Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud

John Ruskin, the noted Victorian Art Critic and Social and Political thinker was born 8th of February 1819. Consequently a number of exhibitions and other events are being held around the country to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. Ruskin spent his last years at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, overlooking the Old Man and the other fells, so had a strong connection with the Lake District. Abbot Hall in Kendal have a strong connection with Ruskin and have a number of his drawings and watercolours in their collection. So, it’s not surprising that in this celebratory year they’re holding an exhibition.  Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud has been produced in partnership with York Art Gallery and University of York and is showing in Kendal from 12 July to 5 October.

Ruskin championed the work of the great British artist JMW Turner, proclaiming him to be ‘the greatest of the age’ and so the exhibition is intended to be

the first in-depth examination of the relationship between both men, their work, and the impact Ruskin had in highlighting climate change.

Abbot Hall website

Our first ever visit to Abbot Hall, way back in April 2012, was to see another exhibition featuring the works of Turner – Turner and his Contemporaries: The Hickman Bacon Watercolour Collection – we’ve been back many times since.

The exhibition includes a large number of paintings and drawings by both Ruskin and Turner, together with some by their contemporaries, and occupies the whole of the first floor of the Gallery.

The curators also commissioned contemporary artist Emma Stibbon to produce some large scale works in response to Ruskin’s concerns about the environment.

In June 2018, Royal Academician Stibbon retraced the steps of Turner and Ruskin visiting the Alps. She took the route made by Ruskin in June 1854 when he produced a series of daguerreotypes (early photographs) of Alpine scenery, to see what remains of the glaciers today.

Her work shows how geography has been impacted by climate change over the last two centuries.

Abbot Hall website

Turner’s paintings are usually nothing short of breathtaking and that was certainly the case with those works – mainly watercolours of British and alpine landscapes – included in the exhibition

JMW Turner, The Passage of Mount St Gothard, Taken from the Centre of the Teufels Broch (Devil’s Bridge), 1804 © Lakeland Arts Trust

Ruskin himself wasn’t a bad draftsman and water-colourist himself (although his paintings are not in Turner’s league, there aren’t many artists who are) and the exhibition featured a large number of his architectural drawings and landscapes. During his time at Brantwood he painted many pictures of the lake and fells, including this one of the Old Man seen from his home over the lake.

ohn Ruskin, Dawn, Coniston, 1873, Watercolour over pencil, Acquired with the support of a V&A Purchase Grant and the Friends of Abbot Hall, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria

During his travels in the Alps Ruskin photographed a glacier in the Alps, near Chamonix (photography being yet another of his interests)

John Ruskin and Frederick Crawley’s ‘Chamonix, Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif’ photograph taken in June 1854

Emma Stibbon returned to the glacier and took photographs using another early photographic process, cyanotype, from the same position. Her images reveal just how far it had retreated as a result of climate change.

Stibbon is quoted in the Guardian

When we think of the Alps,” said Stibbon, “we think of iconic white peaks. By the end of this century, there probably won’t be any snow.”Advertisement

She added that Ruskin was ahead of his time in realising “the Industrial Revolution was affecting air quality and that air pollution was linked to the use of coal. He could see that glaciers move and I think he suspected that there was some [ice] recession, which would have been starting around that period in the 1850s.”

Another interesting and thought provoking exhibition at Abbot Hall.

Ruskin’s Memorial

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John Ruskin died at Brantwood from influenza on 20 January 1900 at the age of 80. He was buried five days later in Coniston churchyard rather than in Westminster Abbey, which might have been expected. But he’d asked to be laid to rest in the Lakeland village near where he spent the last years of his life.

It was easy enough to find his gave as there was a sign on the side of the church pointing the way. I was quite surprised at the simplicity of the design of the monument. I’d noticed a grand, Gothic style monument at the back of the church from the road as we passed a few days earlier and, given that Ruskin was probably the main driving force behind  the Victorian Gothic Revival, I assumed that was his. But I later discovered that monument, which was actually quite close to Ruskin’s grave, marked those of a family of local big wigs.

Ruskin’s monument, although heavily decorated with carvings, is more elegant and less vulgar, more in the Arts and Crafts tradition. It was designed by his Secretary and friend, W G Collingwood and was carved by a mason from Ulverston, H T Miles . I found this out while reading Collingwood’s “The Book of Coniston”, which I discovered while conducting some research on him after our holiday. It’s available via Project Gutenberg. In it, he writes

In Coniston Churchyard the centre of general interest is Ruskin’s grave, marked by the tall sculptured cross of gray Tilberthwaite stone, which stands under the fir trees near the wall separating the churchyard from the schoolyard. Near it are the white crosses of the Beevers, and the railed-in space is reserved for the family of Brantwood. The sculptures on the east face are intended to suggest Ruskin’s earlier writings—the lower panel his juvenile poems; above, the young artist with a hint of sunrise over Mont Blanc in the background, for “Modern Painters;” the Lion of St. Mark, for “Stones of Venice,” and the candlestick of the Tabernacle for “Seven Lamps.”

