The Ruskin Library and Museum sits at the entrance to Lancaster University and is open to everyone. It is free to visit, with stunning exhibits on display from John Ruskin’s life and work. In this piece, we will begin with a short discussion on Ruskin’s contributions to Victorian society and his relevance today. We will then turn to the construction of this very modern-looking building and the work its staff are doing to engage the wider public with the thoughts and philosophy of John Ruskin.
Ruskin was born in 1819, the son of a wealthy sherry merchant. As a boy he travelled widely with his mother and father in Britain and Europe, becoming well schooled in art, history and science. The family fortune meant that as an adult he never needed to find paid employment. He turned his back on the self-indulgent, hedonistic lifestyle that befalls many who inherit unearned money. Instead, he chose to spend his life educating any who would listen about the importance of carefully observing what we can see around us and how we can learn from it.
Ruskin became the foremost art critic of the Victorian Age. The Pre-Raphaelite painters John Everett Millais, Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti all received his support. Here in the north-west of England, we are fortunate to have many examples of their work in our galleries.
Being a patron and promoter was only one aspect of his work. He was keen on nature conservation, laying the basis of the National Trust. He spoke out against industrial pollution and the dehumanising aspect of mechanisation. He wrote widely on science, religion, literature, economics and social welfare. His views directly influenced social reformers such as Gandhi and the creators of the modern British welfare state.
For the last 28 years of his life, Ruskin moved from London to live at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston. He died in 1900, but his work lived on through the help of the Ruskin Society, founded eleven years before he died. John Howard Whitehouse, a Liberal MP, was a founder and first secretary of the society. In 1932, he bought Brantwood and opened it to the public two years later. During his lifetime, Whitehouse amassed a huge amount of Ruskin’s work, which will become relevant to our story later on.
The Ruskin Building is Constructed
The Ruskin Collection Project was begun in 1990. A building to house the archive needed to be constructed and Sir Richard MacCormac of MJP Architects was commissioned. Some felt that the building should reflect Ruskin’s love of Venetian architecture as outlined in his book published in three volumes The Stones of Venice, but Sir Richard was sceptical. Ruskin had joked that he had left Dulwich in London to move to the Lakes to get away from the large number of pub porches that had been constructed in a revived Venetian gothic style. He said such architecture was a Frankenstein of his own making. Sir Richard felt the building should have some connection with Venice but not to make a modern copy of the architecture found there.
When working on his design plans, he reflected on Ruskin’s idea of a building having a history and a story attached to it. He was drawn to the idea of the solitary, strong inner building of a castle, which is named the keep. The word ‘keep’ also means to own or possess, and in this case the building was to be a huge repository of Ruskin’s work, which had be kept safe and secure for future generations.
The building was made with a massive heavy outer shell, which helps keep the archive at the right temperature inside. The empty moat around the building draws air in through ducts, which can then exit through the roof. After hot summer days the cooler night air refreshes the building, making it the first archive in the country that does not need electrical air conditioning.
What immediately strikes the visitor is that, on entering the building, the whole central part is taken up by what appears to be a giant box. This is the central store of the archive, and to move around inside the building you have to walk around it. Here we see the idea of a keep within in a keep, or a box within a box.
What of the inspirations from Ruskin’s beloved Venice? As Venice is an island, the building sits on an island of grass, with a small moat around it, connected by a causeway to the rest of the campus. Inside, the black walls (created by painting them with linseed oil) mimic the dark streets of the city. The underlit glass floor gives us the idea of looking into the famous canals. In a self-effacing moment when explaining his inspirations for the interior and exterior design, Sir Richard admitted that it is difficult to do so without sounding like a contributor to Private Eye magazine’s Pseud’s Corner.
In 1998, the construction was finally complete. The Ruskin Library won the Independent on Sunday’s Building of the Year competition and received a Millennium Award.
2019 was the anniversary of Ruskin’s birth and the Library and Museum had a relaunch. It had just acquired the huge ‘Whitehouse Collection’ that had belonged to John Howard Whitehouse, the first secretary of the Ruskin Society. This is the largest collection of Ruskin’s work in the world. It contains 8000 manuscripts, 29 volumes of his diary (1835-1888), 7000 letters, 1500 drawings, a huge number of photographs and 125 daguerreotypes, some of which are the earliest images of Venice and the Alps, dating to 1850. Perhaps the most arresting objects in the collection are the Ruskin Lecture Diagrams. These are huge models and drawings that Ruskin displayed in his public lectures and many have not been seen in public since he last used them. An inaugural exhibition titled Ruskin Museum of the Future included the lecture diagrams, along with many of his drawings, observations and notebooks.
Today, the institution actively promotes Ruskin’s work to any that are interested. The website of The Ruskin is extensive, a real rabbit warren of content. This includes digitised copies of the collection, all of Ruskin’s books which you can read for free, details of previous exhibitions and an ongoing blog. The staff engage with academics, artists and students across the world to further reflect on Ruskin’s legacy. A visit to this valuable resource centre is recommended. To view the exhibitions there is no need to book, just turn up.
Ruskin’s philosophy is hard to sum up succinctly. However, after the concluding session at a Working Man’s College Ruskin said to the class “Now remember gentlemen, I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see”. The modern philosopher Alain de Botton comments that “Drawing an object, however badly, swiftly takes us from a woolly sense of what it looks like to a precise awareness of its component parts and particularities”.
In a wider sense, Ruskin’s motto was “today”, reminding us that the way we see things now we will shape the way we think and behave in the future.
NOTE: THE RUSKIN IS CURRENTLY CLOSED FOR REFURBISHMENT.
IT RE-OPENS IN 2024.
Nearby, just a short drive away
Launch of the Ruskin: Library, Museum and Research Centre (2019), Lancaster University. Free booklet available from the centre.
lancaster.ac.uk/the-ruskin/ The Ruskin website is deceptively large. Highlights are the research projects and exhibitions. The blog is also very interesting.
lancaster.ac.uk/the-ruskin/our-building/ This page contains part of a talk by Sir Richard MacCormac on his ideas when designing the building.
mjparchitects.co.uk/about/publications/architecture-memory-metaphor-the-ruskin-library/ Read this for more on Sir Richard MacCormac’s inspiration.
mjparchitects.co.uk/projects/ruskin-library/ These pages reveal the plans of the library and museum.