‘Counting the holes in his carpet’: Northcote and Ruskin, portraiture and memory

In 1822, at the age of three and a half, Ruskin was taken to the London studio of James Northcote to sit for his portrait. We know about the making of this picture because more than half a century afterwards Ruskin wrote about it, in an instalment of Fors Clavigera (1871–84) which he later incorporated into his autobiography Praeterita (1885–9). Northcote was seventy-six when the portrait was painted: as Ruskin describes him in retrospect he is emphatically old, ‘old Mr Northcote’, ‘the old painter’. Ruskin himself was fifty-six when he recalled this episode in Fors, and ten years older when the opening chapters of Praeterita were published. In various ways this memory of the portrait offers a tiny emblem of the work of autobiography: staging, and restaging, the continuing encounter between youth and age, self and others, that culminates in the autobiographer’s encounter with his own child-self, and locating the origins of adult qualities and accomplishments, the well-springs of character (often, for Ruskin, associated with real remembered wells and springs).

The immediate context for the portrait sitting in the first chapter of Praeterita is Ruskin’s consideration of his very early upbringing. He was generally left to his own devices by his mother, so long as he was ‘neither fretful nor troublesome’: he recalls being ‘always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs’. He was allowed only the simplest toys (a ball, a bunch of keys, some wooden bricks), and was strictly required to occupy himself: ‘the law was, that I should find my own amusement’. As a consequence, by his fourth year he was content to pass a day at home in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury by ‘tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;—examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses’. Without quite saying so, Ruskin is describing an education in looking, patiently and closely and accurately. And he tells us that his eye for visual detail was so acute that when he was brought for the first time to Northcote’s studio in Argyll Street, Soho ‘I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet’.

John Ruskin by James Northcote
John Ruskin
by James Northcote
oil on linen, 1822
NPG 5973
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The intensity of the child’s gaze is funny but also disconcerting: he is there to be looked at, after all. As the passage continues, too, Ruskin brings to bear the grown-up version of that faculty, turning the practised gaze of an art-critic and teacher on Northcote’s work in the past, and good-naturedly picking holes in it. Looking at the portrait now he sees ‘a very pretty child with yellow hair, dressed in a white frock like a girl, with a broad light-blue sash and blue shoes to match; the feet of the child wholesomely large in proportion to its body; and the shoes still more wholesomely large in proportion to the feet’. Those sound like faults of proportion, noted with amusement; but more striking in the picture than the relative size of body, feet, and shoes is the perfect stillness of the child’s head atop a rushing body. As Ruskin notes, ‘I am represented as running in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds; while two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance’. Surely he means he was misrepresented as doing so: the romping pose is no more faithful to sitter or occasion than is Northcote’s reproduction of the mannerisms of the artist who had been his own teacher a generation before. And indeed Ruskin notes that Northcote found him a convenient sitter exactly because of his stillness, his ability to remain ‘contentedly motionless, counting the holes in his carpet’; a quality visible in the finished portrait only in the placid immobility of the child’s expression, unmoved even by the little dog in the foreground who so clearly wants to play with him, and about whom the grown-up Ruskin, oddly, says nothing at all.

He does tell us that the hills in the background ‘were put in by the painter at my own request’, and that he had asked specifically for blue hills, not so that they should match his shoes but because ‘I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland; and my Scottish nurse having always sung to me as we approached the Tweed or Esk,—

“For Scotland, my darling, lies full in thy view,
With her barefooted lassies, and mountains so blue,”

