to do in Sheffield at much the same time through the Guild of St George.
Encouraged by Ruskin, Octavia Hill was one of the three founders of The National Trust. The other two were Sir Robert Hunter (1844-1913), a lawyer and doughty fighter for public access to footpaths and open spaces, and The Revd Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920), whose parish of Crosthwaite was close to Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, on the eastern shore of Lake Coniston. All three – Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley - could be described as being among Ruskin’s keenest disciples and friends.
During 2020 The National Trust is celebrating its 125th anniversary, albeit against the background of the Covid-19 international epidemic. It is an organisation which constantly renews its vision and re-formulates its objectives, while remaining true to the intentions of the founding trio. It is run by a blend of professionals and of volunteers unique in its scale and reach. It has an astonishingly extensive portfolio within England, Wales and Northern Ireland of rural and semi-rural estates, country houses and castles, gardens and designed landscapes, countless miles of coastline, hills and mountains, forests, collections of every kind of artefacts and works of art, archives and libraries. It also has some enormously important urban properties including Sutton House, Hackney, which continues Ruskin’s educational and social work. At the founding meeting of the National Trust the Duke of Westminster, who had provided the use of his drawing room for the occasion, was so impressed by the vision and energy which was being articulated that he is recorded as saying: ‘Upon my word, Miss Hill, I believe that this could be the beginning of something big.’ Little could he have imagined just how big that would be. By now it has something over 7 million members, whose subscriptions still provide the core costs for the organisation.
Without Ruskin’s vision, influence and support it is very likely that the Trust would not have been so successful in its very early days or had such a clear sense of purpose, let alone been ‘the beginning of something big’.
I served on three of The National Trust’s regional committees for a total of twenty-two years and saw at first hand the effective and imaginative ways in which properties are managed and maintained, interpreted and shared, with members and other visitors. I have also had the opportunity and privilege of being Director of Conservation & Property Services at The National Trust for Scotland, 2002-2007. During that time, we organised and held a conference for the many National Trusts worldwide – representatives came from 60 countries. The central ‘idea’ of National Trusts – wherever they are - is that they should provide ready access to countryside, coastal paths and mountains, gardens and landscapes, historic buildings and works of art ‘for ever, for everyone’, which is surely one of the noblest and most inclusive formulations imaginable. ‘For ever, for everyone’. How many countless people, including ourselves, have benefited from this broad and brave vision? Where did this vision originally come from? There is no doubt that, in essence, it came from John Ruskin.
Ruskin’s engagement with architecture
Ruskin was an early propagandist for vernacular buildings and, associated with them, localness of materials and skills, and of craftsmanship which could be either humble and refined. His earliest writing on architecture was The Poetry of Architecture, published in serial form in John Claudius Loudon’s Architecture Magazine in 1836-7, in other words when Ruskin was still a teenager. This study of cottages, villas and farmhouses is focused on an argument, deriving from the Lakeland poet William Wordsworth, that buildings should be sympathetic to their environments, and should use local materials. In The Eagle’s Nest Ruskin wrote that we should ‘cherish, above all things, local associations and hereditary skill.’ If only we could gain the acceptance of this wise advice by developers and their architects! Belatedly, our society has begun to see the folly and environmental damage done by transporting building materials – or, for that matter, food – from one corner of the globe to another. What would Ruskin have thought of importing food from the USA which could perfectly well be imported from Europe, or grown at home?
After he had settled into the Lake District, at Brantwood, Ruskin noticed that some crafts were dying out. He gave his active support to the local revival of hand-thrown pottery, which became known as ‘Ruskin Pottery’, and to the revival of local traditions of linen and lace-making.
The nearest Ruskin came to being involved with architecture in a practical sense was in relation to the design and execution of the University of Oxford’s Natural History Museum designed by architects Thomas Deane and Benjamin Woodward, constructed 1855-1860. This involvement gave him the opportunity to encourage architectural carving on the principal facade of the building, carried out by the Irish O’Shea brothers. The interior makes lavish use of both naturalistic carving and of figure sculpture by many different talented sculptors including Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, and the only who was a sculptor rather than a painter. The choice of many different British stones for the columns and carvings makes it a veritable treasure house of visible geology.
