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’.

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‘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.

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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’.

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‘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.

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‘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

 

Rhythm and Reaction

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Marking the centenary of the arrival of Jazz in Britain, Rhythm and Reaction offers an eclectic overview of the effect on British society, of this most controversial of musical genres. In particular social and cultural effects and the extent to which the very existence and evolution of Jazz, was driven in no small part by the technological developments of the day.

 

Jazz is a visual music and lends itself to display, yet this remains a largely neglected area for UK galleries. And the few exhibitions with Jazz as a theme have tended to focus on a single aspect.1 The remit of the 2018 exhibition at Two Temple Place is considerably wider and consequently much more ambitious.

 

The exhibition space is intuitively curated with the ground floor room devoted to pre- and early-jazz, and the first floor concentrating on the music of British and American dance bands in the 1920s and 30s. The chronological context is supplemented by a number of sub-themes including; art and design, dance, race, technology, and transport. If I have a criticism it is that each sub ‘theme’ felt like a tantalising taster and some could have been an exhibition in their own right.

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Brightest London and Home by Underground 1924, © TfL
The expansion of public transport in the interwar years (in particular the London underground) enabled wider access to some of Britain’s existing clubs and newly built dancehalls, in which dance itself was radically changed by the arrival of Jazz – colourfully illustrated here through costume, sculpture and iconic London Transport marketing posters of the era. Improvements in recording technology and radio also increased the accessibility of Jazz beyond those able to enjoy live music, while artists from the conventional to the surreal embraced the genre.

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Dancing, M Hartley 1929

Many of these ‘developments’ are represented in the objects on display (sourced from a wide range of lenders including major galleries, the National Jazz Archive and private collections, some of which may be displayed for the first time). These include early examples of; the gramophone, 78rpm records, the radio – and the modern drum ‘kit’ and saxophone, both of which were essential for the Jazz ‘sound’.

Console Drum Kit c.1938                              Tenor sax c 1938

Jazz has long been associated with subversion. And in this context Rhythm and Reaction reflects on its role in developing a sense of freedom for some (especially the young) while simultaneously threatening the establishment, at a time when existing social norms had inevitably been disrupted by war. It also acknowledges the extent to which the development of Jazz in Britain was influenced by attitudes to race, and for a period of time, – the implicit operation of dual culture – within which Jazz was ‘sanitised’ into dance music for (among others) the BBC, while African American Jazz thrived in ‘underground’ clubs.

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Detail from the Breakdown, J B Souter, 1926
Rhythm and Reaction is likely to have a wide appeal encompassing as it does social and cultural history, the development of popular music and leisure, and art and design. However I am often struck by the extent to which Jazz is one of the most contested of musical genres. What is loved by one enthusiast can be detested by another, and vice-versa, and debates on what even constitutes ‘Jazz’ can be some of the fiercest amongst fans. I suspect purists may wonder (as I overheard a murmur) ‘but what have ceramics to do with Jazz?’ (or similar).

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Detail from Royal Winton Jazz Coffee set. (Private collection)

But this is to miss the point. The strength of Rhythm and Reaction is precisely in this breadth of approach. That the influence of Jazz was so pervasive – as well as producing an iconography that gave its name to an entire ‘age’ – only serves to underline its potential for both freedom and subversion. Rhythm and Reaction captures this well, and I suspect Two Temple Place has a major hit on its hands.
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About Two Temple Place
For those new to it, Two Temple Place will be a delight. Completed in 1895 (by John Loughborough Pearson) as the estate office for William Waldorf Astor, the building and in particular it’s interior, is a stunning exhibit in its own right. Highlights include substantial wood panelling, carving and stained glass windows.
Visiting Rhythm and Reaction provides a rare opportunity to enjoy this building which closed to the public for most of the year). Since 2011 Two Temple Place has been London’s first exhibition space dedicated to raising national awareness of collections around the UK in collaboration with regional partners, and has treated us to everything from William Morris to Sussex Modernism.

© text and images Later Than You Think (unless otherwise specified)

1 A recent example being the Fashion and Textile Museum’s 2016-17 exhibition ‘The 1920’s Jazz Age – Fashion and Photographs’.


Further Information
Dates: now – until 22nd April 2018

Times: daily 10-4.30 EXCEPT:

• Closed on Tuesdays
• opens at 11am on Sundays
• closes at 9pm on Wednesdays

Travel: Temple tube station (Circle and District lines) less than 5 minutes walk

Two Temple Place
https://twotempleplace.org/exhibitions/rhythm-and-reaction/