the idea of distant hills was connected in my mind with approach to the extreme felicities of life, in my Scottish aunt’s garden of gooseberry bushes, sloping to the Tay.’ The river at the bottom of that garden, Ruskin has already told us in this chapter, ran ‘clear-brown over the pebbles three or four feet deep; swift-eddying,—an infinite thing for a child to look down into’. It is one of many streams that flow through the early pages of Praeterita, affording the young Ruskin ‘occasional glimpses of the rivers of Paradise’: ‘the delicious dripping’ after the water-carts were filled from a stand-pipe in Brunswick Square; ‘the spring of crystal water at the back door’ of another aunt’s house at Croydon; ‘the cress-set rivulets in which the sand danced and minnows darted above the Springs of Wandel’. The couplet endearingly repeated by Ruskin’s nurse comes from Robert Bloomfield’s ‘Song, For a Highland Drover returning from England’ (1801), a cattle-drover’s joyful apostrophe to the River Tweed on a homeward journey through the Scottish Borders. Yet when the Ruskins visited Scotland they both were and were not returning from England, and his aunt’s house at Perth was not home for Ruskin: home, rather, already, seems to have been no place in particular but just the visible, whatever lay full in his view, the infinite felicity of moving water, the mountains rising before him.


Oliver Herford is Birmingham Fellow in Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century at the University of Birmingham, where he co-directs the Centre for Literary Editing and the Materiality of the Text. He is the author of Henry James’s Style of Retrospect: Late Personal Writings, 1890–1915 (OUP, 2016) and a number of articles on related aspects of James’s non-fictional style, and is currently editing the Prefaces to the New York Edition for the Cambridge Edition of The Complete Fiction of Henry James (CUP, forthcoming). He was President of the Henry James Society for 2018. Oliver has also published on the links between portraiture, letter-writing and life-writing in the circle of John Keats, and his next research project will be a study of nineteenth-century literary correspondence.

John Ruskin, the Wildes, and Imagination’s Reign

This blog, by Rebecca Mitchell, University of Birmingham, draws on new research to reveal a previously undocumented link between John Ruskin and Constance and Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde’s connection with Ruskin is well known but surprisingly under-explored.[1] One famous episode from their shared past, a story on which Wilde dined out for decades, was the young man’s participation, while an undergraduate at Oxford, in Ruskin’s Hinksey road effort. But the Slade Professor’s influence was by no means confined to Wilde’s Oxford years, and scholars including John Unrau have called for more attention to be paid to the role that Ruskin played throughout Wilde’s adult life, a role that extended to friendship with Wilde’s wife Constance.[2] As Unrau has detailed, in April 1888 Ruskin suggested that Constance present an award on his behalf at the Whitelands Training College. In a letter to the Reverend J. P. Faunthorpe, principal of the college, Ruskin wrote, “I think perhaps Mrs Oscar Wilde might like to do it  Oscar has always been a most true friend to me, and she, more than I knew.”[3] Ruskin’s enduring friendship with Constance was built in part on mutual acquaintances from beyond Oscar’s circle: in February 1895, to give one example, Constance and Georgina Mount-Temple—confidante of Ruskin as well as Constance—hosted a party for Ruskin’s 76th birthday.[4]

Constance Wilde
Constance Wilde, c. 1887. Public domain image via Creative Commons

Another instantiation of their friendship has escaped scholarly scrutiny. In the months before his letter to Faunthorpe, Constance apparently saw Ruskin in Sandgate, where he moved in August 1887 and lived through the following spring. The visit is documented by an inscription in Constance Wilde’s visitor’s book, now held in the Eccles Bequest at the British Library.[5] In her biography of Constance, Franny Moyle writes that Wilde’s wife, “ever the collector, and impressed by fame and success…made sure that she captured the signatures of some of her visitors” in the book.[6] It must be noted that in 1888, Constance and Oscar were still a united couple, well on the way to fame and socializing in rarefied literary and artistic circles. Indeed, signatories of the book comprise a who’s who of Oscar’s friends, colleagues, mentors, and idols, including Walter Pater, Robert Browning, George Meredith, James McNeill Whistler, and Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. Constance’s acquaintances, cultural luminaries, and passers-through also make appearances: George Grossmith, G. F. Watts, John Bright, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mark Twain, Marie Corelli, and Vernon Lee all signed the book, among many others. Even Pablo de Sarasate penned the first few bars of his “Zigeunerweisen” above his signature.

