Public Art Collections in North West England:

Art Having moaned for years about the difficulty of having a day trip to Brantwood via public transport (day trips being one of the unwritten rules of this project), last week I decided to simply visit Brantwood via public transport anyway. Or rather I decided earlier in the month to go last week because that’s when I bought the North West Rover ticket which allows for unlimited train travel on four designated days within eight (for £70) which is how I would manage to afford to visit three locations in the Lake District and then Carlisle (saving myself about £50). Even as I was ordering the ticket, I had considered staying over somewhere but the Summer prices in that part of the world for hotels and guest houses are frankly astonishing (plus the unwritten rules, the unwritten rules).

Here is what do if you want to visit Brantwood as a day trip. Forget it.  One of the exceptions of the ticket is that you have to travel after 8:45 in the morning, I took the 9:28am train from Lime Street to Preston then changed to a train to Windermere which departed at 10:45 which gets there for 11:40, just after the bus to Coniston has left. Luckily last Tuesday (at least for me) that bus had been delayed and it turned out that rather than as originally advised by the internet of having to walk for 2.5 miles from Coniston to Brantwood, I could be dropped off at the end of the road, 1.5 miles away instead. But it still takes an hour by bus to get there and another half hour to forty minute walk to the house where I arrived at 1:45pm. Due to needing to get the 3:40 bus back to Windermere, I was there for just over an hour.

But what an hour! Actually if you include the walk to and from the house, which is important for reasons that will become clear, more like two hours. To some extent, the whole j-word was a bit like having all the hassle of going on holiday without actually being on holiday, something which would be in sharper relief the following day when I ended up in Coniston with its gift shops and cafes and no time to really enjoy those. Except there’s no denying that this visit to Brantwood changed my art appreciation forever and so was entirely worth the ten hour round trip from home (including bus into town and taxi home at the end). Having spent years wondering why Edward Morris included the venue in his book Public Art Collections in North-West England, I’m now very pleased that he did.

As Edward explains in the single paragraph he dedicates in his book to the venue, Brantwood was painter and poet John Ruskin’s final home which he bought, sight unseen, from the wood engraver and writer William Linton for £1500 in the late 1860s and would become his main home. Over the next few years he moved to Brantwood his “remarkable collections of books, illustrated manuscripts, minerals, Turner watercolours and Pre-Raphaelite paintings as well as his own watercolours and drawings” which were sold on after his death to the collector John Howard Waterhouse who’d in the 1930s buy the house from the subsequent occupiers and open it as a museum to Ruskin, returning much of the collection back into the place and original positions.  He then set up a charitable trust to administer all of this.

Not a large dwelling by any means, it’s smaller than Sudley House, I think.  A large portion of the ground floor is consumed by the admission counter, shop and a video room showing a short documentary introduction to Ruskin which looks like it was produced in the 80s with its Anton Rogers voiceover and spot music which sounds like something Paddy Kingsland might have produced for Doctor Who in the period. That begins with Ruskin’s death which prompted the person sitting next to me to remark “that’s a grim way to begin”, which it is. Other than that each room serves a duel role of showing its original domestic utility as a study or parlour whilst simultaneously including exhibits explaining who Ruskin was and the sorts of things you might more readily expect to find in the Ruskin Museum itself (and do).

Not knowing much about Ruskin before visiting, purposefully because I wanted to test just how much Brantwood and the Ruskin Museum would work their magic, other than his connection to the pre-Raphaelites, I hadn’t realised just how embedded he was in that period of Britain’s cultural life. His contribution in defending the early work of Turner is huge. Like Whistler later, he was ahead of his time in fighting against artistic convention and the expectations of how a painting should be, what it should include and the extent to which an artist should simply be replicating what came before or experimenting. Most of the displays in Brantwood include quotes and commentary from his many books including this from, The Stones of Venice, his three volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture:
“Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”
It’s impossible to read this quote and see how it explains the difference, for example, between commercial and art cinema and how familiar tropes have led to the death of creativity in both.

As an inevitable glance at Your Paintings collection reveals, the collection doesn’t stretch much beyond the work of his closest friends and himself. Joseph Severn was a joint resident in the house and so its natural that there should be many of his paintings here, watercolour and oils.  Sitting on the wall behind the piano, his Ruskin's Garden at Brantwood, which unlike the image on the BBC website (which seems to have been punched up in reproduction) has a much moodier atmosphere of a closed, private space not letting in much light through the tree tops to the muddy pathway below. There’s also a very good Burne-Jones preparatory sketch on the wall in the lounge of a woman’s head in brown chalk on paper.