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There’s also a swastika separating the years of Ruskin’s birth and death. Quite innocent as it was carved before the symbol was appropriated by the Nazis. But I’m sure it’s use would have been deliberate and have some meaning.

On the west face below is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard—”Unto this Last,” then “Sesame and Lilies,” the Angel of Fate with club, key and nail for “Fors Clavigera,” the “Crown of Wild Olive,” and St. George, symbolizing his later work. On the south edge are the Squirrel, the Robin and the Kingfisher in a scroll of wild rose to suggest Ruskin’s favourite studies in natural history. On the north edge is a simple interlaced plait. The cross was carved by the late H. T. Miles of Ulverston from designs by W. G. Collingwood.

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Collingwood also designed a number of war memorials for towns in the region, including Hawkshead, Ulverston and St Bees. He also designed the one standing at the front of the church in Coniston.

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Collingwood, his wife and some of his children are buried nearby Ruskin’s grave. Their headstones are simple with distinctive Arts and Crafts / Art Nouveau style lettering

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The Ruskin Museum

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Due to the imminent arrival of the remnants of “Hurricane Bertha” which was sweeping north across the British Isles it was a rainy afternoon on the second full day of our holiday in the Lakes. So it seemed like a good time to pop indoors and visit the Ruskin Museum in the centre of Coniston.

The museum describes itself as

an award-winning Cabinet of Curiosities which tells the Story of Coniston.

and that’s probably a good a description as any.

It was founded as a memorial to John Ruskin, who spent the last years of his life at Brantwood on the east shore of Coniston Water and who died on 20 January 1900, by his secretary and friend, W G Collingwood. The museum opened on 31 August 1901. Many of the original exhibits were from Ruskin’s own collection of geological samples.The current building, constructed of recycled local stone and slate and insulated with wool, opened in May 1999.

It’s quite modest in size but packed with exhibits. We spent almost a couple of hours there and returned later in the week (by gift aiding the entry fee we are allowed 12 month’s access).

The Ruskin Museum, Coniston

The exhibits concentrated on the history of Coniston, it’s geology, industry and well known individuals and events.

This rug was a modern piece but reflected the craft traditions of the area and was made from the wool of Herdwick sheep, the local hardy breed.

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There were displays on other crafts and industries too, in particular lace making, copper mining and slate quarrying. I was particularly interested  in the information on the history of copper mining in the area, including the interactive displays showing the mine workings up on the surrounding mountains.

This sculpture of a wild boar by Sally Matthews was originally sited in Grizedale Forest (Grizedale means “valley of the wild boar”) and was one of the earliest of the sculptures created specifically for the forest. I recalled seeing it amongst a group of siblings in a clearing during our original visit many years ago

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A special wing was added fairly recently commemorating Donald Campbell and his attempts at the water speed record on Coniston Water in the 1960’s. He was tragically killed on 4 January 1967 when attempting to break the record Bluebird hit a wave at over 300 mph, flipped over and crashed upside down on the water and sank. I remember vividly watching the film of the crash on the TV news as a boy. Campbell’s body and his vessel laid undisturbed in the lake until 2001 when both were recovered.

Bluebird came out remarkably intact and is being rebuilt. When this is completed it will be displayed in the museum. Until then a badly damaged section of the superstructure, that can’t be used in the reconstruction, and the engine are on display along with other exhibits about the Campbells, their vehicles and vessels and attempts at land and water speed records. A fascinating exhibition.

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Campbell’s body was finally laid to rest in the cemetery on Hawkshead New Road, just around the corner from the museum.

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Someone else associated with Coniston and particularly Coniston water, is Arthur Ransome, onetime Guardian correspondent for the Guardian during the Russian Revolution, who knew Lenin and Trotsky and married the latter’s secretary. But he’s best known as the author of the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books and many of the fictional locations are based on real places around Coniston Water.

The museum’s small display about Ransome included the boat (originally named Mavis) on which his description of Amazon was based.

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There was also a comprehensive display of exhibits centring on John Ruskin, including some of his watercolours and sketches, notebooks and samples from his collection of geological samples.

A very interesting little museum and well worth a visit even if it isn’t raining.