Ruskin’s contribution is comfortably situated among such starry company. It appears a few pages after A. C. Swinburne’s contribution—a holograph copy of “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” here titled “Children”—and a page featuring the signatures of William and Jane Morris. [7] Morris’s inscription seems wholly representative of his longstanding ethos: “The secret of happiness | To take pleasure in all the details of Life and not to live vicariously.”[8]

Constance Wilde's autograph book
John Ruskin’s entry in Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book, Eccles Bequest. Vol. CXXXVII A; British Library Add MS 81755, p. 22. Used with permission.

Written in a clear hand, and occupying its own page, Ruskin’s entry is in many ways similarly typical:

It is thought that Imagination reigns in a
world lovelier than we have known.
But no imagination is clear or bright enough
to conceive the glory of the world we see,
yet know not.

                    John Ruskin

Sandgate 28th Jany

Ruskin engages (albeit briefly) with the analyses of the imagination that extended throughout his long career.[10] An 1849 diary entry captures an early iteration of this theme. Considering the impact of ignorance and knowledge on the imagination—in particular, the impact of his geological knowledge on his ability to experience the sublimity of the Alps—he muses on ‘two things’ that determine the relationship:  “firstly whether this knowledge, carried out or accompanied by further knowledge of God’s works (astronomy, &c.) would not, in the end, open still nobler fields to the imagination; and secondly, supposing it would not, how much the ignorant Imagination is really worth.”[11] Nearly fifty years later, writing in Constance’s book, Ruskin seems still to conclude that imagination alone is insufficient to know the “glory” of the world around us.

Ruskin’s line might cast into relief Oscar’s own relationship to the imagination, the complexity of which far exceeds the limits of this blogpost. Perhaps the most Ruskin-appropriate touchstone from this period is Wilde’s children’s story “The Remarkable Rocket” (1888), in which he skewers James McNeill Whistler—represented by an insufferably pompous firework rocket—whose famous altercation with Ruskin over his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold—the Falling Rocket was still a familiar memory. The self-deluded rocket insists, “Why, anybody can have common sense, provided they have no imagination. But I have imagination, for I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different.”[12] For the rocket, complete disregard of fact (namely his arrogance and uselessness) leads to his ruin. Elsewhere in Wilde’s writing, his full-throated embrace of “beautiful, untrue things,” and his insistence that truth was not necessarily allied to fact, suggest that his notion of the imagination and its role in artistic vision was not the same as Ruskin’s.[13]

What Constance might have made of Ruskin’s entry is even less clear. Her limited published writing of this period—primarily children’s stories and a few articles for periodicals—does not address imagination; Moyle’s biography has precious little to say about Ruskin. There is an unfortunate tendency of among some of Oscar’s biographers to regard all moments of his life as leading inevitably to his trial and imprisonment, and in this vein, it might be tempting to read Ruskin’s inscription as an ominous foreshadow: Constance would likely have been unable, even with a clear and bright imagination, to conceive of the realities of the devastation awaiting her family just a few years later.  But it was clearly the overlooked glories of one’s time that concerned Ruskin, not its potential miseries, and his inscription is better understood as an artefact of what was still a promising time in the Wildes’ lives.


Rebecca N. Mitchell is Reader of Victorian Literature and Culture and Director of the Nineteenth-Century Centre at the University of Birmingham. She has published widely on Oscar Wilde, Victorian realism, print culture, and fashion. Her recent books include Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Drawing on the Victorians: The Palimpsest of Victorian and Neo-Victorian Graphic Texts (co-edited with Anna Maria Jones, Ohio UP 2017) and Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (co-authored with Joseph Bristow, Yale UP 2015). She is currently co-editing Wilde’s Unpublished, Incomplete, and Miscellaneous Works for the Oxford English Text edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.


The author wishes to thank Merlin Holland and the British Library for permission to quote from and use the image from Constance Wilde’s autograph book, and to Lucy Evans and Hannah Francis for research assistance.

[1] e.g. John Unrau, “Ruskin and the Wildes: The Whitelands Connection,” Notes and Queries 29, no. 4 (1982): 316-317.

