Beyond a now long ago visit to Brantwood, and awareness of his involvement with the Pre-raphaelites, I find I know relatively little about John Ruskin and his work. 2019 – the bicentenary of his birth, is a great year to learn more – full as it is of ‘Ruskin’ activities.
‘John Ruskin: the Power of Seeing’ at Two Temple Place explores the influences that shaped Ruskin, his views, and his relevance in the contemporary world. With Ruskin famed as a ‘true polymath’ – artist, art critic, teacher, social reformer, environmentalist and beyond, this is an ambitious undertaking. The exhibition brings together almost 200 works including paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes and sculpture. Drawing heavily on the substantial collection of the Guild of St George (founded by Ruskin in 1871) it also includes a number of contemporary works inspired by Ruskin’s relationship with the natural world.
The Lower Gallery displays the key influences that shaped Ruskin’s views on art and social issues throughout his life. Contextualised with biographical note and timeline, thoughtful curation leads us through Ruskin’s admiration of JMW Turner (‘the Pass of St Gotthard’) to his lifelong interest in architecture, and its detail. And finally onto Venice – the city with which he had a prolonged relationship and which had a profound effect upon him. The highlight here is the ‘Big Bunny’ (‘Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco Venice’ – John Wharlton Bunny) – viewing this in the far corner of the gallery, we are literally surrounded by ‘Ruskin’s Venice’.
‘Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco Venice’ – John Wharlton Bunny
Displays in the Hall introduce us to Ruskin’s somewhat unexpected relationship with Sheffield (home to the Guild of St George) and its metalworking craftsmen, and begins to introduce contemporary work. Hanging in the stairwell – and on the first floor landing are new (2009) pieces (Lampshade and Wallpaper) by Timorous Beasties inspired by Ruskin.
Lampshade and Wallpaper – Timorous Beasties
The Library immerses us one again in Ruskin’s world with objects deliberately displayed without labels (information sheets are available from stewards), and in a formation to resemble viewing works in Walkley Museum, Sheffield. This is surprisingly effective in encouraging us to see ‘through Ruskin’s eyes’.
‘Vertical Panorama – Oak Tree’ – Hannah Downing
Finally, the Great Hall is the focus, in particular for Ruskin’s greatest passions – nature and landscape – and it is here that the inclusion of contemporary objects, works to its greatest effect in developing our understanding of the relevance of his vision today. These include Hannah Downing’s ‘Vertical Panorama Oak Tree’. A towering hand drawn work with branches in the roof and roots beneath us – this dominates the room, yet demonstrates a level of photographic detail and vision which one suspects Ruskin would have immediately understood. The inclusion of two works from Grizedale Arts – ‘Morning’ and ‘Evening’ (located near the Sunrise and Sunset stained glass windows respectively) serve to remind us not only of Ruskin’s visionary environmental predictions but also of his links with the Lake District.
‘Evening’ – Grizedale Arts (2018)
It is not difficult to argue a case for the modern relevance of Ruskin – or his place as a twenty-first century visionary. His views on the environment, social justice and the power of nature – reflect ever more urgent contemporary concerns. Indeed his relationship with drawing as a mechanism to truly engage with the world (literally the power of seeing) has a direct line to mindfulness (the subject of a Two Temple Place exhibition activity) and his tireless argument for holistic improvements in the lives of ordinary working people would be understood today as part of the wellbeing (and potentially anti-austerity) agenda.
It is also easy to be wary and critical of Ruskin. His alleged inability to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray does nothing to endear him to modern audiences. Equally, in middle-age his at best, unfortunate and misguided, apparent fixation on children has since provoked every emotion from unease to revulsion. These are the controversies for which in the years since, he has at times been best known. Though with contemporary eyes it is also easy to see the roots of at least some of this in a closeted up-bringing, that was bizarre even by the standards of the time. It is also easy to berate Ruskin for his pronouncements on the working class and how they should better live, from a place of financial and social safety – though in the Victorian era (and indeed today), he is hardly alone in this.
‘The Power of Seeing’ avoids these issues completely – and therein lies one of its strengths – in removing the conventional smokescreen of controversy that has surrounded Ruskin – the visionary nature of his work shines through, with a clarity hitherto unseen. In these complex and divided times Ruskin appears to speak from a simpler age and his voice is all the louder for it.
The Power of Seeing is a valuable contribution to what is already a year of renaissance for Ruskin.
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