A few days have passed since we returned from Sheffield, the venue for the AGM of the Guild of St George the charity set up by John Ruskin in 1871 dedicated to the ‘arts, crafts and the rural economy.’ The Guild owns St George’s Farm here in the Wyre Forest, along with Uncllys Farm, the neighbouring smallholding currently home to the Wyre Community Land Trust, and John and Linda Iles its co-founders. Our weekend in Sheffield was inspiring in many ways.
First, the company was special. Attendees came from far and wide, including Moscow and the US. Olga Sinitsina, David Lustgarten and Kay Walter each gave inspiring talks about their commitment to the Guild, covering Tolstoy (who said of Ruskin ‘he was one of those rare men who think with their hearts’), and Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, for whom Ruskin was an important inspiration. Peter Burman, Chairman of the Centre for Stewardship at Falkland in Scotland also spoke passionately about his Ruskin-inspired work there. And that’s before we got to the thoughtful 2015 Ruskin Lecture given by Dr Marcus Waithe on Ruskin and Craftsmanship – a copy of which can be purchased from the Guild.
Second, Sheffield is a city of surprises and hidden history. I wonder how many people know that it is home to the truly wonderful Ruskin Collection, owned by the Guild of St George and displayed at the city’s Millennium Gallery. The Collection was originally housed in a museum set up by John Ruskin in 1875-6 at Walkley, now a suburb of the city. An exploration of the connections between Ruskin and Sheffield led to a wonderful programme of events, walks, talks and performances produced and coordinated by Ruth Nutter and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The programme included a ‘pop-up’ museum at Walkley which provided the kernal of the recent Ruskin Re-Viewed exhibition at the Millennium Gallery.
One of the events we were particularly sorry to miss was a walking performance ‘Boots, Fresh Air and Ginger Beer’ devised by the poet Sally Goldsmith. (Gladly, a short film of it can be see on you tube). The performance explored Sheffield people and places connected with Ruskin focussing on his purchase of land at Totley to establish the first St George’s Farm there (the building still exists). This initiative was described by Jan Marsh in her fascinating book Back to the Land – the pastoral impulse in Victorian England as ‘an early attempt by industrial workers to set up an agrarian commune as part of the escape from wage slavery and monopoly capitalism.’ At least initially, the experiment did not go smoothly. Following an intervention from Edward Carpenter, early pioneer of the gay rights movement, it later became a successful market garden before being purchased from the Guild by George Pearson, one of the tenants in 1929.
All this is nourishing food for thought in advance of the first Ruskin-in-Wyre seminar which takes place here next week. With support from the Guild, and learning from the success of the Sheffield project, we are embarking on a series of discussions to explore how we can tell the story of Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest. We want to engage the arts in all its manifestations to reveal and communicate the value of this small but significant piece of land: to make it, using Ruskin’s own words, more ‘beautiful, peaceful and fruitful’ so that it can help inspire a better relationship between people and nature.