The expression ‘Ruskinian Gothic’ instantly brings up an image of pointed windows influenced by illustrations in The Stones of Venice, of decorative use of different coloured bricks and stones, and of lavish architectural sculpture, as used on countless buildings in Britain of the 1860s and 1870s: houses, of course, but also Towns Halls, churches, libraries, and industrial buildings such as mills. I have to confess that, when I was teaching architectural conservation at the University of York, 1990-2002, I bought a house of 1864 partly because it had deeply carved Gothic capitals on its bay windows, and I re-named it ‘Ruskin Lodge’.
However, one of Ruskin’s most enduring architectural roles concerns what today we generally call ‘heritage’ and which in Ruskin’s lifetime those most involved in studying or conserving it would often refer to as ‘old work’.
An organisation which in its early days was very much part of the ‘restoration debate’, and which owes its existence directly to Ruskin’s influence and intervention, is the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded in 1877. It is also known by its initials, SPAB, and in its early years especially it was often referred to as the ‘anti-scrape’ society.
Ruskin had for some time felt that there was need for a campaigning organisation which would come to the defence of threatened buildings. He had seen all too many examples, in France and Italy as well as Britain, of venerable and beautiful buildings being needlessly demolished when they could have been repaired and brought back into beneficial use. Equally he had seen all too many examples where ruthless restoration, with excessive replacement of the worn parts of a building, had been carried out when gentle repair would have been less destructive of its authentic character. He offered the Society of Antiquaries of London a sum of money to start an initiative of that kind, but nothing ever came of it.
Two other key disciples of Ruskin took on the challenge of establishing the SPAB. They were William Morris (1834-1896) and the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915). Morris was an artist, a poet, a master-craftsman who revived the art of weaving at the handloom, a propagandist and a passionate Socialist committed to the welfare of all human beings. At Oxford, as an undergraduate, he had devoured Ruskin’s Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice. He is also remembered, world-wide, as the founder – with Webb as one of the original partners – of a firm, Morris & Company, able to produce furniture, textiles, stained glass and other decorative works for churches and for homes.
The SPAB is now 143 years old and shows no signs of losing its vitality and keen sense of purpose. I served as a Guardian or Trustee for many years, and as Chair of SPAB Scotland. One of the initiatives of the present Director, Matthew Slocombe, has been the publication of a pamphlet entitled The SPAB Approach – meaning the SPAB approach to the repair of old buildings - which explains very clearly the nature of the Society’s distinctive philosophy and good practice in maintenance and repairs of older buildings.
Under Matthew’s leadership a new twist has been introduced to the central message – i.e. conserve, not restore – of the SPAB. It is neatly and succinctly put in a paragraph which appears in a recent document setting out the Society’s intention to appoint a new Chairperson: ‘Today, the SPAB encourages excellence in new design to enrich and complement the built historic environment. We train new generations of architectural professionals and building craftspeople to shape this landscape with sensitivity and skill, and we play a statutory role as adviser to local planning authorities. In our casework we campaign actively to protect old buildings at risk. We take a positive, practical approach to building conservation.’
This distinctive approach of the SPAB derives directly from Ruskin and in particular from The Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849. In 1877 Morris and Webb asked Ruskin if they could quote the substance and some of the exact words and phrases of one of the Seven Lamps, the ‘Lamp of Memory’. He responded with affirmation and encouragement in a short letter which I have held in my hand.
I share with you two or three magnificent passages in the ‘Lamp of Memory’ chapter from The Seven Lamps of Arhitecture which have echoed down the years since Ruskin wrote them. Moreover, Ruskin’s thinking in this chapter is recognised internationally as being one of the foundation stones of modern conservation.
The first of these passages contains the memorable phrase ‘the golden stain of time’ and is about how historic places gain in beauty and significance through their longevity, and through their accumulative associations with humankind.
‘For indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea … it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess, of language and of life.’
