University celebrates the inexhaustible creative energy of John Ruskin one year after official renaming

Published: 12 October 2006 at 12:19

Anglia Ruskin University has marked the first anniversary of its renaming with an inspiring and innovative lecture designed to celebrate the life and times of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and confirm the importance of his creative links with the University.

The Ruskin Lecture 2006 was staged to commemorate the foundation of Anglia Ruskin University, at Cambridge and Chelmsford, and underline the importance of the University’s heritage and contemporary values.

When the Cambridge School of Art was founded in October 1858, John Ruskin, the leading art critic and philanthropist of the period, gave the ‘Inaugural Address’. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge presided with the Mayor of Cambridge in attendance.  Nearly 150 years later, in October 2005, the title Anglia Ruskin University was granted by the Privy Council to reinforce the growing cultural reputation of one of the UK’s fastest developing universities which is committed to making higher education accessible to all.

This time the welcome was given by Professor David Tidmarsh, the Vice-Chancellor of the Anglia Ruskin University in the presence of the Mayor, Councillor Robert Dryden, during which Professor Tidmarsh said: 

"Ruskin was a mould-breaking educator, deeply committed to making education accessible to all, and passionate about teaching work-relevant skills. Like Ruskin, we are constantly striving to widen our student body to be more representative of all parts of our society and community, and to develop top quality courses and research projects that are relevant to the world today."

Clive Wilmer, Honorary Fellow of the University and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge then followed the welcome by giving an insight into Ruskin’s role as the leading English art critic of the nineteenth century. 

Ruskin believed that art teachers should be teaching something that all artists and craftsmen needed; and something that in an even broader sense all of us need: they should teach people how to see

Using one of Ruskin’s many watercolours, Study of Dawn, the First Scarlet on the Clouds, to highlight the point, Wilmer showed how the essence of art, according to Ruskin, was that drawing should also be a ‘a record of beautiful fact,’ in this case, ‘symbolical of the beginning of all rightly educational work – the rising of the light of heaven above the horizon of our life.’

He explained that Ruskin believed in the education of the whole person, to give richer and fuller lives to everyone and argued that that remained the proper goal for a modern university.

But Ruskin was more than just an art critic. As a thinker, artist and social reformer, he was a prophetic figure, particularly of his anxiety about industrial pollution and the danger of permanent damage to our environment. He influenced a wide range of institutions from the National Trust to the Welfare Stage, as well as many great creative minds, such as Ghandi, Tolstoy and William Morris.

During the lecture, Wilmer explored other Ruskinian principles including the responsibility of the consumer for the conditions in which a product is produced. This principle is stated in what was to prove his most influential book Unto This Last.

Developing the theme, Anglia Ruskin University’s Professor Rebecca Stott, from the Department of English and Media, argued that when Ruskin claimed that anything of importance has many sides, he was talking of what we now regard as interdisciplinary study, so central to a university such as Anglia Ruskin. She also highlighted his passion for identifying men and women who were able to represent nature truthfully, who knew how a wave curled, how a leaf fell, how clouds moved, how light fell through a glass of water.  She compared him to Darwin and other Victorians who were patient, meticulous, amazingly keen-sighted observers of the natural world and detailed his incredible fascination with water as a subject of art.

Following on from the presentation, Professor Stott introduced artists Alex Hamilton and Richard Ashrowan to the audience whose collaborative video work had been installed at the Ruskin Gallery to coincide with the lecture.

The video work, entitled A Landscape Symphony in 22 Movements is based on the River Braan, a tributary of the River Tay.  For this work, Hamilton and Ashrowan chose to film a site above Rumbling Bridge, so named due to the sound of the water that rushes through the gorge below.

In 1876, the painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896), who as a young Man had been championed by Ruskin, stood for several months watching the flow of water above Rumbling Bridge.  The resulting painting, The Sound of Many Waters, is a masterpiece of observation. In 2005, Hamilton and Ashrowan returned to this exact location and, over many days, repeated the act of close and intense observation, not with a paintbrush but with a high definition video camera. As Ruskin said: 

"The greatest thing that a human soul ever does is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.  To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion - all in one."

Hamilton and Ashrowan commented: 

"The sites we choose to observe and interpret are those sites in which other artists have similarly engaged in this process of deep observation which originally resulted in the creation of images.  It is through this ritualised act of observation that a heightened distillation of meaning is transferred to the final image."

Hamilton and Ashrowan’s video installation, A Landscape Symphony in 22 Movements is open to all to view at The Ruskin Gallery, until 18 October, at Anglia Ruskin University.  For more information, contact 0845 271 3333.