Preview: In the Making: Ruskin, Creativity and Craftsmanship

Victorian artist, social thinker and philanthropist John Ruskin believed workers should enjoy art. Ali Schofield visits a new exhibition in Sheffield that honours him

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John Ruskin would no doubt have been pleased to see Grayson Perry, the self-described transvestite potter, win the Turner Prize in 2003. At the time Perry commented: “I think the art world had more trouble coming to terms with me being a potter than my choice of frocks.”

It is this idea – that craft can be considered art – that the Victorian artist, writer and philanthropist shared and which this month inspires new exhibition In the Making: Ruskin, Creativity and Craftsmanship at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.
Curator Alison Morton tells Big Issue North: “The object didn’t need to look perfect to be beautiful but it was the act of making something unique, something handmade that was really important to Ruskin.”

The exhibition is split between two gallery spaces. The first includes beautiful objects donated by Ruskin to Sheffield’s Collection of the Guild of St George – which he created for Sheffield’s workers to be a haven from the workday world – two of his own sketches and a large pot by Perry.

His reverence of beautiful things didn’t stop there, though. “He also believed that if you were a craftsperson and had a skill then that was an honourable way of making a living,” says Morton. “So it dovetailed too with his ideas on social reform and how he believed that the working classes, and indeed society, would be much healthier if people were not completely prey to economics and working on mass production in factories, but were able to develop cottage industries of their own that kept them living and working locally and kept them close to the family unit.”

The second gallery space focuses on textile art and includes work by Tracey Emin as well as lace made in the late 19th century by the Ruskin Linen Industry, a prototype social enterprise organised by Ruskin to allow the women in his area in the Lake District to make a living doing skilled work at home.

“The way that benefactors had donated this equipment and passed skills on was very much how he imagined society working well – that the people that had would help the people that had less or had nothing, and they could then be self-sufficient.”

Ruskin wrote: “We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

He was true to his word when he took a group of notable thinkers, including Oscar Wilde, out to repair an Oxford road (by all accounts, badly).

“He did what he could, he didn’t just talk about it and certainly one example of that is the museum of objects here in Sheffield that we’ve still got now. A large chunk of the exhibition is made up of these objects that Ruskin gave to the city.”

In the Making: Ruskin, Creativity and Craftsmanship is at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, 23 Jan-5 June

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