This is a very typical example of Ruskin’s prose, piling one image upon another until the reader or listener has almost forgotten what it is all about. And then we get this sudden stab of brilliance, as brilliant as an unexpected highlight in a painting by Ruskin’s hero, Turner, which illuminates all the gloomy shadows around it. So it is with this brilliant phrase ‘the golden stain of time’ which we instantly register as referring to our cathedrals, our abbeys, ruined or otherwise, our castles and country houses, our urban squares and terraces, our vernacular cottages and farmhouses. All these are, or have been, irradiated by the ‘golden stain of time’.
It has been one of the great privileges of my life to live and work almost entirely in such buildings - from my childhood home in a 16th, 17th and 19th century Warwickshire farmhouse to our present home built at the expense of King James VI of Scotland as the official residence of his Court Falconer.
Ruskin’s articulation in the ‘Lamp of Memory’ of what has since become known as ‘age value’ has remained a key concept in understanding what makes historic buildings of all climes and cultures authentic and significant. Their age is a potent factor, though it is not the only factor.
My second example from ‘The Lamp of Memory’ concerns the preservation of architecture and in particular the evergreen debate between ‘restore’ and ‘repair’. In a passage which directly inspired sentences in the SPAB Manifesto, Ruskin says that ‘restoration’ means ‘the most total destruction which a building can suffer’: ‘Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible [Ruskin’s italics], as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’
He then makes the point that a living craftsman cannot be expected to summon up the spirit of a long-dead craftsman: for a long time, I believed him uncritically but lately I have come to see that it is possible to do such a thing in sufficiently favourable circumstances. I was convinced by seeing a delicately carved piece of work by David Esterly (1944-2019), in the manner of Grinling Gibbons, at Hampton Court Palace, replacing a work that had been destroyed by the terrible fire of 1986. From David Esterly I learned that it took him not hours or weeks but months and years to study and get truly into the spirit of Grinling Gibbons. But he did it!
David Esterly died less than a year ago and I often wish that he and Ruskin had been able to have a conversation together. David Esterley’s book The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making (2012) is without question the most inspirational and informative book about craftsmanship I have ever read. Just to give the flavour of it here is a couple of sentences about carving: ‘The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them. To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.’ The book is a profound meditation on the strange physical and mental immersion that enables the transmission of vision from brain to hand, and from tool to wood.
What took David Esterly a whole year to produce at Hampton Court Palace is new work, of course, not old work: but provided we readily admit that it is new, fresh and beautiful - and not at all pretending to be the original - then I don’t think that there has been a falsification of history. It is essential in such cases somehow to provide sufficient explanation or interpretation so that the visitor is not misled. The single new figure on the West Front of Wells Cathedral, by Simon Verity, is another example that convinces us; so too is the work of sculptor Rory Young in creating afresh, together with the Canon Theologian of the cathedral Chapter, the great West Doorway of York Minster. These are surely successful interventions - combining conservation and creativity - which I would defend even against Ruskin himself. Since he so much admired authentic craftsmanship, I rather think he was making a stand against the superficial, hard and unsympathetic copying or re-creation which was common in 19th century restorations of medieval cathedrals, churches or secular buildings.
However, soon after this passage, there is one of those brilliant expressions which Ruskin uses in order to engage our emotions and to illuminate his argument: ‘There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost; some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought. There can be none in the brute hardness of the new carving.’
Whenever I see a carving which is almost worn away but still doing its job I immediately think of Ruskin’s phrase ‘There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been … some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought.’ I think to myself, ‘Yes, that’s true’, but it doesn’t rule out the emotional empathy and sheer beauty of the work created by David Esterly, Simon Verity, Rory Young or the brilliantly gifted carvers of York Minster Stoneyard. During the past two or three decades, incidentally, the cathedral workshops of England have become places of outstanding craftsmanship and creativity: and places where high-level training is carried out in the specialist skills and knowledge needed for sensitive conservation. This long-term on-site employment of specialist craftspeople gives them an in-depth knowledge, understanding and empathy which no temporary contractor could possibly bring to the same work.
