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Thursday, 10 August 2017

John Ruskin: Brantwood and the Ruskin Cross

Today's place of pilgrimage was to Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, and to the Ruskin Cross at St Andrew's Coniston.

Brantwood offers a fascinating insight into the world of John Ruskin and the last 28 years of his life spent at Coniston. Filled with many fine paintings, beautiful furniture and Ruskin’s personal treasures, the house retains the character of its famous resident. Displays and activities in the house, gardens and estate reflect the wealth of cultural associations with Ruskin’s legacy – from the Pre Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement to the founding of the National Trust and the Welfare State.
"Ruskin was one of the most important art critics and social thinkers of the nineteenth century. He championed the art of J. M. W. Turner and exercised a profound influence on the Pre-Raphaelites. When he came to write his famous architectural history of Venice entitled The Stones of Venice, he began to contrast mediaeval craftsmanship with modern industrial manufacturing."

"Ruskin believed that, to achieve the highest artistic ideals, the artist must understand the God given laws of nature by paying attention to minute details as well as spectacular effects."

"His ideas inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement but also had profound political implications. When the first Labour Party MPs were elected in 1906, the book that they said had most influenced them was Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Much of the second half of his life was spent defending his ideas that industrialisation and free markets were doing terrible damage to the ability of people to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. Gandhi and Tolstoy are amongst those who found his writing deeply compelling."

Tolstoy said that, ‘Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times. He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt,but what everyone will think and say in the future.’

"After his death Ruskin’s ideas found expression in the welfare state, the National Health Service, and widening access to education. His analysis of gothic buildings made a direct contribution to the development of modernist architecture."

"Standing by his grave," as W. G. Collingwood wrote, "one cannot but think what we owe him. He was not a mere successful man, but a great pioneer of thought. He led the way to many new fields, which he left for others to cultivate. It is from him chiefly that we, or our teachers, have learnt the
feelings with which we look nowadays at pictures or architecture or scenery, entering more intelligently into their beauty and significance, and providing more consciously for their safe keeping. Nobody for many generations understood so clearly and taught so fearlessly the laws of social justice and brotherly kindness; no one preached councils of perfection so eloquently and so effectively. There are few of us whose lives are not the better, one way or another, for his work."

My appreciation of Ruskin's significance came as a result of the writing of the art critic Peter Fuller. Fuller wrote that:

"When, in the early 1980s, I wrote the essays, later gathered together in Images of God, I felt that I was being tremendously daring and even perverse in reviving the idea that aesthetic experience was greatly diminished if it became divorced from the idea of the spiritual. What I responded to in Ruskin, above all else, was the distinction he made between ‘aesthesis’ and ‘theoria’, the former being a merely sensuous response to beauty, the latter what he described as a response to beauty with ‘our whole moral being’. My book, Theoria, was an attempt to rehabilitate ‘theoria’ over and above mere ‘aesthesis’; I also tried to communicate my feeling that the spiritual dimensions of art had been preserved, in a very special way, within the British traditions."

"I became interested in the links between ‘natural theology’ and the triumphs of British landscape painting. I am still convinced that there is a close correlation between British ‘higher landscape’ and those beliefs about nature as divine handiwork which were held with a peculiar vividness and immediacy in Britain."

Such views seem to have little place in the contemporary art world and, as Jonathan Jones has written, "this fierce defender of figurative painting and enemy of the avant garde has now been almost erased from the history of British art. His legacy has been reduced to the career of his protegee Sister Wendy Beckett and the annual Peter Fuller Lecture ... Even Modern Painters, the magazine he founded in 1987, officially abandoned his editorial policy ... to become broadly sympathetic to conceptual art ... Fuller has disappeared from the story of British art because that story has been mythicised and thinned out."


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