Benhamin Creswick's Portrait of Ruskin, 1887. Collection Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield

Visionary views

Alastair Smart, Issue 119/05, 01.05.2019
On the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth, Alastair Smart looks at how the Victorian art critic has influenced artists and museums over the past two centuries with his views on social issues, education, the dangers of capitalism and much more
This year marks the bicentenary of the thinker, critic and artist John Ruskin’s birth, with exhibitions, lectures and symposia dedicated to the 19th-century sage taking place across the UK.

In February, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra even performed a clarinet concerto, Ruskin’s Dreams, in his honour at Lancaster University (see box p25). And the celebrations are by no means restricted to the UK. Ruskin is the subject of a show called Victorian Visionary at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and is the key figure in another exhibition, Parabola of Pre-Raphaelitism, at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo.

“There’s an interesting contrast between the way 2019 is being marked and how the centenary of his death in 2000 was,” says Robert Hewison, the author and editor of more than a dozen books on Ruskin.

“Back then, the focus was on Ruskin the artist – with a blockbuster exhibition at Tate Britain [Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites], for example. This year, there’s definitely more focus on Ruskin as our contemporary – on his engagement with a range of social issues that are still pressing for us today.”

One such issue is the place of museums in 21st-century society. It was in the Victorian age that many of Britain’s big public museums and galleries opened – venues such as Nottingham Castle Museum, Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

They emerged out of the Victorian spirit of mass societal improvement, and Ruskin was a keen advocate. In an 1880 article titled A Museum or Picture-Gallery: Its Functions and Its Formation, he wrote that “the first function of a museum is to give an example of perfect order … to the disorderly and rude populace”. Elsewhere, he put his point in slightly plainer English, saying “a museum is, primarily, not a place of entertainment but … of education”.

He felt certain institutions were better than others. Ruskin was no fan of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) – then known as the South Kensington Museum – whose chaotic mix of artefacts he referred to as “a Cretan labyrinth of military ironmongery, spring blinds … and plaster, bathing nymphs” that no visitor could make sense of. (Ruskin said he once got lost inside and “had to be put in the charge of a policeman to get out again”.)

He spoke more positively of London’s British Museum, which he considered “the best-ordered and pleasantest institution in all England” – not to mention “the grandest concentration … of human knowledge in the world”.

“He wasn’t especially concerned with aesthetic responses to objects,” Hewison says. “He wasn’t interested in art for art’s sake or the collection under one roof of priceless masterpieces. What Ruskin wanted was for people to learn and to leave a museum with greater knowledge than that with which they arrived.

“He saw the model of a teaching museum as superior to that of a connoisseur’s museum and one could certainly trace back to him the fact that every museum in the country today has an education department. Social engagement is crucial now.”

Spiritual experience

Ruskin was a prolific social commentator and his collected writings extend to a remarkable 39 volumes (or nine million words). In 1875, he also found time to  open his own museum in the village of Walkley, outside Sheffield. This was supervised by a live-in curator, whose job it was to explain to visitors the significance of Ruskin’s eclectic collection of drawings, daguerreotypes, mosaics, minerals and Japanese cloisonné metalwork.

St George’s Museum, as it became known, was intended for the benefit of Sheffield’s metalworkers. For their convenience, it was open early in the morning, late into the evening and also on Sundays – a schedule that was unheard of in the 19th century.

For Ruskin, a visit to a museum or gallery wasn’t simply one of learning; he thought the very act of looking was an experience that bordered on the spiritual. “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something,” he said. “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”

The contents of St George’s Museum – now known as the Ruskin Collection – is on permanent display in the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield city centre.

“Ruskin believed we all have the capacity to enjoy our lives more just by looking at things,” says Louise Pullen, the curator of the Ruskin Collection. “That could be outside – in the form of flowers, birds or rivers – but also inside a museum. Close observation of an object, he felt, had the effect of providing inner peace, which is remarkably close to the 21st-century concept of mindfulness.”

It’s no coincidence that St George’s Museum was located on a hillside overlooking Sheffield, so workers had to take a picturesque walk to reach it.

Slow art

Ruskin, the son of a sherry merchant, was born and raised in south London. In 1871, he turned his back on the capital for good, buying a property overlooking Coniston Water in the Lake District, where he lived out his final three decades. A year after his death, Ruskin’s secretary and first biographer, WG Collingwood, opened a museum in his honour in Coniston village. Its present-day director, Vicky Slowe, expands on Pullen’s point on mindfulness.

