The Whitworth has got it all going on. This year Manchester marks the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth with a series of arts events and exhibitions inspired by arguably the most celebrated Victorian art critic, artist and social reformer.

Along with William Morris, Ruskin was the influential force behind the Arts and Crafts movement and was ardently opposed to the industrialisation of cities like Manchester. In 2019, specialists from the Holden Gallery at Manchester Art School, MMU Special Collections and The Whitworth Art Gallery will come together to discuss why Ruskin matters today. The Whitworth is kicking off Ruskin’s anniversary with the exhibition Joy for Ever: How to Use Art to Change the World and its Price in the Market.

We wanted to find out more. So we talked to Poppy Bowers, exhibition curator at The Whitworth Art Gallery, about Ruskin’s legacy, his connection to Manchester and why his ideas about social change are still relevant today.

Northern Soul: Joy for Ever: How to Use Art to Change the World and its Price in the Market is influenced by one of the most important public lectures Ruskin delivered on art, in Manchester in 1857. Why was this lecture so significant?

Poppy Bowers: “Ruskin presented the lecture The Political Economy of Art, or A Joy For Ever (and its Price in the Market) as it was later titled, in the Athenaeum, now Manchester Art Gallery, when Manchester was hosting the Great Art Treasures exhibition, the largest exhibition of art ever held in the UK. For Ruskin, this exhibition, which was made up of privately-owned artworks borrowed from across the UK, exposed the inequality of access to the enjoyment of art at that time. In his lecture he asked the Mancunian audience to consider how art could be exposed to a wider section of society, rather than be collected and housed by a private, wealthy, few.14_Interior View of a Section of the National Art Treasures Exhibition - RR

“It was one of Ruskin’s first lectures that directly put forward an idea of how art operates in our wider world, and it was delivered in this very city. His lecture later developed into a book of economic essays called Unto This Last (1860) which influenced various 20th century social and political movements, for example the founding of the Labour pParty, and received renewed interest by financial and economic thinkers after the 2008 financial crash.”

Tile PanelNS: What’s The Whitworth’s connection with Ruskin?

PB: “The Whitworth was founded in 1889 on Ruskinian principals for the perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester. Today we continue to see art as intrinsic to social change. The anniversary of Ruskin’s birth seemed the perfect moment to revisit this historical event and look at how Ruskin’s ideas have been taken up.”

NS: Tell us about how the exhibition came about and what it contains.

PB: “The exhibition has been shaped collectively, through conversations with colleagues across the gallery and university, with artists, designers and with various constituents, some who visit the gallery regularly and others that have just begun to visit us. There are over 100 works, all gathered from collections in the city, such as the John Rylands Library, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Libraries and Archives and The Whitworth itself. It’s a varied mixture of historic prints and drawings, archival documents, contemporary installations, textiles, video and craft.

“The show begins by thinking how The Whitworth can put its collection of artworks to social use. Here we invited Handmade, a group of people who meet regularly at the gallery as part of a wider age-friendly programme in the city, and Year 9 pupils from Hyndburn Academy in Blackburn to select paintings from our collection. Both groups have used the collection to make thoughtful and provocative protests current educational and community policies.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, The Ethics of Dust Installation Photography Houses of Parliament“Elsewhere, we look at Ruskin’s idea that drawing from close study of nature helps shape citizenship. We have drawing stands made by Manchester design studio Standard Practice, alongside ancient rocks and minerals and artworks. Another section of the exhibition looks at Ruskin’s admiration for Gothic architecture, here we’ll show a monumental work by Jorge Otero-Pailos called The Ethics of Dust. This is a large latex cast of a section of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament. This will sit alongside Gothic wallpaper designs and architectural drawings of Manchester’s Town Hall.

“Finally, Grizedale Arts, who are based in Coniston where Ruskin lived in his later years, will present a ten-year survey of all the exhibitions, events and projects they have carried out in the village following Ruskin’s thinking, including an Honest Shop, mini-library and brick-making.”

By Rachael Richards

Main image: The Ethics of Dust by Jorge Otero-Pailos


Joy for Ever: How to Use Art to Change the World and its Price in the Market exhibition is on from March 29 – June 9, 2019 at The Whitworth.

Art History and English Studies at the University of Manchester will present a day of free talks on John Ruskin at The Whitworth on March 20; Holden Gallery at Manchester Art School will be hosting the Ruskin Prize. Preview and prize giving will take place on July 11 and the Agent of Change exhibition will run until August 24; Special Collections at MMU will be presenting an exhibition called Ruskin’s Manchester: From Devil’s Dark to Beacon City from April 29 – August 23, 2019.