Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest

This week saw the third in our series of consultation seminars to help us explore ideas for the future of Ruskin Land.  The event was kindly hosted by the vibrant Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and involved participants connected with a range of cultural institutions in region.  The purpose of the day was to consider the connections between John Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest, and to discuss how we might develop a programme of activities in tune with Ruskin’s thinking.

Readers of this blog and those that have visited Ruskin Land will know what a special place this is.  We must ensure that its distinctive qualities, its beauty and tranquillity, are safeguarded and even enhanced by the activities we pursue.  This was reinforced by participants in the seminar one of whom stressed the need to be ‘light touch’ with any activities or interventions to protect ‘the integrity and unspoilt nature’ of the place.

As a basis for the discussion, Philip Fisher from the Birmingham and Midland Institute provided a short but informative summary of the links between Ruskin and the city.  While he visited just once, his influence was considerable: the Birmingham branch of the Ruskin Society, set up in 1896, was one of the most active;  the great city architect John Henry Chamberlain became a trustee of Ruskin’s charity, the Guild of St George (and incidentally designed Oozells Street School home of the Ikon Gallery); he inspired many of its artists and craftspeople such as Edward Burne-Jones, Benjamin Creswick and Joseph Southall; and Ruskin  Hall still at nearby Bournville was home to the Birmingham School of Arts.  The strongest link between Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest though is through George Baker who gave land in the Wyre Forest to the Guild of St George.  Baker, a quaker businessman, was a Mayor of Birmingham and of Bewdley where he lived at Beaucastle.  On his death in 1910 he was described by the Birmingham Post as ‘one of the builders of Birmingham’ and by the Birmingham Gazette as a ‘civic pioneer’.

The overwhelming message from the seminar for me was the great potential for Ruskin Land to become a place that, through the involvement of people working in all sectors of the arts, can inspire people and improve their lives in many different ways.    Participants were enthusiastic that so many of Ruskin’s preoccupations still resonate today: the vital importance of access to beauty and nature, the nurturing of physical and social wellbeing, and provision of meaningful and fulfilling work –  or ‘right livelihoods’.

It was when Baker was Mayor of Birmingham in 1877 that Ruskin paid his only visit to the city.  During that visit Ruskin wrote ‘I have been staying with the good Mayor of Birmingham; and he has shown me St George’s land, his gift, in the midst of a sweet space of English hill, dale and orchard, yet unhurt by the hand of man.’   Ruskin Land, as it is now known, still fits this description.  In realising the potential of the place, it is our responsibility to ensure it continues to do so for years to come.

 

Beauty in a wild flower

John Ruskin thought a great deal about the idea of beauty.   He believed everyone needed beauty around them and he wanted to widen access to beautiful things and places so that everyone’s life could be richer and more fulfilling.  It is odd that the value of beauty, in our everyday surroundings and the things we use, is not talked about more. It seems we have lost the confidence to do so.

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That looks set to change.  There are encouraging signs that the need for beauty is again rising up the agenda.    A report last year put together by the think tank Respublica put forward the notion of a ‘community right to beauty’ to give local people the ability to create and enhance beautiful places.    The Prince’s Foundation has produced a toolkit called ‘beauty in my backyard’ and online tool to help people ‘to shape new developments so that they are well designed and well received by communities’.  And next week sees the launch of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ an important new book by Fiona Reynolds, former head of the National Trust.  It describes how earlier campaigns to protect and create beauty has made immeasurable contribution to the quality of the environment, laments the narrow ‘economism’ that drives politicians and all of us as consumers, and sets out the path to a better future.

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The great beauty of the natural world is hard to ignore here in the Wyre Forest.  It has been a delight to watch the first flowers of spring emerge after the very wet but relatively warm winter.  We’ve had drifts of snowdrops, swathes of bluebells, clumps of wild primroses, cowslips and daffodils, discreet displays of meadow violets, and now carpets of delicate wood anenomes, pungent wild garlic and the fragile green flowers of dogs mercury.  As Ruskin wrote: ‘nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.’

While the beauty of nature is not so hard to find, how is it that we can’t seem to make so many of the places and homes we live in more beautiful than they are?  While we may argue over the relative qualities of particular buildings, there does seem to be a shared understanding of what makes one area more beautiful than another.  Key factors are a lack of litter,  well built and cared for buildings, a sense of history and continuity,  trees and greenery, and distinctive local character.

Why is it then that those with power and resources, our politicians and policy makers, aren’t talking more about beauty and how to enable more people to enjoy beautiful places? Ruskin understood the importance of beauty but he wasn’t that confident about our ability to create beauty in the modern world.   I think that is too pessimistic.

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The beauty of much our natural and built environment is no accident. As Fiona Reynolds argues, we owe much to visionary post-war legislation – in particular the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act – for the legal and policy tools that have helped us safeguard beautiful places. We now need to rediscover that post-war vision to make more beautiful places.

We must challenge those who argue that we can’t afford to think of aesthetics in the current economic climate.  It needn’t cost more to create beautiful places and, in the long run, they enrich our lives beyond measure.