Robot of Sherwood.

TV Just over ten years ago, your writer, not longer after watching the director’s cut of A Californian Archer in the Sheriff's Court decided to visit Nottingham and “do the Robin Hood” thing. Even on the six hour train journey down, or down and across, a bit, he didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect other than to see perhaps the castle. Thanks to the sheer longevity of this blog you can read about the whole thing here (I’ve now been writing this for a third of my life) including the visit to said castle where, after some haggling over guide books and what was their lack of interest in selling me one, the clerk behind the counter informed me that Robin Hood didn’t exist.

Luckily, opposite the station I found a Tales of Robin Hood tourist attraction in which the visitor was taken on Yorvik Viking Centre like chair ride through scenes from the stories, through Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff’s banqueting hall. At the end of that you were shown a video in which, as the younger version of me describes, saw “a Raymond Chandler style Private Dick visiting a contemporary Nottingham trying to find out if Robin Hood was indeed real. His findings were inconclusive and that it's pretty much a matter of opinions.” Ironically now the Tales of Robin Hood itself doesn’t exist having had to close because they couldn’t make enough rent to pay their landlord Tesco, which is doubly ironic given the topic I suppose.

Even after all of that I'm still not sure if Robin Hood really existed. A bit like Clara in Robot of Sherwood (paragraph three, will wonders?), I’ve always sort of hedged my bets on it, or found a sweet spot somewhere between there having been some kind of historical outlaw figure, a Pandorica-like fairy story and the idea that illiterate outlaws used the name Robin Hood as a kind of John Doe substitute. He’s mentioned in As You Like It and in a way, which suggests Shakespeare wasn’t convinced either way. The Two Gentlemen of Verona features a passage in which Valentine falls in with a band of outlaws which practically screams “this play would be in production more often if it was just about Robin Hood”.

The BBC itself has had some previous with the Hood (Troughton!). Twitter was soon abuzz with deluded notions about this being less funny than Maid Marian and her Merry Men as though it’s a fair comparison given they’re trying do different things but the most obvious contextual point is Robin Hood, the first bit of genre family entertainment broadcast in Who’s slot after it changed Saturday night television forever (by essentially remaking Lois & Clark apparently). The first version of this review blog post thing was going to be a meta-jokeoid about the resurrection of a previously cancelled but much loved drama series with different actors but I realised that as a meta-jokeoid it wasn’t particularly funny.

Within the Whoniverse he’s been pretty well established as a character. The (well alright if you say so) Twelfth Doctor forgets that in his first incarnation he met Robin and tussled with the Sheriff in Jonathan Morris’s brilliant Short Trip, The Thief of Sherwood (revealed through fictitious excepts from a Time Team in Doctor Who Magazine, Radio Times, Doctor Who: A Celebration, The Television Companion and Target Books "novelisation" of the serial). A later “Trip” by Joseph Lidster placed Polly in that exact story as Maid Marion. He’s also met Iris Wyldethyme, in his time. A version of him also appeared in an episode of the K9 spin-off, which the TARDIS Datacore has decided is canonical, so there you are.

There’s plenty more supposition and intrigue on the designated Wikipedia page but the point is, as Mark Gatiss has realised in crafting his script, in writing a story featuring one of Britain’s oldest mythic figure, it’s best to treat him as being just as relevant and as respectfully as the man (or potential Romola Garai) who constitutes our newest. To make as many jokes as he likes about the veracity of the existence of Robin Hood but to in the end realise that the best way to deal with him within the mechanism of Doctor Who, to keep our franchise’s ineffable magic intact, is to follow the lead of Ben Aaronovitch in integrating Camelot in Battlefield (and Jonathan Morris in his short prose) and make him as real as the Time Lord.

With a brief thought as to whether Sherlock Holmes would have received similar treatment under different show runners and not ones with all-consuming fires elsewhere this makes the episode immediately rewatchable because we now want to enjoy this characterisation without the nagging doubt that he’ll turn out to be a phantasmagoria with all the veracity of one of The Androids of Tara. With the knowledge that he’s “real” (or at least “real” within the structural scaffold of this fictional construct), his gag reflex and the fight sequences all gain a completely different complexion, a weight. All aided, of course by Tom Riley’s portrayal which stays just the right side of pantomime theatricality.