“Ruskin saw the Victorian era as one marked by capitalism, greed and the exploitation of workers doing menial jobs,” Slowe says. “He believed the golden age of humanity had been in the middle ages, when labour had been carried out collaboratively and with dignity. Ruskin hoped museums would allow the people of his day to forget about work, slow down and take stock in front of pieces of art.

“In this, he clearly anticipated the slow art movement, which is becoming more popular worldwide – in the Netherlands and US above all, but in the UK, too.”
The slow art movement disdains a dash around galleries and museums in the same way we rush through our lives.

We are encouraged, instead, to turn off our phones and enjoy extended, one-to-one experiences with artworks. There’s even a designated Slow Art Day – on 6 April and now in its ninth year – during which people are asked to look at five works for 10 minutes each, then discuss them with friends over lunch. “This chimes with Ruskin’s idea of looking thoroughly at a few things in a museum rather than a lot of things superficially,” says Slowe.

To aid visitors in their quest for close study, Ruskin advocated repeat visits and was against gallery rehangs. “After a room has been once arranged, there must be no change in it,” he wrote. He also heralded the modern fashion for white-cube layouts, with his demand for “everything in its own place … nothing crowded, nothing unnecessary”.

Another area of Ruskinian influence on museums today – in Britain, at least – came from his call for an independent arts body that acquired works of art for the nation. In 1903, the National Art Collections Fund was duly founded. Now known as the Art Fund, in 2017 it gave UK organisations £5.5m for the purchase of 200 pieces.

Tristram Hunt, the director of London’s V&A, says we also must not forget how Ruskin stressed the democratic and civic role of museums, and his idea that access should be for all, no matter where you are in the country.

“He sought a nationwide network of museums beyond cities – in suburbs and small towns and villages, too, like the one he set up in Walkley,” Hunt says. “And this is certainly reflected in the 21st century in the concern that the big London institutions dominate, while local and regional museums come under tremendous, financial pressure.”

Hunt cites recent V&A schemes aimed at redressing that balance, such as DesignLab Nation, which launched in 2017. This initiative involves items from its collection being sent on loan to museums in Blackburn, Coventry, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland. Tate’s Artist Rooms initiative performs a similar task and the Art Fund’s Weston Loan Programme helps small, local authority museums borrow works from the major national collections.

It’s clear that as in so many other areas of 21st-century life, from economics to environmentalism, when it comes to museums, Ruskin’s relevance remains intact. As one of his ardent followers, Leo Tolstoy, put it in 1899, Ruskin is “one of those rare men who thinks … what everyone else will think and say in the future.”

Alastair Smart is a freelance journalist

Ruskin for all

A collection that provides a unique insight into the lives of John Ruskin and his associates has been purchased by Lancaster University. The Whitehouse Ruskin Collection, compiled by the educationalist and liberal MP John Howard Whitehouse, has been acquired through funding from a number of trusts, funds and private individuals. The collection will be on display in the Ruskin Library, Museum and Research Centre at Lancaster University, and on loan at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home at Coniston, Cumbria.

Collection highlights

  • 29 volumes of Ruskin’s diaries (1835-88), illustrated with his sketches.
  • 7,400 letters, which include correspondence with the artist JMW Turner, the scientist Charles Darwin, the historian Thomas Carlyle, the politician Lord Palmerston and the social reformer Octavia Hill.
  • 350 books from Ruskin’s library.
  • 1,500 drawings and 500 prints by Ruskin and his associates.
  • 125 daguerreotypes and hundreds of photographs of historic landscapes, art and architecture, including items from Ruskin’s private collection.

Mark Smith, the vice-chancellor at Lancaster University, says: “John Ruskin was a visionary, whose thinking is increasingly relevant in the 21st century, and our ambitious plans will make his work more widely accessible – physically and digitally – locally, nationally and internationally.”

Sandra Kemp, the director of the Ruskin Library, Museum and Research Centre, says: “The location of the Ruskin at Lancaster is critical, as it will support academics, students and the public as we begin to redefine Ruskin’s legacy for a new era. Our goal is to fuel a fresh level of engagement and collaboration with other collections and institutions to ensure Ruskin’s legacy is available to as many people as possible.”

The acquisition marks the launch of the Ruskin’s new website and digitisation project, which helps make the collection accessible, before the centre’s bicentenary show Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future opens on 25 September. It will explore the importance of Ruskin’s thinking on what it means to be human in an age of technology and cover a range of topics, including some of the most pressing challenges of our own time.

Catherine Kennedy is a freelance writer