Issue 206
Winter 2018/19

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Mar 19, 2019

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John Ruskin remembered

A tribute to the 'sage, prophet, gifted painter, brilliant prose stylist and polemical writer' whose bi-centenary is being widely celebrated

I WONDER what the great Victorian art critic and visionary John Ruskin would make of Venice today. Judging from what has happened architecturally and environmentally in the rest of the world, he would be surprised to see it still standing. As for the hordes in St Mark's Square, he wouldn't be impressed by their camcorders or cell-phones, especially when he insisted the best way to record Venice was to draw it?

As sage, prophet, gifted painter, brilliant prose stylist and polemical writer, John Ruskin (1819-1900) commanded international respect from figures like George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gandhi and Tolstoy. "He was one of the rare men who thinks what everyone will think and say in the future," wrote the latter of Ruskin

When, as a young man, he visited France's medieval churches and the City of Venice, Ruskin grew a passion for Gothic architecture and the religious paintings of Giotto and Fra Angelico. These artists inspired a departure from the prevailing fashion of neo-classicism or painting in the Grand Style, which idealised the imperfect.

They also influenced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists founded in 1848, which Ruskin championed.

Through studying Europe's Gothic architecture, Ruskin came to respect the fabric of these old buildings and the way they were built. His writing on this subject not only inspired William Morris, the Victorian textile designer, who introduced traditional methods of production, but also the 20th century conservation movement.

Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (1851-53) in three volumes, based on months of study, is more than an architectural handbook. It's a polemic, alleging Venice fell from its medieval Eden when it took up with the Renaissance, which ultimately caused its fall into political irrelevance and social flippancy. He saw the city's fate, once a medieval maritime trading power as a caveat for Victorian Britain, which was then a modern maritime trading nation.

Ruskin insisted that art and architecture were an expression of the social conditions in which they were produced and asserted that a benign social order characterized the Gothic age and provided greater aesthetic fulfilment than the modern period. In volume II, of The Stones of Venice, he expounded that imperfection was essential to Gothic art, in contrast with the uniformity of neo-classical architecture and modern mass production.

The Gothic allowed the crafts/workman creative freedom and fulfilment. This belief underlined Ruskin's rage against industrial capitalism and helped found the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century.

The calendar of events celebrating the bicentenary of Ruskin's birth is diverse and global, with exhibitions, talks, lectures and conferences staged in California and Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA), Chamonix (France), Venice (Italy), London, Oxford, Worcestershire, Sheffield, Manchester and the Lake District (UK) and Osaka, Tokyo, Kurume (Japan).

Founded by Ruskin in 1871, the Guild of St. George is showing 'The Power of Seeing' until April 22 at 2, Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD, with paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, metal-work and plaster casts to demonstrate how Ruskin's attitude to aesthetic beauty shaped his radical views on culture and society.

At Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal (July 12 – October 5) 'Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud' demonstrates Ruskin's approach to J M W Turner, with water colours, drawings and a portrait of the art critic from the National Portrait Gallery. Towards the end of his life, Ruskin feared England's 'darkening skies' and 'polluted storm clouds', a sentiment that contrasts with his earlier delight in the clarity of Turner's paintings.

With these water colours are drawings by Emma Stibbon who followed the route taken by Ruskin in 1854 when he produced early photographs of the Alps. Stibbon shows how climate change has affected the area.

Brantwood in Cumbria (Ruskin's home for 25 years before his death) shows 'Incandescence: Turner's Venice' (April 11 – August 4). Turner's Venice was Ruskin's Venice and Turner, the artist, shaped Ruskin's life.

In America at Harvard until April 13, 'Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal' explores Ruskin's vision of a better world through the university's letters, books and other primary sources. Also a lecture at the Lamont Library, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts on how Ruskin saw education as 'leading human souls to what is best and making what is best out of them.'

At Manchester Metropolitan University (April 29 – August 23) is 'Ruskin's Manchester: From 'Devil's Dark' to Beacon City'. Ruskin hated Manchester and the Devil's Dark was his reference to the pollution that streamed from its factories, but he gave important lectures there, claiming that 'fine art is the hand, the head and the heart of man going together'.

At the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (May 29 – September 15), is 'John Ruskin: Art and Wonder', an exhibition about his fascination for the natural world with a selection of bird and plant studies and geological specimens.

Is Ruskin still relevant? For some, he was an ultra conservative, paternalistic sexist who advocated feudalism. "Only the foolish or wicked delight in a world with no masters," he stated. Although his writing is suffused with religious and Biblical imagery, his zeal for giving the working man and woman the opportunity to have an education, fed the Labour movement.

Writing on a plethora of subjects: art, architecture, nature, craftsmanship, literature, religion, politics, the economy and social justice, he was a seeker after a better society, a fierce critic of industrialism, a moral conscience and an advocate of sustainable relations between people, craft and nature. He championed the idea of the welfare state, inspired the founding of the NHS, public libraries, the National Trust and other pivots of civil society.

Ruskin's visionary thinking offers solutions to many of our problems today. Social inequality, multi-nationals' monopoly, bankers' bonuses, encroaching automation, environmental disaster and repetitive work. As champion of progressive causes, he believed education could transform the individual and the community and in order to have a better world, he saw that people should be governed by affection and fellowship.


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