Sheffield city centre gallery was a small, perfectly-formed tribute to John Ruskin's vision for arts

Every time I walk down Norfolk Street I remember the Ruskin Gallery. I worked there as the curator for nearly 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wednesday, 25th September 2019, 9:06 am
Updated Wednesday, 23rd October 2019, 1:40 pm
The Norfolk Street building that housed the Ruskin Gallery when it was still Hay's wine shop

Some people might remember the building as Hays Wine Shop. In 1985 it was transformed into the Ruskin Gallery and two years later the Ruskin Craft Gallery was opened in what we liked to refer to as the ‘garage conversion’.

The Ruskin Gallery was an exciting addition to the galleries and museums in the city. It was small, perfectly formed and devoted entirely to the collection specially created by John Ruskin (1819-1900) for the city of Sheffield.

Impressed by the skills of Sheffield metal workers, Ruskin wanted to give them access to the landscape, geology, art and architecture that he had experienced during his extensive travels in Europe.

The 'De Croy' Book of Hours 1450 to 1500, one of the stars of the of the Ruskin collection

He was an accomplished draughtsman himself, drawing landscapes and architecture as a way of understanding them better.

Many of his drawings were used as illustrations to his growing number of published books. The Big Draw Festival, the annual countrywide event, is directly inspired by Ruskin’s love of drawing.

When Ruskin was in his 50s he decided to create the Guild of St George, an educational charity. In 1875 he opened St George’s Museum in a small cottage in Walkley.

It was full of paintings, drawing, prints, minerals, books, plaster casts of architectural details and medieval illuminated manuscripts, all of which were available to the visitors to examine and study.

The exterior of the Ruskin Gallery on Norfolk Street

Ruskin wasn’t alone in believing that museums were important educational institutions as many regional museums across the country were established during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th century.

Indeed it was his intention to open several St George’s museums across the country so more people could benefit but this was not to happen and the Ruskin Collection has remained unique.

By 1890 St George’s Museum had been adopted by the city and rehoused by the council in Meersbrook Hall where it was renamed The Ruskin Museum. The next stage in the history of the collection came in 1985 when it became The Ruskin Gallery in Norfolk street.

The Ruskin Gallery concentrated on Ruskin’s ideas explained through the collection. It welcomed visitors with objects and pictures beautifully displayed and explained thoroughly.

The craft gallery entrance on Tudor Square

The library area encouraged visitors to spend some time with books and information about the collection. We also had a short film about the history of the collection and Ruskin’s life and influence.

Because the gallery was small and at street level we found that many people would just pop in for a few minutes to enjoy the exhibits and the peace of the gallery.

When the Ruskin Craft Gallery opened in 1987 we wanted to celebrate craftsmanship as Ruskin had done, but from a contemporary angle.

We looked at contemporary makers working in different materials - ceramic, glass, basketry, mosaics, metalwork and jewellery and we made sure that many of the exhibitors lived and worked in Sheffield.

One of the exhibition highlights was The Cutting Edge - an exhibition of hand tools which took place in The Ruskin Gallery.

We only managed to display a very small percentage of Ken Hawley’s vast Sheffield’s hand tool collection but it created a lot of interest in the city as many people had worked in the industry.

Ken had collected tools voraciously for years, especially when the economic downturn happened during the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in many of the big manufacturers and ‘little mesters’ closing down.

He collected not only tools but the trade catalogues and archives too. His collection is truly amazing and can now be seen in a permanent display at Kelham Island Museum.

Although I stopped working with the collection a long time ago, I carried on as a trustee of the Guild for many years.

Over the last few years I have been involved with the Ruskin in Sheffield annual programme of events and activities designed to rediscover the legacy of John Ruskin in Sheffield.

Janet Barnes CBE is a Companion of the Guild of St George, who own and support the Ruskin Collection at the Millennium Gallery. She gives an illustrated talk on her book Ruskin in Sheffield on Saturday (October 26)at 3pm at the Millennium Gallery as part of Off The Shelf and Ruskin in Sheffield. Tickets can be booked at www.offtheshelf.org.uk