When the Victorian polymath John Ruskin set the agenda for the body that became the Guild of St George, his vision was ambitious and grandly utopian.
The art critic, social thinker and philanthropist envisaged the creation of St George’s communities - societies named after the English patron saint based on the land, and agricultural labour, but also including schools, libraries and galleries, so that members, or ‘companions’, worked with their hands and cultivated their inner lives.
However, Ruskin’s great aspirations were never really fulfilled. Soon after starting the guild in the 1870s, he suffered a series of debilitating breakdowns - severe bouts of mental illness punctuated by fits of delirium - that eventually stopped him working.
But the organisation continues, with the purpose of promoting his ideals in the modern world. Many of the charitable trust’s efforts are focused on Sheffield, where the founder’s educational art collection is displayed at the Millennium Gallery.
An attempt at forming a St George’s community was also made in Totley and an initiative called Ruskin in Sheffield has been running to reconnect the exhibits with different communities.
The master of the guild is the poet Clive Wilmer, who first encountered Ruskin’s work as a student reading English at Cambridge and was immediately hooked.
“I thought he was amazing,” says Clive over tea in a city centre hotel during his latest two-day visit to Sheffield.
“I imagined he would be this rather stuffy, pompous old man, and I was completely surprised to discover how lively, original and energetic he was. There’s not a dull page in Ruskin, his writing is so vivacious.”
His central argument was that art lacks meaning unless it has some relationship with the natural world, and Clive thinks - ‘based on very loose evidence’ - that Ruskin was particularly interested in Sheffield.
“He liked the landscape and he was interested in Sheffield craftsmanship. He clearly wanted to establish a museum in one of the industrial towns.”
Ruskin sought the assistance of Henry Swan, a man he had taught in London who later moved to Sheffield.
“Ruskin came up to visit him and realised the house he was living in, at Walkley, was a place that could be used for the collection.”
The small house, seen today from Bole Hill Road, was filled with copies of Old Master paintings, architectural studies, geological specimens, sculpture and books. In time, these moved to Meersbrook Hall and eventually went to the gallery where they can be seen today.
“The museum at Walkley was originally designed to attract metalworkers from central Sheffield to come out into the country and see works of art, and relate art to nature, which is what Ruskin always wanted to do.
“And that seems to have been extremely successful. Ruskin, at that time of his life, was not always successful with his schemes, but this one seems to have flourished very well and brought lots of people to art and design who would have had rather dull lives otherwise.”
Swan also helped to set up St George’s Farm in Totley, a 13-acre plot bought by Ruskin in 1877 that became one of the country’s first communes, but was sunk by arguments and disagreements between the residents within a few years.
So, is Sheffield still living up to Ruskin’s ideals?
“Yes and no,” Clive hedges.
“One of the things we’ve found about Sheffield is that the people, in general, care a very great deal about their city. “Sometimes the care is showed in exaggerated criticism of it, but that is a form of care. It’s a form of local patriotism that’s fairly intense.
“If you invite Sheffield people to get involved in their own community, they very easily do so. I’ve never come across it anywhere else, and I’m full of admiration for it. We’ve rediscovered that, in a way.”
But he adds a caveat regarding the council’s felling of street trees through its contractor Amey.
“From the outside it seems rather arbitrary. I can’t work out any rationale in it. Clearly if they are damaged they have to be brought down, but they seem to have decided this is a time for cutting down trees.
“Trees are wonderful things which we become emotionally attached to.”
Clive was in the city for a Ruskin in Sheffield event at Meersbrook Hall - recently handed to the community by the council - as part of The Big Draw, which the guild launched in 2000 and is now an independent art charity. The guild is working with the hall’s Friends group and the Heeley Development Trust to revitalise the area.
“We believe in partnerships, we think they’re important and we’ve developed some good ones there, I think. In the case of Meersbrook, it’s a building that’s been revived and one we played a very active part in a while ago.”
Clive took over as master in 2009. Aged 72, he lives in Cambridge, has a daughter, son and two grandsons, and shares his life with partner Patricia Fara, a well-known historian of science.
He says the guild’s success is ‘for other people to judge’, but its membership is healthy, with about 250 people signed up. Nearly a quarter live in Sheffield, a fifth reside overseas, and a significant proportion of new recruits have been ‘encouragingly’ young, in their twenties.
The organisation also owns 100 acres of land in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, properties in Hertfordshire, and is the custodian of a wildflower meadow in Gloucestershire.
“We’re not antiquarian organisation, and we’re not engaged in nostalgia. It’s more we think that what Ruskin said, and wrote about, is still very relevant and can be applied to modern conditions. We’re not trying to recreate the past in any way.”
Local author Sally Goldsmith will be talking about her book Thirteen Acres: John Ruskin and the Totley Communists at The Workstation on October 17 as part of the Off the Shelf festival. Tickets cost £6, to book call 0114 223 3777.
Visit www.guildofstgeorge.org.uk for more details.
‘Ruskin would have grown to love the internet’
Clive Wilmer says a particular piece of writing is the best place to start reading Ruskin’s work - and that the critic, who was suspicious of machines, would have grown to appreciate the internet were he alive today.
The essay he recommends is called The Nature of Gothic, part of a book titled The Stones of Venice.
“He sees a contrast which argues that people in the middle ages might have been happier in their work than in the modern world - not something you’d expect.
“It’s a tour de force. I think it’s probably the single best thing he wrote.”
Ruskin, who died in 1900, ‘didn’t like machinery in general’, remarks Clive.
“He thought its predominance had the effect of turning human beings into machines. And there is that aspect to modern technology he would be averse to.
“I think he would have been interested in its capacity to communicate. You can see him using it in a quite momentous and exciting way.”