Finding another way of matching Ruskin’s ideals

3 July 2017...........Feature on Sally Goldsmith, author of Thirteen Acres, a new book about the now-closed commune at St George's Farm in Sheffield.Sally at her nearby allotment. Picture Scott Merrylees
3 July 2017...........Feature on Sally Goldsmith, author of Thirteen Acres, a new book about the now-closed commune at St George's Farm in Sheffield.Sally at her nearby allotment. Picture Scott Merrylees

John Ruskin had a dream of utopia - and he wanted it to start here in Sheffield.

The art critic, social thinker and philanthropist started the Guild of St George in the 1870s, and envisioned the creation of communities named after the English patron saint based on agricultural labour, but also including schools, libraries and galleries, so their toil was interspersed with an appreciation of culture.

Some of his fantasies were ambitious in the extreme.

He imagined a world where money would be an object of beauty, and each trade and profession would have its own distinctive costume.

All work would be carried out by hand - without machines that create pollution - and agricultural jobs would be mingled with folk festivals.

Ruskin made some progress. He started a museum at Walkley, and attempted to establish a pioneering commune on a farm in Totley, an enterprise that is the subject of a talk at the Off The Shelf festival next month.

But his 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.

Meanwhile the commune was far from a roaring success.

The experiment at St George’s Farm - a 13-acre plot bought by Ruskin in 1877 - was sunk by arguments and disagreements between the residents within a few years.

However, the guild survives with the aim of breathing life into Ruskin’s work and putting his ideas into practice in the modern age.

Clive Wilmer, the master of the guild since 2009, said: “We think that what Ruskin said, and wrote about, is still very relevant. We’re not trying to recreate the past in any way.”

He ‘liked the landscape and was interested in Sheffield craftsmanship’, Clive says.

In launching the museum, Ruskin sought the assistance of Henry Swan, a man he had taught in London who later moved to Sheffield.

Swan’s small house in Walkley, seen today from Bole Hill Road, was filled with copies of Old Master paintings, architectural studies, geological specimens, sculpture and books.

The collection later moved to Meersbrook Hall and eventually went to the Millennium Gallery where it can be seen today.

Clive’s most recent visit to the city was for an event at Meersbrook Hall as part of Ruskin in Sheffield, an initiative that seeks to reconnect the collection’s exhibits with different communities. The activities were also linked to 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.”

Nearly a quarter of the guild’s 250-strong membership - all called ‘companions’ - live in Sheffield and a significant proportion are in their 20s.

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.

Local author Sally Goldsmith will be talking about her book Thirteen Acres: John Ruskin and the Totley Communists at The Workstation on October 17 during Off The Shelf.

Tickets cost £6, to book call 0114 2233777.

Visit Guild of St George for more details.