Thursday, 17 February 2011

Visiting John Ruskin’s House at Brantwood

John Ruskin
It was a damp day but we had been looking forward to learning more about who John Ruskin really was, having been round the Ruskin Museum in Coniston a few days before.   The museum had been the idea of his assistant, the author and artist W. G. Collingwood and was really a memorial to Ruskin that raised more questions than it answered.

Ruskin’s later life

Brantwood is Ruskin’s house on the shore of Coniston Water, in the English Lake District, where he effectively retired to after a long and varied career.  For Ruskin, art was about truth above all things and, disappointed by the popularity of Impressionism, he turned to the support of philanthropic work such as the Arts and Crafts movement and Christian socialism. Sadly it is little known in the UK that Ruskin played an important part in the creation of the welfare state, pioneering the idea that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of “social economy”, supporting charitable organisations and co-operatives.

Tour of Brantwood

As you approach Brantwood it is hard to get a sense of the whole building.  Designed to face the water of the lake, you only see the side view. It is immediately obvious, however, that this is no ordinary house, as there are turrets and embellishments typical of Ruskin’s love of the Gothic style.  Oddly, visitors are given a sticky blue label to wear - presumably to make it easy for the staff, before being ushered into a tiny viewing room to see an overlong video produced by the Ruskin Society that describes him as the greatest man who ever lived. Nice.

Escaping as quickly as we could, I found myself in Ruskin’s drawing room. At last I could really get a sense of being in his presence.  Although many of the original contents of the house were auctioned when he died, a lot has been tracked down by the Ruskin Society and returned, so it is easy to imagine him sat at his desk, looking out over Coniston Water.  Even more fascinating is his room upstairs, where he spent a long time suffering from ‘fits of melancholy’.  The effect was spoiled by a small notice that said the rooms had been switched round for some reason, so the room I was seeing was a ‘reconstruction’ from one of his sketches, rather than the real thing.

Ruskin’s bath chair

For me, one of the most poignant relics of John Ruskin at Brantwood was his wicker bath chair, waiting in the hall as if he may need it at any moment.  Until then, I had in mind the young and really quite handsome Ruskin, full of life and passionate about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  I suddenly realised that this house belonged to an older man, with a long white beard, who was frail and possibly lonely despite his many friends, really quite dependent on his staff.  I put my hand on the arm of the bath chair and felt a definite connection with him that was unexpectedly emotional.

Ruskin’s garden at Brantwood
It was still raining when we left the house but any visitor to Brantwood has to follow the narrow meandering path Ruskin built up the hillside to his ‘water reservoirs’ at the top.  Dug out under his precise supervision by a group of friends, these water catchments supply an ingenious irrigation system for the whole garden and run back down as little bubbling brooks that emerge quite naturally along the path.  I read later Ruskin’s garden had been over run by invasive Rhododendrons but was restored so that it is now much as he would have known it.

The Jetty

Ruskin’s stables have been imaginatively converted into a café, with big pine tables in the stalls, so after a really good lunch we rounded off our visit by taking the short walk down to Ruskin’s private jetty on the lake.   In his dining room I had noted that some of the Victorian plates on display had been recovered from the water by the jetty (once again raising more questions than answers).  I stood there for a moment looking across the misty lake and thinking about John Ruskin.  It is impossible to come away from Brantwood without wanting to know more about him. Much more.  We should all be grateful to Emily Warren, John Ruskin's last pupil, who campaigned to have Brantwood made into a museum.

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