How Ruskin brought art to the masses

Louisa Pullen dusts a plaster cast of  a column in St Marks Basilica,Venice
Louisa Pullen dusts a plaster cast of a column in St Marks Basilica,Venice
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CAMPAIGNER, philanthropist, lecturer, artist, critic, social reformer, collector and writer.

To call John Ruskin a Jack-of-all-trades would be an understatement.

Louisa Pullen with a book of drawings by John Ruskin

Louisa Pullen with a book of drawings by John Ruskin

But it was his art and art criticism for which he was renowned.

And here, in Sheffield, he put his work experience, and his wallet, to good use.

Ruskin didn’t live in Sheffield. He was from London and only visited the Steel City a handful of times, but it was here, in 1875, that he decided to do much of his philanthropic work.

He set up the Museum of St George, named after his own charity, the Guild of St George. He wanted to display his collection as a means of improving the lives of Sheffield’s hard-grafting steel and cutlery workers.

On Saturday, after months of renovation and conservation work, Sheffield Galleries is opening up Ruskin’s enormous collection to the public, once again.

Curator Louisa Pullen said: “Ruskin only visited Sheffield a handful of times but his father was a sherry merchant and, on his travels with Ruskin, he would stop off at the Peak District and became really interested in geology.

“Ruskin was an important art critic. But there was another side to him which came through later in life, and that was about appreciating things for what they are. Ruskin believed it was important not just to see things but to really look at them.”

He brought this philosophy to Sheffield, where industry was king. He believed hard-working labourers could improve their lives by simply appreciating beautiful things - both in terms of craftsmanship and nature.

“He chose Sheffield because he thought it wasn’t such a big city, yet it was full of amazing craftsmen,” said Louisa.

“He put an amazing collection together so these men could have something beautiful to look at and opened up the gallery until 9pm at night so they could enjoy it after work.

“It was in Walkley too, so visitors felt as if they were leaving the smoke behind and going somewhere with beautiful views and beautiful things.”

The collection was moved to the Millennium Galleries in 2001, via Meersbrook and the Ruskin Gallery on Norfolk Street.

And the collection’s not just about artwork.

There are dozens of geological specimens, intricately-detailed botanical illustrations, books, painting, drawings, sculpture and architectural friezes.

“He didn’t want the museum collection to be categorised at all - his collection was all jumbled up,” said Louisa

Ruskin set up his museum in Sheffield after inheriting £100,000 after his father’s death.

“He was very generous with his wealth,” said Louisa. “He really believed in enriching life and believed admiring detail in beautiful objects or nature would translate as being respectful in life.

“He was a very morally-upright character who believed those with money, power and influence should use it for the greater good.”

He certainly had influence. By the time he was 29 the Oxford graduate had published his first book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

In 1860 he produced Unto this Last, a collection of essays in which Ruskin argued against the power of capitalism and suggested fixed wages, not price competition, would bring about a greater good.

His essays were later discovered by Ghandi who, having read Unto this Last, published his own newspaper, the Indian Opinion. Ghandi also translated Unto this Last into Gujarati in 1908 and re-titled it Well Being of All.

Unto this Last also influenced the establishment of the Labour Party.

In the art world Ruskin’s influence was equally enormous. He could, at the whim of his words, make or break an artist.

He became well known after supporting the ambitious JM Turner - after whom the Turner Prize takes its name - and later was the principal supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

“He was a huge celebrity in his time,” said Louisa.

But his personal life was troubled. He was married to Effie Gray but the marriage was annulled after six years on grounds of non-consummation.

Speaking of his abstinence, Ruskin wrote: “It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive.

“But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.”

Effie married Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, for whom she modelled under Ruskin’s patronage of the young artist.

But this was just background to his work in Sheffield, the city he chose to be the home of his vast collection, which includes works by JMW Turner and Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

The collection is more than 150 years old and will now - after a four-month hiatus - be back at the Millennium Galleries.

After months of fundraising, Museums Sheffield has spent £200,000 on transforming the Ruskin Collection displays and now the collection of this extraordinary - albeit eccentric man - are open to the Sheffield public.

The Ruskin Collection will be open to the public from March 19.