[2] Lot “98 Ruskin’s Modern Painters, vol. 2, and other books, Juvenal with plates, &c.” and Lot “102 Five vols. of Ruskin’s Works, blue calf, Ruskin’s Elements of Drawings, and other vols. Ruskin, etc.” Bullock Auction House, Catalogue of the Library of Valuable Books…Wednesday April 24th, 1895, reprinted in A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vol. 1, Poets and Men of Letter (London: Mansell, 1971), p. 381, 382.

[3] Quoted in Unrau, p. 316. Punctuation and italics as in Unrau. At the time of the article’s writing, the then-unpublished letter was held in the Wellesley College Library.

[4] Franny Moyle, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (London: John Murray, 2011), p. 253. Later that month, Oscar received the accusatory calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury that ultimately led to Wilde’s arrest.

[5] Unrau mentions the autograph book (p. 317), citing Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Wilde (Life of Oscar Wilde [London: Metheun, 1952] p. 262). Ian Small also records its existence in Oscar Wilde Revalued: An Essay on New Materials & Methods of Research (ELH Press, 1993), p. 110.

[6] Moyle, Constance, p. 126-127.

[7] Swinburne’s poem first appeared in Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1882) as poem XXII of “A Dark Month”, p. 341. It appears as “Children” in the 1887 collection Select Poems (London: Chatto & Windus), p. 97. Though undated, context suggests the page was written in April 1887, when Wilde’s sons Cyril and Vyvyan would have been nearly two and six months old, respectively.  Constance Wilde, Autograph book, Eccles Bequest. Vol. CXXXVII A; British Library Add MS 81755, p. 16. Used with permission.

[8] Jane offered lines from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát: “My tomb shall be in a spot where the | north wind may scatter roses over it.” The entry is dated 23 March, 1888. C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 23.

[9] C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 22. As far as I know, the lines are published here for the first time.

[10] W. G. Collingwood, The Life of John Ruskin (London: Methuen, 1893), vol. II, p. 316. Neither Collingwood’s nor John Dixon Hunt’s biography of Ruskin mentions a visit from Constance at or around this time. Oscar Wilde’s published correspondence from the period shows him based in their family home on Tite Street in London, but letters from January 1888 are sparse and there certainly could have been time for travel. Constance’s biographers also do not detail a visit around this time, though there are records that the couple did respond to Ruskin’s invitations in March of the same year. Again, Unrau is the lonely source who recounts the episode.

[11] The Diaries of John Ruskin 1848-1873, Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse, eds., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) p. 416.

[12] Oscar Wilde, “The Remarkable Rocket,” in The Happy Prince and Other Tales (London: David Nutt, 1888), p. 100.

[13] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” Nineteenth Century 25 (January 1889), p. 55-56.

Reflecting on Ruskin’s Good Looking!

This blog, about her exhibition at Brantwood, ‘Ruskin’s Good Looking!’ is written by Dr Sarah Casey, Senior Lecturer in Drawing and Installation at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University

All over the country, indeed all over the world, we are currently celebrating Ruskin’s birth and reflecting on his legacy for the 21st century and beyond. This year, 20th February marked 200 years since Ruskin’s christening. The christening gown worn by the infant Ruskin on that day is one of several garments belonging to Ruskin now on display at Brantwood as part of the exhibition Ruskin’s Good Looking!, which celebrated its opening on 24th February. This event is the culmination of a two-year Lancaster University research project, examining Ruskin’s clothes through drawing. The project included testing ideas in The Ruskin’s 2018 seminar series (which took its title from this project, Ruskin’s Good Looking!) and public drawing workshops as part of the Being Human festival 2018.[1] The questions driving this activity are: What is it about drawing that continues to make it a valuable tool of investigation in fields ranging from natural history, to medicine, archaeology and fashion? How might Ruskin’s ideas about drawing be applied in the 21st century to develop new contemporary approaches to object based research?

