Forgotten Victorian Sheffield artist Benjamin Creswick was John Ruskin's working-class hero

In 1875 John Ruskin, one of the most influential writers and thinkers on art and society of his day, launched a bold experiment in a largely working-class neighbourhood in the west of Sheffield.

Thursday, 12th September 2019, 6:39 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 3:25 pm
Leeds City Art Gallery Tea Room - medallions by Sheffield artist Benjamin Creswick
Leeds City Art Gallery Tea Room - medallions by Sheffield artist Benjamin Creswick

The neighbourhood was Walkley, then known as ‘the working man’s garden suburb’ due to its roots in the Freehold Land Society movement.

The experiment was St George’s Museum , which Ruskin set up at his own expense, stocked with carefully-selected paintings, sculptures and specimens which he hoped would inspire the working people of Sheffield, whose skills and traditions he much admired, to enjoy and make things of beauty and integrity.

To the delight of Ruskin and the curator of the museum, Henry Swan, it worked almost immediately as a 22-year-old table knife grinder named Benjamin Creswick, who lived just a couple of streets away, walked into the museum and was found to have a natural talent for art, initially modelling a bust of Ruskin in clay which was much admired by the great man.

Birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement - the first edition of the Century Guild's Magazine Hobby Horse 1884

Ruskin recognised his talent and eventually offered him and his family enough support to quit the highly unhealthy and dangerous grinding job and become a full-time artist.

Creswick and his family even moved over to the Lake District to be close to Ruskin at his Brantwood retreat and Ruskin also introduced his protégé to some of his wealthy friends who began to commission work from him.

Less than 10 years later Creswick was working and living in London as an important member of the seminal Century Guild and taking part in the birth of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

He was working with fellow artists like Arthur Mackmurdo and Frank Brangwyn and moving in circles which included William Morris and Oscar Wilde.

A portrait of Sheffield artist Benjamin Creswick in his studio. Courtesy of Annie Creswick-Dawson

In 1888 he was appointed to be the first head of sculpture at the newly-established Birmingham School of Art, where he developed new and influential ways of teaching art across the city, drawing on his own experience and Ruskin’s ideas.

He went on to enjoy a long career which ranged from major architectural friezes in ceramic like the London Worshipful Company of Cutlers Hall, through the design and creation of entire house interiors and furniture with the Bromsgrove Guild, and eventually to the setting up of a family business in fine metalwork and jewellery with his sons.

He continued to work and evolve as an artist into the 1920s and lived to be 93, an age far beyond the life expectancy of his fellow grinders.

He is remembered as a genial and modest man, a great collaborator and teacher.

A terracotta bust of John Ruskin by Benjamin Creswick Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield

Yet despite his success and extraordinary range of productive work, and in so many ways fulfilling Ruskin’s ideals as a consummate artist, craftsman and maker, he is now almost completely forgotten, and nowhere more so than in the city of his birth, of whose skilled working men he was so proud a representative.

In an illustrated talk entitled Ruskin’s Walkley Working Class Hero, on Monday 23rd September at 1pm at the Millennium Gallery, local historian and urban planner Simon Ogden will trace Benjamin Creswick’s varied and incredibly productive life, describe his legacy and ask why he is not better known today.

The talk is free, no booking required. It forms part of the Ruskin in Sheffield 2019 events to celebrate the bicentenary of John Ruskin.

A display about Benjamin Creswick and the legacy artists he inspired is currently on show in the Ruskin Collection at the Millennium Gallery.

Benjamin Creswick's name on the visitor's book at St George's Museum, Walkley

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The Blacksmith's Forge, a terracotta frieze by Benjamin Creswick (1886). Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield
St George's Museum in Walkley, Sheffield, set up by John Ruskin to inspire the city's Victorian artisans