John Ruskin is not just a figure of history – he shaped history. Born in 1819, he went onto develop his skills as an artist, writer, philanthropist, social informer and ecologist, his work setting him out as a highly influential pioneer with far-reaching influence: including here in Manchester. Now 2019 marks his 200th birthday, the Ruskin in Manchester festival is a summer-long programme of events celebrating his lasting impact on the city.

Ruskin Photograph by William Downey

Funded and supported by Manchester Metropolitan University and the Guild of St George –an education charity founded by Ruskin in 1871 - Ruskin in Manchester invites the public to experience the transformative ideas and legacy of this Victorian polymath, through a highly varied programme. Exhibitions, performances, photography walks, public lectures and even an intriguing SketchCrawl are just some examples.

Covering a range of historic locations, including The Portico Library, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House and Manchester Art Gallery, Ruskin in Manchester includes a number of sites Ruskin would have visited himself during his time in the city. It was also in Manchester that the first Ruskin Society was founded in 1878, dedicated to the man and his forward-thinking.

But why Ruskin? One of the foremost thinkers of his day, although Ruskin was based significantly in London, many of his social and educational ideas went onto benefit places like Manchester. He was a prominent critic of the perils of industrialisation and urban deprivation, instead seeking to champion the importance of localism, sustainability, art and education. He strived for cities to be better places for everyone to live. This included the consideration of issues such as pollution – and just as Climate Change is increasingly on the public agenda now – Ruskin was one of the key early ecologists, recording the human impact on the surrounding environment. He even inspired the founding of the National Trust.

Whist Ruskin’s educational ideas brought enlightenment to many, especially through his public lectures – one of which he famously delivered at Manchester School of Art in 1859 – his artistic interests show a whole other side; including his influence on Gothic architecture, hence the term ‘Ruskinian Gothic’. Yet this didn’t mean all things dark. Going hand-in-hand with his aspirations for better urban living, Ruskin argued that good and beautiful lives could be inspired by Gothic architecture… and there certainly is no shortage in Manchester.

People can see Ruskin’s joint influence on the Gothic and Manchester School of Art – which is one of oldest art schools in the country – as its archivesRuskin in Manchester at Manchester Cathedral are now part of Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections, with a dedicated exhibition this month. Ruskin’s Manchester: ‘Devils Darkness’ to Beacon City (Monday 24 June to Friday 23 August) in the Special Collections Gallery will illustrate Ruskin’s relationship with the city through a range of fascinating drawings, paintings, pottery and textiles. From his perception of the ‘Devil’s Darkness’ of industrial smog affecting the area, to the celebration of Manchester as ‘beacon’ of learning, it charts a profound relationship.

The exhibition, as well as the wider festival itself, has been curated by Dr Rachel Dickinson, a Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and Director of Education for Ruskin’s Guild of St George. She reflects:

“The relationship between Manchester and Ruskin is fascinating. Ruskin raged against the city for its pollution, dirty industrial environment and poor living conditions.  Its reaction says a lot about Manchester, whose people and civic leaders listened and responded to Ruskin’s ideas around art, craft, education, localism and sustainability as they sought to make the city a happier and healthier place to live.  At the heart of this is a special relationship that can still be found in Manchester today.”

Manchester School of Art –part of Manchester Metropolitan University – is also hosting The John Ruskin Prize for 2019. The fastest growing multi-disciplinary art prize in the UK, The John Ruskin Prize began in 2012, is organised by The Big Draw (originally the Guild of St George’s Campaign for Drawing, and therefore formed out of Ruskin’s inspiration) and the Guild of St George, inviting artists from all backgrounds to submit work on a theme. The theme for this year is ‘Agent of Change’, a clear reference to Ruskin’s reforming zeal, and now the shortlist has been announced. From 11 July (when the prize giving will take place) – 24 August, shortlisted works can be viewed at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Holden Gallery. Having the display in Manchester is also homage to the fact that some of Ruskin’s most significant lectures on the theme of art and society were given in this city, including two linked to the Art Treasures exhibition of 1857. 