My third example from ‘The Lamp of Memory’ has been, like the previous two, deeply inspiring to heritage practitioners ever since its publication in 1849 and concerns our response to the processes of aging – processes which relate to us as human beings as well as to our built heritage. Essentially this passage concerns looking after our buildings (we could also add looking after land, as the wise management of land is another of Ruskin’s great insights). The passage begins: ‘Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them.’ Ruskin then gives very basic and good advice which is timeless in its truthfulness: ‘A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves and sticks swept in time out of a water-course, will save both roof and walls from ruin.’ But then comes another of those brilliant patches of prose which lift the whole argument onto another emotional level:
‘Watch an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation. Count its stones as you would jewels of a crown; set watches about it as if at the gates of a besieged city; bind it together with iron where it loosens; stay it with timber where it declines; do not care about the unsightliness of the aid: better a crutch than a lost limb; and do this tenderly, and reverently, and continually, and many a generation will still be born and pass away beneath its shadow. Its evil day may come at last; but let it come declaredly and openly, and let no dishonouring or false substitute deprive it of the funeral offices of memory.’
The Stones of Venice
A highly original initiative of Ruskin’s was his painstakingly thorough survey of the city of Venice by means of careful measurements, photographs and drawings, the majority of which survive. The results of the survey were published in three handsome volumes illustrated by Ruskin himself as The Stones of Venice in 1851 and 1853. So far as I have been able to discover, this was the first time anyone had surveyed and recorded and then written about an entire city, treating it as a living organism, with a history and a present.
Why did he expend so much time and energy in physically recording and then analysing and explaining Venice? In part it was because he was appalled by the unnecessary destruction of historic buildings, both by demolition and through insensitive restoration, everywhere he went in Europe, but perhaps especially in Venice because the city was – and happily still is – such a total work of art where the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts. On 30 August 1846 Ruskin wrote as follows to his painter friend George Richmond (1809-96):
‘Italy is quite killing now for everyone who cares about it; the destruction I saw last year gave me a good idea of the extent of it, but none of its pace. The rate at which Venice is going is about that of a lump of sugar in hot tea.’
Ruskin’s engagement with the natural world including geology, the weather, nature herself in all her rich diversity and vulnerability and the negative consequences of industrialisation
At a tender age Ruskin became fascinated by the science of geology. For much of his life he collected geological specimens including those which he gave to the Ruskin Collection of the Guild of St George where they continue to be, as intended, a valuable teaching tool.
Ruskin was deeply interested in the weather and during all his time at Brantwood, 1871-1900, he rarely omitted to write down the weather which he had been observing during the day. He became more and more convinced of the damage which was being done to the environment by rapid industrialisation. The climax of these observations was a pair of lectures he gave in Oxford in February 1884 entitled The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. In the first lecture he gives us a glimpse into his weather journal as recorded at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire on 4 July 1875: ‘Half-past eight, morning; the first bright morning for the last fortnight. At half-past five it was entirely clear, and entirely calm, and the Wharfe glittering in sacred light, and even the thin-stemmed field-flowers quiet as stars … But, an hour ago, the leaves at my window first shook slightly. They are now trembling continuously, as those of all the trees, under a gradually rising wind, of which the tremulous action scarcely permits the direction to be defined, - but which falls and returns in fits of varying force, like those which precede a thunder-storm – never wholly ceasing: the direction of its upper current is shown by a few ragged white clouds, moving fast from the north, which rose, at the time of the first leaf-shaking, behind the edge of the moors in the east.’ It is a remarkable example of Ruskin’s alchemical ability to transmute close observation into prose poetry.
He concludes the second lecture by observing: ‘I will tell you this much: that had the weather when I was writing young been such as it is now, no book such as Modern Painters ever would or could have been written; for every argument, and every sentiment in that book, was founded on the personal experience of the beauty and blessing of nature, all spring and summer long; and on the then demonstrable fact that over a great portion of the world’s surface the air and the earth were fitted to the education of the spirit of man as closely as a schoolboy’s primer is to his labour, and as gloriously as a lover’s mistress is to his eyes. That harmony is now broken, and broken the world round …’
Ruskin would most certainly not have approved of the conspiracy of silence which surrounds the extent to which modern building and transport engineering construction contributes to carbon emissions. Building construction is responsible for 11% of total global emissions, including 8% associated with the manufacture of Portland cement. We urgently need to go back to using traditional earth and lime-based mortars. Equally urgently, we need to foster a renaissance in the use of traditional building materials and skills. Green shoots are visible already in many contexts through the Building Limes Forum, the Ruskin-inspired SPAB, and through the crafts skills and training opportunities offered by the Works Yards of many of the ancient cathedrals. But we need much, much more.