Over the past two years I have had the extraordinary privilege to get up close and intimate with Ruskin’s clothing in the Brantwood collection and at nearby Keswick Museum. The research was based on the premise of using Ruskin’s belief in drawing as a means of seeing the world – a view he clearly expressed in The Elements of Drawing (1857): “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” Drawing requires us to look and this helps us to understand.  I applied this view to his own clothing.

Drawing mapping  the garments

The first stage was simple – look, look again, and draw what you see. Using this elementary method, I made 1:1 scale pencil drawings  of each garment on graph paper. I called these garment maps. Reflecting on the process, I came to realise a parallel with Ruskin’s methods of ‘true topology’, delineating what is observed in the landscape leaving ‘no stone unturned’ … although in my drawings, the landscape was the more intimate terrain of personal clothing. This was to reveal nuances in the clothing’s construction that might be read as fingerprint of Ruskin’s specific physiology. Artist Louise Bourgeois has described clothing as being like an envelope of a person, bearing the imprint of their body, a history so clear she calls garments ‘road signs’ to the past.[2]


Laundry mark JR 12 95
Laundry mark JR 12 95

These ‘road signs’ are evident if we know how to look. Close looking through drawing is a method promoted by curator and ‘dress detective’ Ingrid Mida from Ryerson University, Toronto who visited Brantwood with me in April 2018 to examine the garments.[3] This provided valuable specialist insight into their use and wear. It was a magical moment when Ingrid first unfolded the shirt to find the laundry mark JR 12 95, which, as she writes in her catalogue essay, dates the shirt to December 1895, towards the end of Ruskin’s life.[4]


An equally exciting moment was when, studying the seams and crevices of a tailcoat, I discovered a tailors label marked ‘ John Ruskin Esq.’ affirming that the garment was indeed Ruskin’s and its provenance from his tailor (Stultz Wain & Co. 10 Clifford St London, for those of you interested).


Label in Ruskin's clothes
Label in Ruskin’s clothes

From these intense observational studies, I went on to make a series of wax drawings of the garments. Each garment map was transcribed onto a sheet of Japanese paper soaked in wax, using a simple dressmakers pin. The white marks that are visible are made by nothing more than the pressure of touching the surface.


Drawing of christening gown
Drawing of Ruskin’s christening gown

Like breath, or memory, the drawings have a fragile existence and will literally melt away if exposed to heat. As Anuradha Chatterjee’s catalogue explains, Ruskin believed clothing to reflect a person’s soul.[5] The wax drawings embrace this idea, taking on a spectral quality that evokes the uncanny sense of absent presence that is felt when examining a person’s clothes and looking into the past.  As Ruskin said  drawing enables us “to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away, or which you must yourself leave.”[6]

Exhibition at Brantwood
Exhibition at Brantwood

So, if you’re near Brantwood between now and 7th April, do take a look before they disappear…

To find out more about how this Ruskinian approach to drawing might benefit research in the 21st century, look out for Drawing Investigations: graphic relationships with science, culture and environment by Sarah Casey and Gerry Davies due for publication by Bloomsbury later this year.


[1] Sponsored by AHRC, the British Academy and Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London

[2] Louise Bourgeois in Marie Laure Bernadac, Louise Bourgeois, Paris: Flammarion, 2006, p.155.

[3] Supported by a grant from the Arts Council and British Council Artist International Development Fund.

[4] Ingrid Mida ‘A portrait of John Ruskin through his clothes’ in S. Casey (ed.) Ruskin’s Good Looking! (Lancaster University and Brantwood, 2019), p.13.

[5] Anuradha Chatterjee ‘Wearing the Soul John Ruskin’s theory of ideal dress’ in S. Casey (ed.) Ruskin’s Good Looking! (Lancaster University and Brantwood, 2019), pp.16-19.

[6] John Ruskin Elements of Drawing (1857). Letter 1, On First Practice.

Where Ruskin was born

Our third blog is by Francis O’Gorman, Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Honorary Visiting Professor, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University and Chairman of the Ruskin Society.

