Public Art Collections in North West England: Ruskin Library

Ruskin Library, originally uploaded by feelinglistless.

Museums We begin with an apology. I visited The Ruskin Library at Lancaster University last October and have no excuses for not talking about it before now, some five months later. The problem with being addicted to these kinds of adventures is that at some point they all begin to pile on top of one another and I was high on Hamlet and Hitchcock films at the time and then there was my birthday, then Christmas and then I began with The Wire then Woody Allen and somewhere in there, hammering out these meagre paragraphs became something being put off, a transparent dangling carrot expectantly awaiting extrapolation, as Alanis Morissette or Stephen Fry might say.

To begin: as Edward Morris describes in his book, Public Art Collections in North West England, John Ruskin, the nineteenth century critic and art historian was one of the seminal figures in the development of the academic study of culture, yet unfashionably for the early part of the last century he believed that the work could be understood on its own terms, that its deeper meaning was less useful than its aesthetic qualities. His philosophy is neatly summarised at the Wikipedia but largely amounts to the artist producing the best work he can and if the viewer likes it, that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine too. But it’s still art. Also Gothic buildings rule! Ruskin’s also notable for falling in with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters – his ex-wife Effie would later marry John Everett Millais and the pair were the subject of a number of paintings. He offered financial support to the likes of Burne-Jones all of which was somewhat dramatised in the BBC’s Desperate Romantics last year, with Tom Hollander and a beard as Ruskin.

John Howard Whitehouse was an electro-plate worker turned politician turned school master. Heralding from Birmingham, he founded a Ruskin Society there in 1896, and across the following half century, he amassed an impressive collection of books, manuscripts, drawings and paintings by Ruskin which by 1929 were being housed in a school he’d founded in the Isle of White. When he died in 1955, the collection passed to former pupil J.S. Deardon who also wrote extensively about Ruskin, his old master and the collection. When the school closed in 1996 due to local cuts in the education system, the collection was loaned out to Lancaster University due to its reputation for nineteenth-century studies and because of its proximity to Brantwood, were Ruskin spent twenty-eight years of his life (and a future stop on this trip around the galleries) [Update 21/01/2010: Stephen Wildman, Director and Curator, Ruskin Library clarifies my over simplification in the comments below].

Conceived by Richard MacCormac and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this present building was constructed to house that collection which extends to over fifteen thousand items which are all teasingly held in glass walled rooms and can be seen through a glass floor in the basement. As you can see from the photograph, it’s quite the most extraordinary building, of the kind of Kevin McLeod might drool over on Grand Designs. MacCormac deliberately designed the building to resemble a chapel, which is does, one of the anti-rooms that might appear in a modern cathedral like Coventry. Though walking up to the building from the outside, along the perfectly measured, plain path brings to mind science fiction films; instead of nineteenth century papers it would have been quite proper to find a monolith, the architect from The Matrix films or a splinter from the fortress of solitude hidden within.

Stepping inside, you’re confronted with a central display case. The exhibition areas are in mezzanine floors on either side and the reception desk and administration office are off-handedly/unobtrusively placed on the left hand side (photos available at the library’s website). The library reading room, as I explained, is in a glassed off section at the front/back of the building but I was strangely unimpressed enough not to even ask if I could go and see; the long day was closing and I was content to simply enjoying the feeling of the place, the smell, which is presumably engendered by the ecclesiastical setting, which is odd considering my lack of appreciation for organised religion. I’m still awed by churches though. I’m a very confused/complex person.

Due to the brevity of the building, the collection isn’t on permanent public display. Which might also be why Edward only dedicates a page to it in his book. There is a rolling exhibition programme of selections in one area and what seems like commercial presentations in the other [they aren't, again, see comments]. At present there is a show of Ruskin’s Daguerreotypes of Tuscany which in the future will change to Mountain Glory: Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’ and the Swiss Alps. With an embarrassment of riches, but a small subject focus, the curatorial imperative must be to find relevant themes and also to try and put the artist into historical context, create a shop window for the collection. But that might also be why the library isn’t widely visited by the public; with lengthy exhibition periods there’s a certain lethargy, a get round to it approach to calling in. Which is a shame because it’s well worth a visit, for the building alone.


  1. Thanks to Anon for this lively review. Just a few clarifications, to set the record straight. The Whitehouse collection is vested in an educational trust which he set up; James Dearden was the first curator after Whitehouse's death. Bembridge was a private school, and its closure in 1996 had nothing to do with 'local cuts', just simple economic pressures.

    Like most collections of drawings, watercolours, and other works on paper, it would be irresponsible to put anything on permanent display, due to the cumulative deteriorating effect of exposure to light, at however low a level. Regular visitors get to see a high proportion of the collection through temporary exhibitions.

    There have never been 'commercial presentations', although when a contemporary artist shows work with a Ruskinian theme (the reviewer must have seen Alexander Hamilton's extraordinary cyanotypes made at Glenfinlas and Brantwood) it is only appropriate that these are discreetly available for purchase through the artist.

    The displays change at the beginning of each academic term (it is essentially a research library rather than a gallery: Lancaster University also has the Peter Scott Gallery), usually tied in with the theme of the Ruskin Seminar - this meets weekly, which is hardly lethargic!

    Oh, and Tom Hollander didn't have a beard in Desperate Romantics, which only covered the early Pre-Raphaelite years: Ruskin didn't grow a beard until 1878, one of the few facts the programme got right!

    Otherwise a great and welcome review, which I'm sure will encourage others (well, hopeful anyway!)

    Stephen Wildman, Director and Curator, Ruskin Library

  2. Hello and thanks for the clarifications, especially about the beard. My memory has clearly cheated me here (too much television).

    Noting that the collection was just an observation. I absolutely understand and support the preservation of items.

    I'm pleased to hear about those weekly meetings, too.