To save our planet we urgently need to concentrate as much as possible on using existing brownfield sites or to re-purpose existing buildings such as the thousands of redundant mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire; we should build less; we should build to last whenever appropriate – another Ruskinian theme; and we should honour the need to maintain older buildings – indeed all buildings - making use of our newly re-acquired knowledge to use traditional materials and skills.
With equal urgency we need to maintain and make maximum use of our existing housing stock. Take the countless streets of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian terrace houses in British cities, or the apartment blocks of virtually all European countries of the same period. If well maintained, they will last for ever. Yet in many countries and cities it has been the received wisdom to tear them down and replace them: tragically this continues to happen, often encouraged by Government policies.
I told a friend of mine, living in the historic Scottish Borders town of Moffat, that I was preparing this talk, and she replied: ‘I have long ago argued that my house here, sitting and breathing happily for 270 years, built with stone, clay, wood, ‘divot and reed’ thatch from the Common opposite, is a much ‘greener’ house than a so-called ‘eco-house’ built with high-energy cement and using elements imported from all over the world. But who is listening? Building regulations, mortgage companies and Government compliance all devalue or undervalue anything that is not, in their terms, ‘up to date’ and able to be readily compliant with performance statistics.’
Ruskin foresaw the terrible impact on humankind and on Mother Earth of the unbridled industrial development which, in so many countries, is still regarded as the only option, reckless of its unintended consequences, locally and globally.
If anything approaching carbon-neutral construction is to be achieved, there is an urgent need for the building industry to re-learn some of the lessons of pre-industrial building and to reduce its dependency on cement, concrete and steel. What do we suppose will be one of the unacknowledged consequences of the proposed HS2 high-speed rail link? The manufacture of prodigious quantities of cement, concrete and steel, with all the pollution and energy consumption that such production entails. Moreover, the manufacturing processes will put money into the pockets of a few just as it will simultaneously damage or destroy settled communities, ancient woodlands, landscape and precious habitats. We are currently as far away from the messages of Unto This Last as it is possible to be.
As Ruskin told his contemporaries, climate change affects every aspect of our lives from breathing to dying. We need urgently to address the consequences of the industrial revolution and our abject dependence for more than two centuries on fossil fuels.
I first visited Ruskin’s home in the Lake District, Brantwood, in 1984. It is now astonishingly intact, well able to be appreciated as Ruskin’s home, even though there was a sadly inept sale of contents in the 1920s when Ruskin’s reputation was at its nadir. But gradually many of the pieces of furniture, artefacts, books and papers which belonged to Ruskin have found their way back. Most recently Howard Hull, the Director, was able to repatriate Ruskin’s private collection of geological specimens in a pair of magnificent mahogany cabinets. I was on the committee of the Friends of Brantwood for some years and found every visit inspiring and special. I once gave a talk standing in the Drawing Room with my hand placed on Ruskin’s own piano. Ruskin was musical, and both played the piano and composed. On another occasion, when I was invited to give two lectures as part of a study day, I slept upstairs for two nights in the room where Ruskin had died. It is the only historic house I know that is open every day except Christmas Day. There is a lively programme of works by contemporary artists and craftspeople, musical evenings, poetry readings, conferences and seminars: and the opportunity to experience the same views of Lake Coniston and of the mountain, the Old Man of Coniston, which Ruskin so much loved and closely observed. The garden landscape, with its several layers from Ruskin’s time onwards, is not only a delight to explore, but exemplifies Ruskin’s philosophy of sound stewardship. The advice he gave to the Guild of St George at Bewdley was already practised by him at Brantwood: ‘to create some piece of English ground which would be beautiful, peaceful, and fruitful.’