Not that the episode in any way stays away from pantomime theatricality. It’s a romp, a good old-fashioned romp, of a kind I’m not sure we’ve seen since, well I’m not sure. I’ve just asked Twitter, and suggestions include The Lodger and Closing Time both of which feel like more like homage to the sitcom rather than a Carry On film (though I appreciate the distinction is wafer thin). The Unicorn and the Wasp? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship? Perhaps there wasn’t one in nuWho. Perhaps we haven’t been here since City of Death in the 70s, which is odd considering Gatiss suggests in DWM that all of nuWho up until this point took its lead of City of Death and we’re all watching The Horror of Fang Rock now. Time will tell.

As befits a romp, the story isn’t that complex and probably would have easily graced The Sarah Jane Adventures back in the day, which is no way a criticism. One of the tendencies in nuWho has been to pile on more stuff and incident whereas this keeps things on the relative low-low. The pacing too is expressively slower than in previous series, as per Deep Breath, though with some detectable cross cutting but notably only generally to paper over the elements like the cutting of the manacles.  I could be of course be imagining all of this and if I was to do a scene length study across the Gatiss episodes, there’s no change at all.  But since I barely have enough time to think about where to buy a new bed even though I know it'll end up being John Lewis because it always is, that seems unlikely.

What did change is the ending. Understandably, given current events, although it’s fair to say this isn’t usual with Doctor Who, I don’t think, we discovered the other day that a beheading was cut from the finale. My first reaction was “a beheading in Doctor Who”? I mean I know it was supposed to be taking a darker turn but that’s ridiculous... But my second was, yes, probably a robot. Weeelll. Now that the episode has aired, this blog reveals, presumably after having read the leaked script, that this is indeed what it was, Ben Miller’s superbly Ainley-like Nottingham (if only we’d had this rather than Keith Allen’s interpretation) having been revealed as such in the middle of the final fight, extraordinarily so considered the King's own demons.

If this is reinstated for the blu-ray and streaming services (and we have to imagine it will) it’ll do at least three things. (1) Even without some tonal foreshadowing at the opening of the episode and taking Dinosaurs on a Spaceship into account, Nottingham’s tumble into the vat of gold is tough within the context of modern Who which tends to champion the life of anyone, even villains. Now that we know he’s an android it feels less, well, less. (2) It gives context to some of his more excessive behaviour not least during the Clara interrogation – he’s giving it some Zaroff because the robots have put him back together slightly wrong because (3) they’ve presumably based him at least on the stories in their databanks.

It also explains why the Doctor and Clara don’t seem like particularly active participants in that section of the denouement, just standing around and watching a lot. They weren’t originally. Unless the Doctor’s mind was turning over why some of this seemed strangely familiar given that the creation of printed circuits in ancient lands for a spaceship which has every potential of exploding and destroying the local population has been seen by his face before. No, I don’t think his “Why this face?” line from Deep Breath is a coincidence. I hope it means we’ll get an episode where the Doctor will meet the doppelganger he saved from Pompeii, or at least that the two are tied together somehow.

What was I saying, oh that’s right, Mark Gatiss is an equal opportunities writer, at least in terms of myths. Just as many Who tropes were skewered (arrowed?) tonight, not least the propensity the Doctor has for using his sonic to get out of scrapes. There’s also the small matter of the Time Lord’s God-like decision making which has been reduced somewhat, not that the show’s been afraid to present him as a slightly pathetic creature, from the sonic-off in The Doctor Dances to bringing the full power of his speechifying to bare on a bunny in The Day of the Doctor. But the sheer level of befuddlement in the cell tonight as pride gets the better of him is a welcome change, especially since it's treated as just that, not some malevolent secret plan.

Our acceptance of this is, of course the writing, but also the wicked chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman. The former is finally hitting his stride. On rewatching Into The Dalek, I noticed that he's far more comfortable in the scenes at the school and in the TARDIS indicating they may have been shot in a later production block (a contrast similar to Jenna in Hide last year) (or rather the year before) and if the Ben Wheatley material was shot first, then its clear here Peter’s had a chance to think about who his Doctor is, his accent baseline posh unless he’s shouting or desperate (and imagine if Tennant had been allowed to do this), the line readings much more comfortable (if only he could have gone back and redone the “bolt hole”).

Since we’re dwelling for a moment, notice too how much of an action episode this is for him or at least for this incarnation. In the pre-season discussions and especially during the transfer window, the expectation was that Twelfteenth would be cutting down on the exuberance and Danny Pink was being brought in as the action hero as well as the love interest. On the basis of tonight’s episode there’s a danger he’ll end up like Harry Sullivan. The Thirwelfth Doctor brought it, either through Capaldi himself or (if his comments in Extradential are any indication) some very good doubles, with spoon duelling and Venusian Aikido) (height!) (hait!) (howeverthisisspelt!).

