John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing

 

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’.

TTP RUSKIN00004

‘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.

TTP RUSKIN00062

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’.

TTP RUSKIN00106

‘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.

TTP RUSKIN00101

‘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.


© All text and images copyright Later Than You Think unless otherwise stated

 

Snapping the Stiletto – Essex Women: Adversity Adventure and Aspiration

In artistic terms 2018 was, rightly, dominated by work marking the centenary of the end of WWI and (partial) female suffrage. ‘Essex Women: Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration’ from the Snapping the Stiletto project looks beyond suffrage to the lives of women in the century since and has just launched a county-wide tour starting at the Epping Forest District Museum.

Snapping the Stiletto was created specifically to bust a stereotype.  Namely that of the ‘Essex Girl’  – a “derogatory term applied to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterized as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic” and – typically stiletto-wearing.  This is, I hasten to add, the OED definition and in no way mine!  It is a stereotype which had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990’s – fuelled by the fall-out from Thatcher’s Britain and the ‘Laddette’ Culture.  Indeed the stiletto stereotype may have receded sufficiently in public consciousness that one wonders at the extent to which younger visitors to the exhibition will be aware of it to start with.

Having said that, if the myth does persist, then ‘Essex Women’ certainly does ‘bust’ it.  Information and exhibits are organised around themes including ‘Women at Work’, ‘Campaigning Women’ and ‘Migrant Women’. This facilitates understanding of the diverse range of contributions to the progress made in women’s lives during the last century – most of which were made by ‘ordinary’ women, often under extraordinary circumstances.

sts launch00050 - edited

Essex Police Museum/Snapping the Stiletto

One of several opportunities to learn more about the key role many Essex women played in events of national importance begins with the contribution of Essex women to the war effort.  At the start of WWII Essex was largely agricultural and as a consequence the county’s Women’s Land Army (WLA) was one of the largest in the country – playing a key role in keeping England fed during the wartime shortages. This also included many women from East London (then part of Essex) joining the WLA, sometimes against the wishes of their families.  They endured both challenging working conditions and prejudice, with determination and perseverance – relishing the new found freedoms and independence that life in the WLA gave them.  And in doing so they paved the way for much of the changed perception of the role of women in the decades since.

Indeed their contribution in both wars was paradigm shifting to the extent that the exhibition rightly  poses the question ‘would women have made the progress they have in the last 100 years if there had been 100 years of peace’?

sts launch00023a

The ‘Women at Work’ strand also includes women in technology and engineering for well known Essex companies such as Marconi and Bentalls.  This includes Florence Attridge at Marconi – who was likely to have worked on the British Type 3 Mark radio sets used by special agents during WWII and received the MBE for her work.  There is also material on women in the Essex Police and the Essex Fire Service.  Tellingly this spans an era from the Leyton Fire Chief who publicly stated “No woman is going to come into my fire station while I am here” in the 1930s – to the current leadership of the entire Essex Fire Service by Jo Turton.

 

This also to an extent overlaps with the ‘Migrant Women’ theme which chronicles the experiences of four young women who left the West Indies between 1956 and 1971 to work as nurses in the UK. Negotiating an unfamiliar climate and culture, and strict working conditions, not to mention levels of prejudice that seem unbelievable today, the individual experiences of these four women vividly brings to life that of many of their contemporaries.

sts launch00031

West Essex Suffrage Banner

‘Campaigning Women’ links back to the suffrage movement with panels on Rosina Sky (a self supporting businesswoman prominent in the Women’s Tax Resistance League)  and Adelaide Hawken – one of the first female councillors and magistrates – known both for her contribution to family health in Southend, and also to suffrage.  It also includes a panel on Doris and Muriel Lester and their work for social justice and peace across the world from their roots in east London and Loughton.

     img_2242

For an exhibition led by a project aiming to stereotype-bust, the inclusion of a display of shoes – many of them ironically stilettos – and contextualised by Marilyn Monroe’s quote “give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world” – is more than a little incongruous. But aside from the (actually intentional) ironic twist, these objects are a serving a multi-layered purpose.  Donated by a range of well known Essex women – including Helen Mirren, Sally Gunnell and Kate Silverton – they are to be auctioned towards the end of the exhibition run – with proceeds going to a women’s refuge charity.  It also has to be said that so far, the inclusion of Ms Mirren’s shoes has given the exhibition a level of publicity it may have otherwise (sadly) struggled to achieve – at least this early in its run, though that the launch drew an attendance of 60+ bodes well.

 

Unusually this exhibition has been largely created by the work of 150+ volunteers from across the county.  Contemporary Essex women working in different roles from research, through to transcription and interpretation, often embedded in the communities in which their ancestors worked and campaigned have brought these stories to life with a resonance that only increases our understanding.  That each touring location will also be able to supplement the core material with the histories of their own, will only enhance this.

 

The stilettos (excluding those to be auctioned of course) are well and truly snapped


‘Essex Women : Adversity, Adventure and Aspiration’ is at Epping Forest District Museum until 16th March 2019, before touring various Essex locations.

 

Snapping the Stiletto is a two year county-wide project exploring how women’s lives have changed since the extension of the right to vote to women (aged 30 and over) in 1918.  In addition to the centenary of some women being given the right to vote, 2018 also marked 90 years since the Equal Franchise Act which granted women the same voting rights as men, and 50 years since the major strike by women machinists at the Ford plant at Dagenham in Essex which led to the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

 

The project is funded by a grant from the Esme Fairbairn Collections Fund, to work specifically with 11 museums and galleries across the county to use material from their existing collections to discover – and share – the hidden stories of the lives of Essex Women.

See Snapping the Stiletto for more information.

https://snappingthestiletto.com/

The author contributed interpretation to this project for the Women in Wartime theme, and proposed the exhibition title.