I’m a habitual visitor of graves. Most particularly, of the graves of writers and musicians. Because as a critic I am always writing about the actuality of an author—not as a mere ‘function’ of a text but as a once living and complex human being—graves have a particular significance. The material reality of an author is affirmed in some genuine, touchable way: there he or she is, on this spot, beneath this stone, beneath this grass. It have found it peculiarly moving to visit, for instance, Trollope’s grave and Wilkie Collins’s at Kensal Green;

Wilkie Collins GraveWilkie Collins’s grave at Kensal Green Cemetery, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, August 2015, author’s photograph.

the Brontës at Haworth and Scarborough; Clough and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence. Borrowing a term from Catholic Christianity, George Steiner thinks of the ‘real presence’ of creative artists behind their work. For me, what enhances that felt experience in reading is knowing where, and having visited, the final resting place.

But it isn’t only graves. It is also, far more cheerfully, birthplaces. Of course, there is only memory here, not mortal remains. But starting places, the location of first memories, have a role in helping one grasp the shape of an author’s life. I have just, for instance, been to Higher Bockhampton to see—for the first time since the summer of 1976—the Hardys’ beautifully cared-for cottage where their baby, Thomas, was born on 2 June 1840.

Hardy's birthplace

Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, July 2018, author’s photograph.

Ruskin, as everyone knows, is buried in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Coniston, under W.G.  Collingwood’s unRuskinian Celtic cross made from local slate. He is still among the hills, which he had loved since infancy. But Ruskin’s birthplace has suffered far more than Hardy’s. Anthony Trollope’s birthplace was demolished by the University of London in the 1930s and its location is now under the car-park of Senate House, off Russell Square.

Senate House


Charles Holden’s Senate House for the University of London (1932-7), on top of the site of Trollope’s birthplace. Image available through Creative Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate_House,_London#/media/File:Senate_House,_University_of_London.jpg



Just a few hundred metres away, Ruskin’s birthplace has also vanished.

As we all know, Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 in 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square. And as we all also know, the house no longer stands. It was one of those demolished to make way for the construction of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre, a Modernist shopping and residential complex. The Brunswick is still there, both admired and disliked.

Brunswick Centre

The Brunswick Centre, on the site of Ruskin’s birth which was almost exactly half-way between the front of the ambulance and the ‘lollipop’ crossing signal. Image available through Creative Commons,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunswick_Centre#/media/File:Brunswick_Centre_(4136275375).jpg

54 Hunter Street54 Hunter Street (note the plaque marking Ruskin’s birthplace). Online uncopyrighted image.

But there has been a long-standing effort, led by Dr James S. Dearden MBE, and now taken up by me, to mark the spot of Ruskin’s birth with a blue plaque or some other form of lasting commemoration. Jim has been able to retain a memory of exactly where the spot is, which is a blessing. He visited the house, then in an almost derelict state, on 1 January 1969, in the company, as it happens, of Spike Milligan, shortly before 54 Hunter Street was pulled down.

Jim photographed some of the property and has written several times giving more details of his visit. When the house was, shortly afterwards, demolished, what was immediately put in its place was the entrance to an underground carpark that served the residents of the Brunswick Centre. But that has now gone too. All that stands of any visible Ruskinian interest are the two remaining unaltered houses of Hunter Street (nos. 3 and 4) that were once directly opposite number 54. In the opening chapter of Praeterita (1885-9), Ruskin remarks that as a child he counted the bricks of the ‘opposite houses’ (Library Edition, xxxv.21).You can still do that in person or via Google Street View. https://mapstreetview.com/#uod2l_-2n26_1h.5_5f43 will take you straight there.

Let’s hope we can mark the location of this lost house permanently. There are other ‘sites’, after all, which have blue plaques near-by, not least that of Dickens’s Tavistock House, more or less round the corner, where the novelist lived from 1851 to 1860. The site of John Ruskin’s birthplace has every reason to be remembered. I hope I can complete what Jim has started.

Francis O’Gorman
Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh
Honorary Visiting Professor, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University
Chairman of the Ruskin Society

Generating a Museum of the Near Future

Our second blog is by Dr Joanna Taylor, Presidential Academic Fellow in Digital Humanities at The University of Manchester.

