At the Guild's 2020 AGM on 21 November, on behalf of the Board and the entire Companionship, Clive Wilmer thanked Chris Harris for his years of service on the Guild Board. Clive said:
Change comes in fits and starts. Though I knew that Chris was planning to stand down as Director of Finance, it still hit me hard when I heard that he had done so. For me – forgive the cliché – this is end of an era.
Chris’s involvement in the Guild came unexpectedly and couldn’t have been more timely. Just over ten years ago a letter from him turned up out of the blue. I had become Master the previous year. I was wanting to expand the Guild and develop its assets. But despite a good but modest endowment and some valuable properties, it seemed we couldn’t afford very much. The revival of the Guild in the 1980s had been made possible by the sale of a valuable picture – a wise decision. as it has proved, but at the time a painful one. I didn’t want to sell anything else and, in any case, the aim was to use our assets to better effect, not to dispose of them.
Then out of the blue came Chris’s letter. He introduced himself as the son of Tony Harris, Master of the Guild at the time of that first revival. It was Tony who had brought the Collection back from Reading to Sheffield and oversaw the wonderful Anglo-Italian exhibition on Ruskin and Tuscany. So Chris’s parentage was itself a recommendation.
Chris explained that he was a charity accountant, that he shared the Guild’s values and wondered if he could be of help to us. I invited him to lunch and quickly realised that he was exactly what I was looking for. He met with the approval of fellow Directors and at the AGM in 2010 he both signed on as a Companion and took on the role of Treasurer, a post new to the Guild.
I won’t pretend we agreed about everything. I imagine Chris would be the first to say that he and I come to the Guild by different routes. But we share a key Ruskinian principle. We believe in what Ruskin calls ‘wise consumption’. We think of money as valuable only in so far as it leads to those things that are valuable for life. You need money to get good things, though you must also be sure you don’t waste it or allow it to trickle away. But it is there to be spent on whatever will bring you fuller and better life.
So every time a proposal for a new project came up at our Board meetings, I breathed deeply, but though Chris was nothing if not critical, he would do his best to find the money if he thought the project positive. I think of his coolness when it came to really hefty commitments, such as donating funds to Lancaster University for their purchase of the Whitehouse Collection or getting our properties in the Wyre on to the National Grid. When it became clear that we couldn’t raise the sponsorship needed for the two Bicentenary exhibitions, it was Chris who proposed that we pay the lion’s share ourselves. It felt at first like a gamble, but Chris has been proved triumphantly right. Nothing the Guild has done has been more productive for Ruskin’s reputation and the Guild’s work – and therefore for our ability to help make this country a better place.
I should add that Chris was by no means only a money man. He contributed across the board to the Guild’s creative process.
When Chris told me he was leaving, I told him how sorry I was and how grateful for all his hard work, advice and encouragement. ‘We were a good team’ was his characteristic and generous response. I hope and believe that we were. But in any case, the Guild owes him a massive debt of gratitude. He’ll be very hard to replace.