Features of the festival also mean that people will be able to discover artistic treasures for themselves. One is a Ruskin-inspired guided tour of ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ silk-embroidered altar frontals at Manchester Cathedral (pictured right), led by the artist Cristina Rodrigues (Monday 24 June). Manchester Cathedral certainly is an inspiring location, the Collegiate Body first established in 1421 and much of the building embodying the Perpendicular Gothic style.

Further inspiration comes in the form of an intriguing ‘Twilight Walk and Gawk Sketchcrawl: Gothic to Art Deco Architecture’ with Dr Jonathan Foyle and The Big Draw and is taking place on 10 July. This is a unique multi-site guided walk talking in significant architecture in the city linked to Ruskin, in chronological order – starting with Victorian Gothic and including landmarks such as the Town Hall, The John Ryland’s Library and Lutyens' Midland Bank. Led by Dr Jonathan Foyle, this walk will be preceded by an exclusive introduction to the 'Ruskin's Manchester: "Devil's Darkness" to Beacon City' exhibition by its curator Dr Rachel Dickinson. A Ruskin map of Manchester has also been illustrated by Michelle Shore Illustration – and Michelle displayed further pieces of her work at the Manchester School of Art Degree Show 2019, featuring a number of Gothic-inspired designs.

Image Based On Interlocking Textile Pattern By Ruskin

Exploring art and its connection to Ruskin will also be an opportunity at Manchester Art Gallery, with tours from Curator of Fine Art Hannah Williamson considering what Ruskin had to say on the collection (Monday 17 June, Tuesday 25 June and Wednesday 3 July). It is here that a recreation of Ruskin’s lecture ‘The Accumulation and Distribution of Art’, will take place, with actor and art historian Paul O’Keeffe channelling John Ruskin himself on the very date that he gave this lecture at Manchester Art Gallery’s Athenaeum in 1857 (Saturday 13 July).

Engaging with the ideas of Ruskin allows the cityscape to be seen with a renewed perspective – and this is an exciting quality of several festival events. Already this has included photography walks around the Northern Quarter led by the inspiring young people’s mental health organisation 42nd Street/The Horsfall and a poetry-writing workshop inspired by the surroundings of Manchester Cathedral.

Another historic location marking John Ruskin’s 200th birthday is Elizabeth Gaskell’s House on Plymouth Grove – the former house of the prolific 19th century novelist who was said to be a key admirer of Ruskin. Here a varied programme of events explore the relationship between these two cultural figures, as well as their wider influence on Victorian life, leading with the exhibition My Dear Mr Ruskin…” Friendship, Inspiration and Scandal (Wednesday 17 July 2019 to Monday 1 June 2020). Each Wednesday during the school Summer holidays, family friendly workshops on a range of creative topics will also be hosted at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

Considering the exciting range of events taking place as part of Ruskin in Manchester, HAUNT decided to speak to the Curator, Dr Rachel Dickinson, to find out more:

John Ruskin was born in London and travelled extensively. Why then did he have such an impact on Manchester - and what is the significance in celebrating it with a festival here?

“Ruskin was born in London to Scottish parents.  His father was a successful sherry merchant, and his family would accompany him on his business trips, as well as on more touristy trips to the Lake District and Europe.  On these trips, Ruskin came to love the beauty of nature, and of gorgeous old buildings like cathedrals with beautiful craftsmanship and cottages nestled in the landscape.  Manchester, or ‘Cottonopolis’ was the opposite of that.  A new city, it was modern in the worst way: filled with the air and noise pollution of primarily textile factories and warehouses.  Ruskin thought it was hellish.  Looking out of his window at Coniston in the Lake District after a particularly freakishly dark storm, he described the dim light it settled to as ‘Manchester devil’s darkness’.

