John Ruskin was born in London on 8 February 1819. He was one of the greatest figures of the Victorian age, poet, artist, critic, social revolutionary and conservationist.
Ruskin made his first visit to Keswick in 1824, when he was 5 years old, and the memorial erected at Friars Crag after his death by the efforts of Canon Rawnsley, reminds us that ‘the first thing I remember as an event in life was being taken by my nurse to the brow of Friar’s Crag on Derwentwater’.
That first view of Friar’s Crag made a deep impression on the five year old boy, and years later he described the incident as ‘the creation of the world for me’.
After a brief stay in Keswick in 1826, the family came for a three week holiday in the Lakes in 1830. After a trip from Windermere to Hawkshead and Coniston, he wrote is experiences in Iteriad, a poem of 2310 lines which were highly competent for a boy of 11.
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris met whilst at Oxford taking Holy Orders. Here they gained inspiration from the writings of John Ruskin, and decided they wanted to become artists. Ruskin saw the work of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as ‘the dawn of a new era of art’, and Burne-Jones went to London to seek out Rossetti. Ruskin became a great friend of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais (who later married Ruskin’s wife Effie), and was an eminent artist himself.
Ruskin was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1869, and it was here that he met Hardwicke Rawnsley who was studying at Balliol College. This was to be the start of a lifelong friendship. In 1875, whilst working in London, Ruskin introduced Rawnsley to his friend Octavia Hill, a social reformer. Rawnsley and Hill were two of the founders in 1896 of the National Trust, whose origins can be traced back to Ruskin’s influence. Ruskin took up the cause of conservation with much passion and vigor, and many of the issues on which he campaigned are still valid today – town and country planning, green belts and smokeless zones. He also campaigned for free schools and libraries.
In 1881 he introduced the ceremony of children dancing round a maypole with ribbons.
He returned to Keswick several more times including 1867 by which time he was a nationally revered and distinguished public figure. His affection for the Lakes was undiminished, for four years later in 1871, when he was 52 he bought Brantwood, near Coniston, when he learnt that W.J. Linton, the wood-engraver and revolutionary, wished to sell it. He was visited at Brantwood by many eminent Victorians, including Charles Darwin, Holman Hunt, Kate Greenaway and Henry Holiday.
In 1877 he inspired William Morris to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
W.G. Collingwood who was to become after Ruskin, Coniston’s most notable resident, was an artist, writer and antiquarian of more than local reputation and was Ruskin’s secretary from 1881 onwards. He was a former pupil of Ruskin’s at Oxford.
Ruskin died at Brantwood of influenza on 20 Jan 1900, and is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church in Coniston. His grave is marked with a large carved cross made from green slate from the local quarry at Tilberthwaite. It was designed by W.G. Collingwood, who was an expert on Anglo-Saxon crosses, with symbols depicting important aspects of Ruskin’s work and life. A year later W.G. Collingwood worked to set up an exhibition, now called the
Ruskin Museum, at the back of the Coniston Mechanics Institute, as a place to preserve any Ruskin mementoes that could be found. In 1901 the building was opened by Canon Rawnsley, and now gets almost as many visitors as Brantwood itself.
The Armitt in Ambleside contains a section on John Ruskin, and also a section on W.G. Collingwood and his family. The guidebook to Brantwood contains much information about Ruskin’s life, as well as the history of the Brantwood estate.
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