ON Saturday a new chapter opens on a story that began more than 130 years ago when eminent Victorian artist and scholar John Ruskin opened a museum in Sheffield to display his collection of art and artefacts to fulfill a desire to share with working people his passion for the beauty of the natural world.
After a £200,000 refurbishment that has transformed the collection displays, its contemporary incarnation, the Ruskin Gallery housed in the Millennium Gallery, is re-opening this weekend.
One of the most influential thinkers of the 1800s, Ruskin chose Sheffield for his museum because it was an industrial city but close to the countryside – and therefore nature.
Ruskin’s incomparable collection includes work by artists such as JMW Turner, Edward Lear and Edward Burne-Jones, as well as examples of decorative art and craft, botanical and ornithological studies, and a host of geological specimens.
The first museum (he never intended it to be an art gallery) was one room in a cottage on Bell Hagg Road in Walkley and later moved to larger premises at Meersbrook Park House. By the 1950s Ruskin’s popularity had waned and the museum closed with all the contents put in storage in Reading.
It returned to Sheffield in 1985 when the Ruskin Gallery opened on Norfolk Street and then became part of the Millennium Gallery when it opened in 2001.
After 10 years it has taken on a new lease of life with a total redesign of the gallery space, new display cases and lighting, improved access to the collections and the addition of comfy seating.
Museums Sheffield’s Curator of the Ruskin Collection, Louise Pullen, believes that it has enabled them to create a display closer to the spirit of what the great man intended.
Visitors will first step into an orientation area at the entrance, a bright space with a curved partition separating it from the main gallery where light has to be restricted for conservation purposes.
This area has clear windows, making it visible from both the Millennium Gallery avenue and the Winter Garden, helping to draw in the casual visitor.
Here there will be some minerals that people can handle (in keeping with Ruskin’s philosophy) and information on the man himself including a film. Visitors then move into the main space where there is Ruskin’s Desk with drawers of artefacts to explore and get a sense of who he was.
“He worked a lot outside so to get a sense of that we’ve got a recording of bird song,” says Pullen. Photographs of the Walkley museum show that it was a village in those days rather than a suburb and Ruskin liked the idea that people would arrive, having communed with nature on the walk up.
The most striking thing about the new interior is that it is brighter and much more spacious and open than before with the far wall dominated by a vast mural reproduction of a detail from The Paradise After Tintoretto where John Wharlton Bunney’s large-scale oil painting The Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice is also displayed now after restoration.
Curator Louise Pullen admits that Ruskin’s collection is “a mish-mash” but this has the advantage of each display being self-contained and working on its own. “We now have much more flexibility to change the display every few months so we can narrow down the themes,” says the curator. “But for the first showing it’s really Ruskin Back to Basics divided into three themes.”
One theme will show how Ruskin’s love of architecture was rooted in his admiration of nature, so that architectural studies are exhibited alongside nature drawings in new display cases.
“The idea is to make the gallery much more airy than it was before. It will be less cluttered so that there are fewer things to dwell on.”
At the same time there will be some larger cases to house plates and pages from volumes which were too big to be displayed previously.
The second theme will be Colour in Nature, which speaks for itself, and Decoration, “looking at something more abstract to bring nature alive” and includes stained glass, mosaics and ceramics.
Other things to see include JMW Turner’s study of Rivaux Abbey in Yorkshire from the series Liber Studiorum (1812), the Albrecht Dürer engraving Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). an 1894 copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a cover design by Hugh Thomson, and an ornate German lectionary dating from the 13th century.