In March 1991, shortly after Lancaster University had launched their campaign to acquire the Whitehouse Collection of Ruskiniana, the eminent Victorianist Dinah Birch offered a suggestion as to why John Ruskin – one of the most important and wide-ranging thinkers of the nineteenth century – had lapsed into obscurity. She thought that Ruskin’s interdisciplinarity was a barrier for the modern reader: ‘his influence,’ she wrote, both then and now, ‘was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about’.

Page from Ruskin’s diary (MS12)

The result, in Britain at least, was that Ruskin seemed ‘tangential’ to a wide range of subjects: art historians, political economists, literary scholars, historians, geologists, biologists, ecologists and sociologists could all claim Ruskin as one of their own with equal felicity, but no one discipline could aspire to a complete understanding of Ruskin’s polymathematical thought. As Birch concluded, Ruskin’s writing is:

rooted in the widest definitions of culture. To be read fully, the texts call for knowledge of Greek literature and mythology, Medieval iconography, Milton, 18th-century fiction, the Bible, geology, Italian history, botany, Walter Scott and Dickens, and a very great deal else besides. They ask to be studied on their own terms. There will never be many who are in a position to rise to the challenge of interdisciplinarity on quite that scale. (‘Interdisciplinarity’, London Review of Books 13.12 (1991), https://www.lrb.co.uk/v13/n12/dinah-birch/interdisciplinarity).

Birch is right that, today, it would be a rare lone scholar who could match the breadth and scale of Ruskin’s knowledge. But what was a stumbling block for the twentieth-century model of lone-wolf scholarship – particularly in the humanities – might become an enabling force in more recent approaches that emphasise interdisciplinary collaboration.


So the Lancaster University Away Day at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home from 1870 until his death in 1900, discovered. This event aimed to facilitate precisely the kind of ambitious cross-disciplinary environment needed for the sort of scholarship that can begin to rediscover Ruskin for a new era. With invited speakers and attendees from the University’s principal research centres – including Digital Humanities, Material Sciences, Data Sciences and Social Futures – the Away Day demonstrated Ruskin’s potential to offer an intellectual bridge between radically different interests.

The morning began with an introduction by the Director of The Ruskin, Professor Sandra Kemp. Kemp introduced Ruskin as a figurehead for the Library’s ambition to be a ‘museum of the near future’. Kemp asked what the purpose of a collection of materials – a collection, moreover, that surpasses any other for a single author – is in a campus environment. As she suggested, when understood as the backbone of a forward-looking museum, the Collection offers the basis for using Ruskinian materials and thinking as a springboard for addressing ongoing social, cultural and environmental issues. If we re-interpret the Collection as an active, malleable archive, she indicated, it becomes a valuable resource for research, teaching and public-facing exchange.

Ruskin Away Day at Brantwood

The following talks all, in different ways, spoke to this vision of a dynamic Collection that catalyses exciting new research in each University faculty. Dr Andrew Tate (Reader in Literature, Religion and Aesthetics) demonstrated how forward-looking interpretations of Ruskin might work in future exhibitions at the library. Professor Judith Mottram (Director of Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts) suggested how Ruskinian thinking could develop creative practice as research that re-evaluates art, not as illustration, but as an active force in engaging diverse publics in socio-cultural, political and academic agendas. Professor Beth Harland’s talk revealed how such a re-evaluation could facilitate creative responses to Ruskin’s work and his wider contemporary relevance that, she suggested, are based on the ‘critical production of knowledge’. She uncovered Ruskin’s interests in interactive thinking by interrogating what role ‘conceptual relationships’ might play in future research at Lancaster.

Between these talks, each group – each of which focused on a different research agenda (Digital Humanities, Material Sciences, Social Futures and Data Science) – reflected on how Ruskin or Ruskinian thinking might guide future collaborative endeavours and lead to new research areas. Ruskin’s interests in work, memory, sensation and the details of the world around him offered rich starting points for frequently surprising conversations that began to uncover the power of Ruskin’s thought for developing innovative research questions.