Since the museum opened there’s been a much greater effort to try and hang the walls much as Ruskin did when he lived there by including reproductions of paintings that are now in other collections. The wall above his bed has prints of Ruskin's own paintings now owned by Wolverhampton and York Art Galleries, The British Museum and Bolton Abbey. They’re also making further purchases including two very nice still lifes painted at Brantwood by Lawrence Hilliard newly on display. There are also loans. The collection includes a portrait of Ruskin’s mother Margaret in 1825 and there’s also a portrait by Hilliard of Ruskin himself painted three year’s earlier when he was just three years old (Ruskin not Hilliard!) that is currently on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

If that discussion seems lighter than usual on considering the point of my visit, it’s because for a fair proportion of my hour, not including the fifteen minutes spent watching video, I couldn't stop simply looking out of the window, because Brantwood is built in one of the most, most, most places of natural beauty I’ve ever been. When Ruskin first moved there, his first reaction was to build a turret on the south-west corner of Brantwood so that he had panoramic views of this glorious place in all weathers. On the way to Brantwood, I stopped to take some photographs and found the memory card on my camera was broken (which is why my own photo doesn’t appear above) but even a photograph could in any sense capture the unalloyed magnificence of the view.

As these superlatives demonstrate the experience of seeing this both walking to and from the house and from inside the turret had a very profound effect on me. Having lived in cities and three cities in particular all my life, I haven’t really had a chance to see nature in this form, to be dwarfed by a mountain across the calm still waters of a lake, surrounded by the sounds of sheep and as was the case that afternoon the deep blue sky. Even living as high as I do in my tower block, the mountains are still remote places across the Mersey and obscured by the fog of the urban sprawl. Here I could see the shadows created by crevices as sunbeams splattered across them creating new colours and shading, purples, browns, blues and greys across the afternoon contrasting with the greens, oh the greens of the fields.

It’s in walking to and from the house and standing inside that turret that I finally understood landscape painting or rather how it can be misunderstood. There’s a single painting of the area in the database which is part of Brantwood’s own collection, William Gershom Collingwood’s Brantwood from the Lake and it’s a reverse angle, showing the house in the landscape as seen from the very place at which I was looking, but it’s a fairly typical example of the kind of work I’ve previous overlooked or at least failed to be enthused by simply because it just seemed like it was trying to capture the landscape without embellishment. For all my love of portraits, I’ve never really understood, unless there’s something outrageously huge or indeed humanity included, the love of this kind of representational art.

Standing in front of that view from Brantwood I finally understood – there’s nothing especially representational about any art or rather that there’s a wide difference between what a painter can capture in a landscape and the photography which ultimately led to it being rejected by artists and the contemporary art market. As the light changed within moments across that landscape, I began to appreciate the skill involved in trying to capture that and more particularly the amount of interpretation involved and how a figure like Constable or Collingwood isn’t simply painting a hill or a tree but making very specific choices, choices which will be entirely different depending on their tastes. To put it in cruder terms, not all landscape painters or paintings are the same and its not about how precisely they're able to copy what they see.

To which there’ll be a fair few people who’ll say, well, yes. Plus there’ll be photographers, especially artistic photographers of the kind you have their work turned into greetings cards, who’ll note that they have to make decisions too. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s a crime and act of historic cultural vandalism that taste has led to landscape painting as a discipline to have fallen out of fashion, for contemporary artists to be somewhat forced by taste to produce abstract work when there’s still much which can be said or at the very least implied through pre-Impressionist (for want of a very description) landscape painting and that there’s a strange kind of double standards at work which means that historic landscapes can sell of thousands of pounds but their contemporary cousins are treated marginally.

If the experience of that painter featured on the BBC who submitted a remarkably detailed landscape painting to the Royal Academy only to be given a knock-back for the fiftieth year running is anything to go by, fashion has other ideas. It’s almost as though Ruskin’s hope as featured in the quote above has gone, at least in artistic terms, to the point that even landscape painting as exemplified by Turner who was subverting the form within the format would find working impossible. I suppose what I’m saying is that it would be rather good if the Tate or Royal Academy had an exhibition of contemporary landscape paintings demonstrating where this ancient, traditional form is now.

All of which strays off the point of my spiritual and visual awakening. In the coming days, I’d see more epic landscapes and more epic landscapes as paintings and whereas before I might have overlooked them (unless they were at sea because paradoxically I’ve always rather liked sea paintings) now I can see the profound efforts of the painters and artists in choosing the angle for their work, how it’s framed, the pallet and even how their decision on the given weather conditions represents his thoughts about that landscape. Which isn’t to say they’re all brilliant, but at least now, oddly, given how long I’ve been looking at paintings, I can see the difference between a poor and good example of a landscape painting. If I gained anything from visiting Brantwood, it is that.

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