My reservations about the treatment of Clara in the previous episode and how it might have been a blip are largely dealt with here by his carer largely having narrative agency throughout most of the episode even when the apparent lead is in full bloom. Jenna’s nothing less than extraordinary in this episode. Notice how, during the interrogation scene with the Sheriff she subtly also poshifies her accent apart from during the asides, suggesting she’s revealing to us her true nature. Meanwhile, this episode confirms she was born in Blackpool (Jenna’s own home town) and given previous dates, a year later than Lucie Miller. There’s nothing much to that, other than how the franchise’s connection to the town continues. Freeze frame.

Not really, because as we discovered eighteen months after that fateful freeze frame, the best legends continue. As Robin says of him and the Doctor, “Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end … and remember Doctor, I’m just as real as you are.” A slightly less poetic, more portentous version of “Aren’t we all?” but the message is clear. Except of course when Robin’s legend surfaces, it’s the same story interpreted again and again in different ways, whereas for the Doctor and the miracle of Doctor Who it’s all one story and in Robot of Sherwood, I at least have confirmation after a shaky start, that he’s still my Doctor, it’s still my favourite series, and there are few things more real to me than that.

Public Art Collections in North West England:
Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum.

Art Last Friday’s trip to the Wordsworth and Grasmere Museum felt more like a holiday, albeit one which lasted about five an a half hours not including watching the view from the train or bus whilst travelling. Some of this had to do with being able to spend five and a half hours in the place not as concerned about needing to rush back for the train. Much of this had to do with the sheer effortlessness of the time I spent at the Wordsworth Museum (as it is now), where the staff are knowledgeable and helpful, the exhibition itself well designed and I genuinely felt very welcome and had one of my happiest afternoons in quite some time (and said as much to the person in the shop as I was leaving while I was buying some postcards and a copy of the guide book). If ever there was a model for how a museum visit should be, how it should go, it would be the Wordsworth Museum.

Having been pretty monogamous in my appreciation for British poets, I didn’t really have much of a clue about Wordsworth beyond Daffodils and not having read, as usual, the paragraph in Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England beforehand (spoilers) hadn’t realised that Dove Cottage which is adjacent to the museum and conserved by the Wordsworth Trust had been place where he’d written that and all of the very best poems he was famous for. To stand outside there and look down the street, is to see the very landscape which inspired some of, as it turns out, greatest poetry in the English language. On the way to Windermere that day I did listen to a couple of preparatory In Our Times, about his and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude which gave me some idea of what to expect, just enough to be wowed as I stepped off the bus into the grounds.

The Trust’s art collection is split between three buildings, Dove Cottage, the museum and the archive building, The Jerwood Centre. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor is given a timed ticket for a tour of the cottage, limited to around fifteen people. Although there are some paintings in the dwelling, the tour really considers Dove Cottage as domestic residence and an example of housing in the period with the artwork, some real, some reproductions, utilised to illustrate the occupants of the period. The first painting you see is an anonymously created portrait of his dog Pepper, a gift to the family from Sir Walter Scott (the dog not the painting) who bred the animals and named them after herbs to save time. Dove Cottage is tiny though that must not have bothered Wordsworth, who lived there for just under ten years and received guests.

The most curious aspect is the Newspaper Room, a small space at the back on the top floor which it’s thought was primarily used as the children’s bedroom or later a guest room. It lacks a fireplace, so would have made it very cold in the winder but in her papers, Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s wife said that she covered the walls in newspaper to offer some insulation. Having deteriorated, these have still been replaced with pages from the same period and the effect is to walk into something akin to an art installation or a piece of set design from a Gilliam or Tarkovsky film. My fellow visitors and I immediately began reading the text, mainly from The Times, a mix of advertising and court reportage. Not that it is easy to read being old enough for the letters f and s to be interchangeable, something which I’ve never quite mastered instinctively even after all these years of looking at Shakespeare facsimiles.

From there it’s straight into the Museum. As Edward explains, this was opened in 1981 to help illustrate Wordsworth’s story, Dove Cottage itself having previously, as the Trust’s own website describes, previously been housed in a barn from 1936, with the books and manuscripts held from 1950 in a converted cottage nearby. The motive of the exhibition is to give some scope of both and also to illustrate the lives of both Wordsworth and Coleridge primarily during the period the former lived in Dove Cottage as well as necessarily before and after. In this it neatly strikes a balance between serving the uberfans and newbies and although I’m still firmly the latter, I came away with an intense understanding of Wordsworth’s importance within the history of English literature and that some really useful stuff was written after 1616. I have much to do.

