Public Art Collections in North West England:
Ruskin Museum.

Art To the Ruskin Museum. On Wednesday, I wasn’t as lucky with the bus from Windermere, waiting until its usual scheduled time at half past twelve but due to traffic delays and country roads didn’t arrive in Coniston until around two o’clock (around half an hour later than scheduled). On both of these days I did at least enjoy the slightly dangerous, epic nature of the bus journeys in the Lakes as the Stagecoach vehicle pondered along roads in no way wide enough for them and certainly not wide enough for two of them if they happened to be driving towards one another, or any other wide vehicles, especially caravans. Minutes at a time spent pensively watching, knuckles white clutching handles as the bus edged forwards or in reverse just inches away from the side of a lorry travelling in the opposite direction. The Brodie Avenue school run looks positively pedestrian in comparison.

Ruskin Museum is the other half of the trust’s work and where most of his collection is on display. Its fruition was much the same as many of these regional art museums. On Ruskin’s death in 1900, his long term assistant W.G. Collingwood and his friend Arthur Severn (both of whose paintings were mentioned last time) organised an exhibition at the local institute (an educational institution which had been paid for by Ruskin for the benefit of the village which was built on copper mining). The sale of paintings, including some of Ruskin’s own, paid for the setting up of a permanent Ruskin Museum created as an extension to the institute. A century later the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled the redisplay of the collection and its this exhibition which greets the visitor now, dedicated to displaying works from all three men and charting their unusual friendship across the years.

The museum implies in its accompanying text that all you need to know about their relationship can be found in two portraits of Ruskin by each of the other two men. The Collingwood, from 1897 a few years before Ruskin’s death is a loving portrayal of an elderly gentlemen, an old face with young eyes, something verifiable thanks to the reproduction of the Hilliard painting of the painter when he was three years old nearby. The Severn, painted the same year is of, the museum proposes (I’m paraphrasing), a severe, frail figure due in part to a fissure within their domesticity created when the painter married Joan Ruskin Agnew, Ruskin’s cousin and heir. My interest is in whether both paintings were produced during the same sitting but from different angles. Ruskin is sat in the same chair in the same position in front of the same bookshelves.

Your Paintings offers images of the eight oils in the collection. The bulk of the paintings on display are watercolours and of these I much prefer those Ruskin painted during his travels, during his early life and his grand tour of Europe later. There’s a loving illustration of his rooms at Christ Church in Oxford where he matriculated beginning in 1936 and of balcony and arches in Pisa in 1882 which he had toured during book research in the 1840s (his Fountain in Rome must also have been from that trip). All of them are intensely detailed and steady creating symmetrical shapes in what must have been freehand. But as Edward Morris describes in Public Art Collection in North West England, it’s “Collingwood’s portrait of Ruskin at work at his desk in Brantwood with lake and mountains visible through the window” which is one of the great icons of late-nineteenth century British art.

But the Ruskin Museum isn’t just about the eponymous painter now. There are three displays. A much larger room houses a general museum in tribute to Coniston covering much the same territory as any town museum, beginning with pre-history and local geology through a account of the copper mines through to artefacts from its more recent history. One of the unexpected pleasures is the rowing boat that inspired Arthur Ransome whilst writing Swallows and Amazons. One of the more sobering displays, as large as the other two rooms put together is about Donald Campbell’s fateful land speed records including part of the K7 positioned on the ground in the middle of a plastic sheet showing where it would have fitted in the vehicle. Campbell is commemorated with an impressively naturalistic resin and copper statue created in 2009 by the artist Graham Ball.

An hour and a bit later I wasn’t quite ready to leave but had a feeling it was about time. After stopping outside to look at the model village created by the late stone mason John Usher in the grounds which is notable because it replicates in miniature the stunning dry stone walling from which most of the buildings and walls in Windermere seem to be constructed and visiting the aforementioned institute which is now an antiques and collectables showroom of the kind which turns up near tea time on BBC television I strolled into town. A couple of gift shops later I noticed a fair queue had built up at the bus stop and wandering over discovered the schedules 3:20 bus had been delayed so thought it prudent to wait for it. The bus arrived half an hour late and after terminating in Ambleside leading to much confusion and getting on a further bus I eventually pitched up in Windermere having missed the train.

Two things on all of this. (1) The same bus queue mayhem from Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool also happens in Coniston. Or at least it did that day. As we’ve discussed before, the bus stop on Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool doesn’t have a shelter so people either tend to just stand in an amorphous clump outside a Boots or else form a random queue heading away from the area and up the street or as is usually the case, both. Which leads to much shouting and needling when a bus arrives as the self appointed queuers brim with righteous indignation as the rest of us simply head for the doors. Having beed there enough times I know exactly where to stand for the doors to open and I can’t imagine why no one else bothers not least because it can’t be a first time event for them either.

When I reach the bus stop at Coniston I notice that a few of the people there had been on the same vehicle as me from Windermere and ask around for the information which I’ve already carelessly revealed to you above sapping this of any tension (though as listeners of This American Life will know route talk is one of the seven things you’re not supposed to mention in polite company anyway). I stood on the side of the road and phoned home to check on this and that and so forth and happened to be standing near the bus stop. At the end of the conversation I went to stand on the kerb only to be told by an older man, “You know there’s a queue here.” I looked. There was undoubtedly a queue consisting of a family and him and his accompanying person who may be his wife then, yes an amorphous clump of people sitting inside and outside of the shelter with some more tourists joining just in the middle. Harumph.

We all fitted on anyway and the benefit of missing the train back at Windermere was (2) that it afforded me some time to walk into Windermere to find something to eat, which I did at The Little Chippy (which oddly enough is exactly how I felt as I was standing in the bus queue at Coniston after the verbal altercation). These fish and chips more than made up for the night before when I sat eating a Ginsters pasty in the Pumpkin Café on Preston Station which was too hot to handle so I ended up eating with one of those wooden coffee stirrers snapped in half doubling as knife and fork because they don’t supply cutlery, picking up each tiny piece of excess potato and meat from the open wrapper with the pointed end. If there was a low point, certainly the loneliest point across the three days in the lakes it was that. Wordsworth Museum next.

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