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Ruskinland can seem a strange place, populated by academics and the occasional oddball. Yet it exists – and it flourishes. In areas as diverse as furniture design, mental health therapy, conservation and ecology, many people, some unknowingly, are energetically taking forward ideas that owe a lot to what Ruskin thought, wrote and did.
So says Andrew Hill of Coniston’s most famous resident in his book Ruskinland How Ruskin Shapes Our World, published this year (the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth). John Ruskin lived on the eastern side of Coniston in the mighty Brantwood – which now houses a museum and art gallery, and has lovely gardens and a café in the stables – with a terrace allowing everyone to enjoy its epic view
Along with Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth, Ruskin was one of the three cultural pillars central to the Lake District’s successful application to be a World Heritage Site. The submission described Ruskin – best known as an artist and critic, but born in a time when a man could have ‘many parts’.
In his deliberately unconventional biography, Andrew Hill demonstrates the reach of Ruskin’s thinking and its relevance to our world today. His thoughts on art, craft, nature, conservation and much else besides, all have resonance. Above all, Ruskin is a wonderful, readable writer – and Hill’s writing does him justice.
There are aspects of Ruskin that seem anachronistic – his dislike of railways, the extent of his religion – but there are more we would do well to remember at the earliest opportunity. ‘There is no wealth but life,’ wrote John Ruskin in his book Unto this Last. ‘Life,’ he continued, ‘including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings.’
Left: Coniston Water | Middle: View from the summit of The Old Man of Coniston | Right: Coniston Jetty
‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.’ Ruskin had some advice for the frazzled, time-poor 21st-century sightseer. It was the quality of what he saw, not the quantity that mattered. ‘We did not travel for adventures, nor for company, but to see with our eyes, and to measure with our hearts.’
A child with a talent for drawing ‘should be allowed to scrawl at its own free will, due praise being given for every appearance of care, or truth, in its efforts’.
From the busy hub at Brantwood, a whole network of local craft started to expand, with Ruskin’s endorsement and help: Laxey cloth, Langdale Linen, Ruskin Lace – explicitly built on the writer’s idea of individual creativity. No two pieces of lacework were the same.
‘He understood the physical structure of rocks,’ Howard Hull, the amiable and encyclopaedically well-informed director of Brantwood told me, as we looked out across the lake below Ruskin’s house to the crags of Coniston Old Man that Ruskin loved.
‘The beginning of all my own right artwork in life depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and seas.’
Ruskinland: How Ruskin Shapes Our World by Andrew Hill is published by Pallas Athene