Ruskin yesterday, today and looking ahead to the future
The Guild of St George
The charity for arts, crafts and the rural economy founded by Ruskin in 1871 currently has around 400 members, who are called Companions, and a Board of Directors elected by the members which meets regularly to fulfil the charitable objects of the organisation, to ensure that our vision fulfils Ruskin’s objectives, and to exercise sound stewardship of all the resources which Ruskin gave us and which have been given to us subsequently. We have an annual Companions’ Day, often in Sheffield, which is always enormously enjoyable; and as Directors we meet in places which are relevant to our priorities, so in January this year we met at Ruskin Land, near Bewdley, in the Forest of Wyre, for a night and two days.
Ruskin had a particular love for the paintings by Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. In the past decade the international contacts and membership of the Guild have developed tremendously and we have a special friendship with the Scuola di San Rocco which we are seeking to develop and deepen.
Collaboration with Museums Sheffield
The Guild of St George has deep roots in Sheffield and owns the Ruskin Collection, now housed in its fifth home, the Millennium Gallery, in the heart of Sheffield. The presentation of the collection in one of the galleries changes twice a year. The Guild contributes to the costs including a substantial contribution to the salary of a curator, Louise Pullen, who is a member of the Museums Sheffield Team but with special responsibility for the Ruskin collections which number some 17,000 objects. In the second decade of the 21st century we have collaborated on three major exhibitions plus a special exhibition for Ruskin’s bicentenary year 2019 which evolved out of the London exhibition John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing. A joint Guild of St George-Museums Sheffield working group is currently working on developing the relationship in new and exciting ways.
The Guild’s ‘Ruskin in Sheffield’ programme of activities
Launched in 2014, motivated by a wish to become more closely engaged with the people of Sheffield in the spirit of Ruskin’s interest in the city, and his enthusiasm for the traditional metal-working skills of its people, the Guild established a ‘Ruskin in Sheffield’ programme under the inspired leadership of Ruth Nutter who is herself a member of the Sheffield community. The programme has been enormously successful and is now moving into a new phase of consolidation and evaluation of ‘the body of work and practice of Ruskin in Sheffield to optimise its legacy for the Guild and wider Ruskinian, arts, heritage, social change and museum communities.’ Ruth has a new role in realising this new phase and the Guild hopes that similar programmes can gradually be established in other parts of the British Isles, or even beyond. Self-evidently, such programmes require immense commitment and considerable funding. They will most likely therefore be happening rather gradually, but I cherish the hope that we may one day be able to have a ‘Ruskin in Scotland’ programme.
Meersbrook Hall, Park and Walled Garden
From 1890 to c.1950 the Ruskin Collection was splendidly housed at Meersbrook Hall, a remarkable survival of a modest 19th century country house about 1 mile from the City Centre. It sits in a park of 40 acres. There is a well-treed designed landscape and a magnificent walled garden. The ‘Ruskin in Sheffield’ programme was perfectly timed to be a significant player in the revival of the fortunes of the house involving many layers of the local community including three local schools, the University of Sheffield, the Sloan Medical Centre, and the community-orientated Heeley Trust which is now a partner of the Guild. The Guild’s small staff of two has an office in the Hall and there is the intention to create a long-term ‘Ruskin Room’ which will interpret the collections. There is a great opportunity to continue to work with other partners, including the City of Sheffield, Museums Sheffield and The National Trust.
The Guild’s ‘Ruskin in Wyre’ programme, Wyre referring to the Forest of Wyre and the area around Bewdley, Worcestershire
From the existing work at Ruskin Land (see below) it has been possible to engage with local people and with other landowners within the Forest of Wyre and to have a relationship with them through the Wyre Community Land Trust.
The two farms and forestry which Ruskin gave to the Guild have amply fulfilled their brief to create some piece of English ground which would become, as a result of the Guild’s stewardship, ‘beautiful, peaceful and fruitful’. The resident stewards, John and Linda Isles, have transformed every aspect of the place and engaged with the local community over a wide area. Ruskin was adamant that the rural life, living in small communities, was a wholesome and necessary antidote to the domination of cities in our societies. Buildings and equipment have been repaired or renewed, while extensive tree-planting is currently taking place. Moreover, the Guild is setting an excellent example of the exemplary management of land which is greatly needed locally and nationally as an inspiration and encouragement to others. A relationship with the University of Sheffield is evolving.
The Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster
Professor Sandra Kemp, the present Director of the Ruskin Library, Museum and Research Centre, housed in the magnificent Ruskin Library designed by Richard MacCormac, a masterpiece of post-Modern architecture, has been determined and skilful to bring about change, in particular raising the funding to acquire and bring to the University of Lancaster the outstanding private collections of John Whitehouse which had been mostly acquired from Brantwood in the 1920s and 1930s and housed at Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight. ‘The Museum will explore how Ruskin’s ideas and work can apply to the pressing cultural, social and environmental issues of the 21st century and beyond.’ There will be greatly improved access to the collections, including extensive online access. Generous support came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The Guild has given the utmost support to all her endeavours including an unprecedented grant (for us) of £50k.
A few thoughts on follow-up to this lecture
The first thing I suggest is to follow up through the various websites, e.g. for Brantwood, Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield including the Millennium Gallery and the Ruskin Library, Museum and Research Centre at the University of Lancaster. A second possibility is to visit those places connected with John Ruskin, not only Brantwood – house, garden and estate - but also the Ruskin Museum in Coniston village; the Millennium Gallery; and the Ruskin Library; all of which hold regular exhibitions. Ruskin’s burial place in the village churchyard of Coniston is a special place of pilgrimage and remembering. The third possibility would be to consider attending a Companions’ Day and thereafter applying to be a Companion. We, the existing Companions and Directors of the Guild, would welcome your interest and support.
There have been some wonderful recent additions to the literature about Ruskin. I warmly recommend the book by Andrew Hill called Ruskinland – how John Ruskin shapes our world, Pallas Athene, 2019.
Above all, please read some Ruskin! I try to read a chapter every day.
Looking back over all these interrelated themes, I am all too conscious of what I have left unsaid. But Ruskin’s writings occupy 38 substantial volumes in the Library Edition and it would be difficult in one short lecture to say everything that might be of interest in applying his principles to the anxieties, challenges and hoped-for opportunities of the present day. I have concentrated on Ruskin’s architectural interests partly because they loom large in his writings (e.g. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice) and partly because they loomed large in his personal passions, including his constant journeyings up until the last 11 years of his life. They also, I confess, loom large in my own passions and interests. But he himself wish to be remembered for one of his shortest books, Unto This Last, which is of real relevance to our present society in giving us his personal take on economics which turns much of our conventional wisdom upside down: Ruskin says, for example, that we should ‘Establish, instead of a National Debt, a National Store.’
There is an attractive new paperback edition of Unto This Last with an introduction by Andrew Hill, Associate Editor and City Editor of the Financial Times as well as being the author of Ruskinland. In other words, if anyone should be capable of understanding economics it is surely him! He suggests five actions which modern leaders of companies could take if they tried to embrace Ruskin’s ideas in Unto This Last: 1. ‘Provide for the nation’ – this is virtually the only explicit duty that Ruskin lays out for the ‘merchant’. 2. Collaborate – modern business depends on constructive collaboration. 3. Be honest. 4. Lead. 5. Create wealth. One of Ruskin’s best-known and most important insights – we would probably call it a slogan – is the assertion that ‘there is no wealth but life’. But modern executives should also reflect on his coinage of the term ‘illth’ – wealth created to no useful purpose or that causes ‘various devastation and trouble’. Google Inc, the search-engine company, trades on the basis of a philosophy that ‘you can make money without doing evil’. It is a rare example of a company that has set out to avoid creating ‘illth’.
We have an overriding need to embrace sound stewardship in the Ruskinian sense: stewardship of money, certainly; stewardship of all our other resources too; stewardship above all of Mother Earth, whom we have so disastrously allowed to be damaged and traduced.
I will end, therefore, with two short quotations from Ruskin which I believe more than any other of his ideas we need to embrace, the first being about responsible stewardship:
‘God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; we have no right, by any thing that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath …’
Finally, about joy:
‘All literature, art, and science are in vain, and worse, if they do not enable you to be glad.’
Peter Burman, February-March 2020 [email@example.com]