“Although Manchester represented the worst of culture, he also found hope here.  When he came to lecture at the Manchester School of Art AGM in 1859, he began by saying that visiting the art school was raising his spirits. And the people of Manchester were among the first to really respond to him: the first Ruskin Society was formed here, and the first exhibition dedicated to him was held here in 1904.  He influenced important aspects of the city that shape our identity today like the Gothic Revival architecture of Albert Square; art galleries with free access for the public like Manchester Art Gallery, The Whitworth and Manchester Met’s Special Collections, the Cooperative movement.”

“Ruskin, like Manchester, was also both global and local in focus.  He stressed buying and eating local goods when possible (shop local! Reduce food miles!) and loved the idea of local architecture, but he also argued for a global community where countries must work together.  He would have approved of devolution and opposed Brexit.”


Ruskin was clearly multi-talented, but why does his work still have relevance today?

“The fact that Ruskin was a polymath — artist, scientists, writer of fiction and non-fiction — makes him really helpful to us as a source of inspiration today.  He saw the big picture, and put pieces of puzzles together.  For example, he was one of the first to notice the effect of pollution on the environment: for years he had been measuring the colour of skies with a cyonameter (a tool for measuring blues) and realised the sky was getting darker, and he had also been sketching clouds most of his life and realised these were changing.  He saw the possible dystopian nightmare that could come if humanity continued to build across all the countryside and pollute the air, soil and water, and describes this dark nightmare in gorgeous language (go read the lecture he gave at Bradford!).  This helped inspire the founding of the National Trust.

“He’s also relevant as a polymath in that he argued for the importance of a well-rounded Education for everyone, and stressed the fact that we all need to study at least so science, drawing, craft, history, language, PE — a full, polymathic curriculum — in  order to be fully human.

“He also had a lot to say about things like ethical consumerism, fair working conditions, National health service, animal rights ... lots of the issues we are still fighting for.  For me, his stress on craft and craftsmanship (which he theorised from the example of medieval Gothic craftsmanship) is personally really important — he asks us to try to make something creative everyday, and to learn craft skills:  he inspired me to learn how to spin yarn and to build on sewing skills to make some of my own clothes.”

For those who have not heard of Ruskin before... where to start in terms of reading his work?

“Ruskin wrote a huge amount.  His official published works (collected as The Library Edition) fills 39 volumes each about 5 inches thick.  But here’s my top three (at least today)

“‘The Nature of Gothic’, the central chapter of volume 2 of the 3 volume The Stones of Venice.  This is where he sets out his theory of craftsmanship and living ethically good and aesthetically beautiful lives inspired by Gothic architecture.  He also talks about ethical consumerism in this chapter.

Unto this Last.  This is the book that inspired Gandhi, so as this is Gandhi’s 150 as well as Ruskin’s 200, it is a must-read!

“The King of the Golden River — a fairy tale written by Ruskin.  It sets out his ideas for a fair society in a child (and adult!) friendly story... and Quentin Blake has just published a gorgeous new edition to celebrate the Bicentenary.”

Here at HAUNT Manchester we are very interested in The Gothic and its continuing impact on society. 'Ruskinian Gothic' certainly exists as a term - so was there a darker side to Ruskin's work, would you say?

“There were darker sides to Ruskin.  For example. He suffered from quite significant mental health issues (quite likely bipolar, but other diagnoses have also been suggested).  He also very briefly tinkered with trying to commune with ghosts.   Also perhaps worth noting that some of his early links to Venice and Switzerland (via Chillon Castle) were Byronic in that dark, brooding, dungeons sort of way.  But he says he grew out of that…”

Find out more about Ruskin for yourself and the range of events taking place as part of Ruskin in Manchester here. #Ruskin200

Image 1: Photograph of Ruskin seated in Rossetti's Chair by William Downey, 29 June 1863

Image 2: 'The Garden of Eden'  by Cristina Rodrigues

Image 3: based on Interlocking Floral Textile Pattern by Ruskin Linen Industry, c. 1890. © Collection of the Guild of St George Museums

Image 4: Study of an Acanthus Boss, Archivolt of the Central Door, San Marco, Venice, Italy​ (1877) by  John Ruskin © Collection of the Guild