William Gershom Collingwood
William Gershom Collingwood was born in Liverpool in 1854. He was introduced to the Lake District at an early age, accompanying his father on sketching tours.
After a brilliant academic career at Oxford, where he was a pupil of John Ruskin, he married and settled at Gillhead, Windermere.
He was influenced by John Ruskin, and William Morris, from who he derived a life-long interest in Norse settlement, art and language. His interest in art and Scandinavia prompted his research into the Pre-Norman Crosses of Cumbria and the North of England.
In 1927 he published ‘Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age’, illustrated with his own drawings.
He was also an accomplished musician, climber, swimmer and walker.
Collingwood lived at Lanehead, beside Coniston Water, about a mile from Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home from 1871 to 1900, and was Ruskin’s secretary from 1881 onwards. After Ruskin’s death, he became Professor of Fine Art at University College, Reading. He founded the Lake Artists Society in 1904, and the Society still has an annual exhibition during August, in Grasmere Village Hall.
W.G. Collingwood who was to become after John Ruskin, Coniston‘s most notable resident, was an artist, writer and antiquarian of more than local reputation. A year after John Ruskin died, Collingwood worked to set up an exhibition, later called the Ruskin Museum, at the back of the Coniston Mechanics Institute, as a place to preserve any Ruskin mementos that could be found. In 1901 the building was opened by Canon Rawnsley, and got almost as many visitors as Ruskin’s former home Brantwood, just across the lake.
Ruskin’s grave is at St Andrew’s Church in Coniston, and the grave is marked with a large carved cross made from green slate from the local quarry at Tilberthwaite. It was carved by H.T. Miles, to a design by W.G. Collingwood, who was an expert on Anglo-Saxon crosses, with symbols depicting important aspects of Ruskin’s work and life.
His book, ‘The Lake Counties’, was first published in 1902, and re-issued in 1988 in a revised edition with photographs, and notes and revisions by William Rollinson. Hugh Walpole said it is ‘the grandest prose writing about the Lake District in existence’. He later developed another career – that of novelist. ‘Thorstein of the Mere, A Saga of the Northmen in Lakeland’ (which was set around Coniston) is probably his finest novel. It was the favourite childhood book of Arthur Ransome, who later became Collingwood’s friend after they met while walking on ‘The Old Man of Coniston’.
In the churchyard of St Michael & All Angels’Church Hawkshead is the tall and beautiful War memorial, erected in 1919, and designed by W.G.Collingwood. He based the design on the ancient runic cross of about 1000 A.D. at Gosforth.
William’s son Robin was a philosopher of note, and wrote books and papers on Ancient and Roman Britain. He carried out archaeological work at the Galava Roman Fort in Ambleside.
The Armitt Museum in Ambleside contains a display of the life and work of the Collingwoods – William, his wife Edith who was a noted painter of miniatures, their son Robin, his sister Barbara who was a noted sculptor, and their sister Dora a fine water-colour painter. You can see examples of the work of all these people.
W.G. Collingwood died in 1932, and is buried near Ruskin at St Andrew’s Church, Coniston, with his family.
He also designed the Coniston war memorial, a Celtic Cross, near the South porch of the Church.
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