Brantwood, the site of – among other things – Ruskin’s infamous meeting with Darwin, offered the ideal location for this cross-disciplinary brainstorming. A guided walk around the house and grounds with the museum’s Director, Howard Hull, consolidated the morning’s communal discoveries of interlinked research interests. Ruskin’s allegorical garden, known as the Zig-Zaggy, was a particular highlight. This material re-imagining of Dante’s Purgatorial Mount, based on one of Ruskin’s own designs, guides the visitor up the fellside along a series of themed terraces until they reach ‘Paradise’s’ unparalleled view across Coniston lake to the fells beyond.

John Ruskin, Path at Brantwood, Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

The garden offered a focal point for our final list of take-aways from the day. More than anything, this re-imagining of an alternative type of Ruskin text had indicated to everyone present the scope for playful (re-)interpretations of Ruskin. It seemed to encapsulate the day’s aim of taking Ruskin out of dusty volumes on dark library shelves, and into the real, twenty-first century landscape.

The garden consolidated what the rest of the day had implied: that Ruskinian thought – as well as his specific works – might offer creative opportunities for new kinds of research that linked ordinarily disparate parts of the University, as will be showcased in The Ruskin’s launch exhibition on 25 September. What the Away Day ultimately demonstrated is that the man George Eliot called ‘a prophet for his generation’ is also deeply prescient for our own.

Brantwood garden view

The Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future

This first blog is by The Ruskin’s Director, Professor Sandra Kemp:

John Ruskin’s 200th birthday is just two weeks away. In the run-up to the day, we are pleased to be launching our new blog and website at Lancaster University.

Ruskin’s bicentenary year will be a momentous one. Exhibitions, activities and events celebrating the life and works of this epoch-defining writer, artist, social thinker and environmentalist will be taking place across the UK and internationally over the next twelve months. You can follow the programme of bicentenary events at www.ruskin200.com

Here at Lancaster we are already on count-down to our own bicentenary exhibition, which is timed to coincide with the official launch of The Ruskin on 25th September 2019.

TThe Ruskin by night © Peter Durant
The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre © Peter Durant

For regular visitors to The Ruskin, we appreciate your patience during this period of refurbishment and it is great to welcome you back in person and online. Over the past year, the Ruskin Library, which currently houses the world-leading collection of Ruskin’s works, has been given an external facelift and upgraded, updated and refitted internally to transform the reading rooms and galleries. The Ruskin brings together the Ruskin Library, Museum, and Research Centre within the McCormac’s award-winning building. Our new programme explores how Ruskin’s epoch defining ideas can unlock urgent current and future social, cultural and environmental issues.

Tolstoy wrote of Ruskin that ‘He was one of those rare men who thinks … what everyone will think and say in the future’. Our launch exhibition – Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future – will radically expand on this insight by exploring the importance of Ruskin’s thinking about what it means to be human in an age of technology to some of the most pressing challenges of our own time. Ruskin understood how the future is embedded in the here and now. As his personal motto ‘To-day’ affirms, he was profoundly aware of how the lives we lead in the present set the conditions of the world to come.

John Ruskin, Peacock and Falcon Feathers, 1873
John Ruskin, Peacock and Falcon Feathers, 1873

In the coming months our blogs, events, exhibitions and research projects will draw on the thousands of Ruskin’s paintings and drawings, books and manuscripts, prints and photographs in our collection to promote debate across the arts and sciences and investigate culture and heritage, landscape and the environment. In relaunching the website, we have made more of Ruskin’s works available online and we’ve started an ambitious programme of digitisation.  We’ll be blogging regularly and you can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We’d welcome your ideas and suggestions for our programmes.

Meanwhile, on Thursday 7th February, the eve of Ruskin’s birth, in Lancaster University’s Great Hall, ‘Ruskin’s Dreams’, a concerto by Lake District composer Edward Cowie, will be performed by performed by the BBC Philharmonic, with clarinettist Julian Bliss.

Open 10.00–16:00 weekdays