John Ruskin

The lesser-known side of John Ruskin - Sheffield, the Guild of St George, and Fors Clavigera

Sheffield Cultural Heritage


John Ruskin in Sheffield


Ask someone who John Ruskin was and chances are they’ll gesture at his art criticism, his art, and perhaps his art-world standing: a contemporary and champion of the then-controversial J.M.W Turner and Oscar Wilde’s mentor. Less spoken about are his invaluable contributions to English social and political thought, in which he poked holes in English- even Western- culture and tradition.

For an art-critic who championed quintessentially progressive waves of creation - like Romanticism which came under fire for not adhering to old, neoclassical and classical rules of form and formula - it only makes sense that his cultural criticism was equally progressive. In Fors Clavigera ( Fate’s Hammer) - a newsletter which targeted the working man - he described a more Utopian future once a month. It has since been described as effectively an industrial-age blog.

Ruskin was raised wealthy and privileged, inherited much from his wine-merchant family but put it into ventures such as the Guild of St George- a pastoral charity that symbolised everything Ruskin hoped for.

His legacy is inimitable; a scan through his Wikipedia will turn up devoted praise from Tolstoy, Proust, even Gandhi. Even in the Far East, Ryuzu Mikimoto made it his mission to translate,maintain and collect Ruskin’s work and writings.

So why is it that a man - with such famous spiritual descendants having become household names – that Ruskin himself is more-or-less remembered as a peculiar art-critic?

Perhaps his ideas are still threatening to those in power today: I think of something like the settlement movement and think of Sheffield.

The settlement movement was a reformist social movement positing that by literally bringing together the lower and higher classes in proximity, it would break the classist hierarchy by encouraging social-interconnectedness. Through middle-class people living side-by-side with the working rung they would hopefully begin to share knowledge, skills, amenities, and eventually opportunities and healthcare.

Modern attempts like the UK’s council housing seem a poor substitute!

Of course, 150 years later, this simple idea defeats the status quo: give the poor people drugs or weapons and deny them education and watch them tear themselves apart - a vicious, circular power structure.

Prohibition, the cannabis trade, the prison industrial complex - Ruskin’s work seems to predate and forewarn i t all. It’s significant that Ruskin, despite his impressive financial charity, placed so much value on empowering people through knowledge and uniting them – us - with the idea of a way out.

Take the title Fors Clavigera (Fate’s Hammer), which emphasises how a good life comes out of chance and privilege as much as hard work. Its letters spanned 13 years of his life, so devoted was he to sociological and geological change. And yet it is rarely mentioned compared to his artistic
work.

These 96 essays illustrate the societal prison we find ourselves in today, sometimes described in the literal and visceral terms of the industrial age, with metals used as metaphor. Take the following passage:

‘producing iron plates, iron guns, gunpowder, infernal machines, infernal fortresses floating about, infernal fortresses standing still, infernal means of mischievous locomotion, infernal lawsuits, infernal parliamentary elocution, infernal beer; and infernal gazettes, magazines, statues, and pictures’

There is a certain abhorrence evident in his perception of his surroundings, detailed and disgusted.

In a lecture called “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy”, he contrasted beautiful sculptured iron grilles from medieval era Verona with the haggard, dystopian aesthetic of 19th century, mass-produced security railings, drawing a parallel with “iron” traditions that hinder British progress in the name of some arbitrary white sanctity...

‘You think, perhaps, that your iron is wonderfully useful in a pure form, but how would you like the world if all your meadows, instead of grass, grew nothing but iron wire—if all your arable ground, instead of being made of sand and clay, were suddenly turned into flat surfaces of steel—if the whole earth, instead of its green and glowing sphere, rich with forest and flower, showed nothing but the image of the vast furnace of a ghastly engine—a globe of black, lifeless, excoriated metal?’

How does a child who looks out of his classroom window and sees gravel ever dream of a greener, better future?

I think of Sheffield and wonder how the Steel City's shadow may still loom over it. Technological advancements have brought us so much in the form of medical and biological safety, but Ruskin argued that, like a painter leaving his canvas alone before he spoils it, too much is not Luddite - it is a balancing act.

His work extended to ecological and, before we had the terminology for it, mental health concerns. He saw that the external could negatively affect the internal.

The Guild, meanwhile, still stands as a monument to what might have been - and what may still be.

It’s website describes itself thus:

'In its origins, it was a frankly Utopian body. It represented Ruskin's practical response to a society in which profit and mass-production seemed to be everything, beauty, goodness and ordinary happiness nothing” - going on to describe Ruskin’s hopes for the Guild as to create the face of “an alternative to industrial capitalism.'

Through museums, housing and education, he celebrated the power and beauty in the iron workers of Sheffield, demolishing the ugly stereotype of smog, ash, and the lazy proletariat who earn what they deserve. He promoted our rural economy as the bedrock of all society.

As important as craftsmanship and sustained agriculture was, he equally sort to impress upon us how important an understanding of art (and an ability to engage with all kinds of art) was, building social-consciousness and encouraging all kinds of debate and open-mindedness.

Ruskin, perhaps above all, raged against hierarchy – for example, the notion that a minimum-wage worker is entitled to less respect than his or her's boss.

This is evident in what members of the Guild are called, even today - Companions. I t’s not hard to imagine his vernacular being derided as veiled Marxism by those in power, merely a few characters away from comradeship and eating bread and rice for dinner.

But Ruskin didn’t want to share poverty, he wanted us to share in the Western wealth that so many have decried doesn’t exist.

One global pandemic later and it is clear that the money has always been there. So i f we don’t commit to the rugged structures of capitalism for the economy (and we definitely don’t commit to it for personal gain), then, if it’s more than stable without so many union-busting enterprises and underpaid labourers being exploited, then what in fact is it for?

Ruskin still terrifies neo-liberalism. Perhaps not because he showed us what we didn’t know, but because he let us connect those dots ourselves, just gesturing to the answers that were already under our noses. Call that empowerment!

Sheffield Cultural Heritage

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