Both of these sources are a bit short, and this is unusual for Edward, on the origins for much of this collection, but I’m going to guess that it’s a mix of bequests and later purchases. The landscapes are illustrative of the area and how it was around the time Wordsworth was writing, an oil of Ullswater by Joseph Wright of Derby, Elterwater by Francis Towne with as Edward observes its “schematic, block-like forms” and Peele Castle In A Storm by Sir George Beaumont. But the collection also includes examples of how later painters have interpreted the area, like Percy Frederick Horton’s post-impressionistic A Corner of Ambleside really captures how its possible for humanity’s houses and this landscape to co-exist to picturesque effect. I like the way he contrasts the smudgy brush strokes utilised to create the trees and fawner of nature with the clean lines of the man-made houses.

The rest of the exhibition features images of the key people in Wordsworth’s life, his friends and critics including, surprisingly life masks of him and Coleridge, white plaster faces which demonstrate the accuracy of the surrounding portraits which are mix of works from the Trust’s own collection and loans from the National Portrait Gallery. There’s Wordsworth himself proudly illustrated by Frederick Richard Pickersgill, clutching a pair of gloves and as a younger man, meaning fully clutching his forehead by Richard Carruthers. There’s James Henry Leigh Hunt, a usual arch critic who called Wordsworth the Prince of Bards and is depicted by Benjamin Robert Haydon as a rather heroic figure with bushy eyebrows and an open face. There’s James Northcote’s famous painting of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his prime just as he would have been when concocting Lyrical Verses.

At around two-thirty, I attended a tour of the third of the buildings on site, The Jerwood Centre, given by the curatorial assistant. The centre opened in 2005 to house Wordsworth’s papers and related materials and as the office site explains, contains 90% of Wordsworth’s known verse drafts as well as Dorothy’s notebooks. It’s a superb study space, the interior a contemporary office environment, the exterior the same dry-stone walling as the rest of the site, the only concession being its cylindrical shape. If you do happen upon the Wordsworth Museum, it’s well worth taking time for this since it’s also the place where the A-List artworks are kept and while in the inner area of the archive, one of the volunteers surprised us by turning one of the otherwise hidden paintings to reveal a Turner recently purchased by the trust, his Ullswater, Cumberland (which is pictured on the Art Fund’s website).

After the museum I walked out into the landscape that inspired Wordsworth, and just like the view from Brantwood it’s so expressively beautiful photography can’t really capture it (not that I didn’t try) (I've repaired my camera). I may well have said to a pedestrian as they were passing me gaping at the horizon, “Isn’t this gorgeous?” and they may have said, “Yes, aren’t we lucky.” That may have happened. I may also have phoned someone to babble down the receiver at them about all of this, gesticulating wildly before realising and then marvelling at the fact I was standing in the middle of that once wilderness and able to get a perfect mobile phone signal. I may have done that too. I may also have thought of that scene in the film Contact when Jodie Foster’s character looks into infinity and says, “They should have sent a poet…” before reminding myself that thank goodness on this occasion, “they” did.

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 CafĂ© 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.

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.

A Broom.

Music Right then, time for another one of these. On Digital Spy (where else?), Amelle talks about the chances of "Sugababes" reforming. She's still up for it (of course she is) but she's sure Jade isn't and Heidi's "half and half". Then there's this:
"If it doesn't happen, it's not meant to be," she continued. "Obviously everyone talks about the Sugababes name and what is happening with it, but I'm very easy-going.

"If we don't use it and regroup, I'd quite happily give it someone else and let them take the reins. Whether it be MKS or another three random girls, or three little babies we're training right now in boot camp!"
The bootcamp reference is to Tumble, I suspect, which is the thing everyone watches waiting for Doctor Who to start. Three things on this:

(1) If I was MKS I wouldn't touch their old name with a mile long stick. Too much history, plus it'd mean whatever they finally come up with in terms of an album would be stuck after Sweet 7 in discographies and on Spotify.

(2) The three random girls thing is probably the way to go and especially in keeping with the history of the Sugababes. In fact, given that history it should probably be Amella and two other people. Probably Jenny Frost replacing Heidi in yet another girl band now she's homeless.

(3) Anyone else wonder if an earlier Doctor to Capaldi, probably Tennant, would have used the Sugababes instead of a broom as a reference point during that scene in Deep Breath?  No?