Back in mid-80s Sheffield, I was heading towards A levels, my cranium crammed with a hair-gel-scented hotchpotch of concerns both large and small: reggae, The Stranglers, communism and females galore. But also swirling through this heady mix were the big ideas of a renowned Victorian thinker – a man not known for his pronouncements on the subject of buying Woodpecker cider while clearly underage.
John Ruskin was an art critic and social activist, a man for whom ideals of beauty and craftsmanship formed the foundation of a utopian reformist zeal. In 1985, a gallery opened in Sheffield in his name, and it was via this beautifully conceived, exquisitely designed venue that I first came across his aesthetic mission.
This was not a conventional art gallery or museum. Dedicated solely to a collection of artefacts that Ruskin gifted to the city in 1875 – including artworks, geological specimens, architectural casts and illustrated books – its stated aim was nothing less than to inspire working people by exposing them to beauty in its multifarious forms. It certainly inspired me to add Ruskin’s name to my personal list of fascinating folk – a line-up that placed him alongside, among others, Lenin and Rik The People’s Poet from The Young Ones.
The venue I visited was the collection’s third city home, but although it has since moved a few hundred yards to the Millennium Gallery – where it shares space with other craft collections and exhibitions – its attendant social mission is probably more vigorous than it ever has been before.
“Ruskin thought art and beauty were for everybody, and that this was an important part of social justice,” she explains. “He wanted everyone to understand how they could make their lives happier by being creative, by being in connection with nature. He was angry about the industrialisation of the Victorian age, about people losing their connection with the land, and I think people can get inspiration from those same ideas today.”
While other bewhiskered Victorian thinkers might have paid lip service to such ideas before heading off to an evening of harrumphing and brandy at their club, Ruskin turned his ideas into practical deeds. Nutter refers to his Sheffield gift as “a radical act”.
Now though, Ruskin in Sheffield is opening up opportunities for people to do far more than simply look at objects behind glass.
“We’re using the collection’s ideas and themes in the community,” explains Nutter. “We began in Walkley, where the original museum was, where we ran a pop-up museum in an empty shop. People could come in and make things, or sew or draw, and we put on photographic exhibitions and shows by local artists. We brought people together to socialise, be creative and have that polymath experience.
“We’ve also been working in Meersbrook, at Meersbrook Hall, where the collection was housed for 63 years until 1953. Heeley Trust and the Friends of Meersbrook Hall want to redevelop it as a thriving community hub, so we’re working with them, using Ruskin’s thinking to drive the whole vision. It’s not just about having traces of Ruskin in the building, but actually using his thinking and creating beautiful, fruitful, peaceful places. That was his phrase.”
Although Ruskin in Sheffield has been making an impact for a few years, there’s a particular focus on 2019’s events. This year marks the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth, and there’s plenty for both novices and experts to investigate.
From the major John Ruskin: Art and Wonder exhibition at the Millennium Gallery to a three-week festival of “protest, performance and utopia building” called A Future Fantastic at Theatre Deli, there’s a huge range of planned events.
And for those who know nothing about Ruskin but, interest piqued, might wonder where to start?
“Until June 30, there’s a big display across the foyer of the Central Library about Ruskin’s connection with Sheffield,” says Nutter. “That would be a great way in, before perhaps dipping into some of the library’s other events – there are all kinds of readings, lectures and workshops.”
And then there’s the Ruskin Collection itself, now 144-years-old, but still on display in the city, free of charge, with its radical social mission still intact. This is surely a tribute to the integrity of Ruskin’s enlightened world view?
“He was a man of his word, definitely. He had a very privileged upbringing, but by the end of his life he’d given away nearly 90 per cent of his wealth, because he was that kind of Victorian.”
One of the good ones, it seems. A Victorian with money and sense.
Main image: Meersbrook Hall future vision painting
The Ruskin Collection is on permanent display at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield. For more information about the full Ruskin in Sheffield bicentenary programme, click here. Find out more about the Guild of St George here.