This past spring I helped organize an all-day symposium called “Helping in the Work of Creation: John Ruskin and William Morris Today.” The event came out of The Hillside Club Round Table, which I began and lead at Berkeley’s historic Hillside Club, and was co-sponsored by the Guild of St George, the charity founded by Ruskin himself in 1872. The Club was started in 1898 to help shape the new community of Berkeley, not only providing a place of fellowship but helping ensure that Berkeley’s extraordinary natural setting would be enhanced, not destroyed, by what was built there. The Round Table is devoted to exploring the original ideals of the Club, which were deeply influenced by John Ruskin, William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The founders, in fact, evidently had something to do with a short-lived Ruskin Club, which had been started by Charles Keeler, the most active and vocal early member. Among many contributions to the new community, Keeler authored The Simple Home, which served as something of a bible for the Club and reflects a thoroughly Ruskinian point of view on the arts and society.
Because of this debt to Ruskin, I thought it important for the group to delve into his writings and ideas. (An essay I wrote for the Guild’s annual newsletter on Ruskin’s relevance to the founding of the Hillside Club is on page 38 of the pdf, Companion2013_Standard.) So I went online expecting to easily locate a scholar or two here in the academia-heavy Bay Area who’d be willing to come and chat with us for an hour or two. How that modest idea led to our co-sponsoring a symposium with the Guild of St George and hosting the current Master of the Guild—the title first held by the Guild’s founder, Ruskin himself!—can only be attributed to Fors.
Fors Clavigera is the title of a series of “Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain” that Ruskin wrote in the 1870’s. Without my going into the rather cryptic and complex meaning of the whole title, “Fors,” Ruskin explained, “refers to the powers of Chance or Fortune…as she offers to men the conditions of prosperity…” Such powers do indeed seem to account for the remarkable alignment of interests and efforts that brought the Round Table together with American Ruskin scholars James Spates, of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, and Sara Atwood (author of Ruskin’s Educational Ideals) of Arizona. Both came out on sort of trial visits to speak to the Round Table and brought considerable enthusiasm to the project of reviving the legacy of a man who a growing number regard as full of wisdom for our own age (“Where is Ruskin when we need him?,” The Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill asked after the 2008 financial collapse). Sara stepped up to serve as the director of the first event, and with her enthusiasm, energy and great expertise instigated our symposium in July, 2013, “No Wealth but Life: Why John Ruskin Matters Today”.
As we were putting it together, Jim and Sara and I agreed it would be good to have a local speaker. I had heard Gray Brechin speak. A fine lecturer and local historian specializing in the New Deal, Gray, I had a hunch, might know something about Ruskin’s local influence, and although I’d never met him, I began thinking I should test my hunch and contact him to sound him out on joining us. No sooner had this idea come to me did Gray appear at one of our Round Table meetings! He’d heard we were showing a documentary on Ruskin, and came to see it. As it happens, he’d written his Master’s thesis on Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice—and so my hunch was right. Gray, with a little arm-twisting, joined Sara and Jim and completed the program admirably.
On the success of that 2013 event, Clive Wilmer, Master of the Guild, felt enthused enough about what we’d started to travel from Cambridge, England for this year’s symposium on Ruskin and Morris. Not only does Clive, in his leadership of the Guild, bear Ruskin’s mantel, but he’s the editor of Penguin anthologies of both Ruskin and Morris. (These are John Ruskin: Unto This Last and Other Writings, and William Morris: News From Nowhere and Other Writings. Both are highly recommended, and include excellent and helpful introductions and notations.) We could not have hoped for a greater coup!
Also coming from England this year was John Iles, who’s running a fantastic effort on the Guild’s lands at Bewdley, working at sustainable forestry and farming.
Sara Atwood returned as director, and also spoke again, as did Jim Spates. I was enormously flattered when the two of them insisted that I provide the point of view of the craftsman—an indispensable perspective, they felt, given the day’s topic.
As someone who counts John Ruskin and William Morris among his greatest heroes, the opportunity to host the Master of the Guild of St George is one of the outstanding privileges of my life. And to share billing with him in a day-long program of lectures I’ll forever look back on with almost giddy pride and pleasure. (I will say that it’s extremely intimidating to be an American lecturer on a program that includes speakers from England, who are not only professional speakers but do, after all, speak actual English.)
But I have to say, what a joy it’s been to work with, come to know, and most of all learn from (the months of preparation felt like a graduate program!) this entire group of Companions (as they’re called) of the Guild—and to be invited to join their fine company! I always laugh when I tell people how it all came about. But other Ruskinians on hearing the tale only smile and nod knowingly, and always with the same reply: “It’s Fors!”
View the program for the symposium, “Helping in the Work of Creation: John Ruskin and William Morris Today”: Ruskin-Morris-2014-Program
Check out James Spates’s blog, Why Ruskin?
Below are recordings of the six talks.
Clive Wilmer (Master of the Guild of St George; Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge )
‘A new road on which the world should travel’: John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of Gothic’ and William Morris
The pivotal chapter of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice is a long digression ‘On the Nature of Gothic’. Medieval culture, says Ruskin in that essay, cared more for ‘the individual value of every soul’ than modern culture with its regimented wage-slaves. That value is there to be read in the truth of art. William Morris’s work as craftsman, designer and employer was inspired from the outset by ‘The Nature of Gothic’, which, towards the end of his life, he reprinted at the Kelmscott Press. In his introduction to that edition he argues that Ruskin had identified ‘a new road on which the world should travel’. As Western societies return to the old competitive model, as the networks of social responsibility break down, as we begin to lose the skills of hand and eye, the teaching and example that come down to us from Ruskin and Morris are more and more important. Ruskin’s charity the Guild of St George exists to provide a living example of how things might be otherwise. (Note: A version of this lecture is available in print at The Guild’s website, here…) Listen to audio—
Gray Brechin (U.C. Berkeley)
Bright Morning in the Far West: The Reverend Joseph Worcester’s Bay Area Circle
The major key of the Anglo conquest of the West was a reckless conversion of its natural resources into legendary fortunes, but a few envisioned possibilities in its landscape and climate for intellectual and spiritual expansion available nowhere else. Chief among them was Swedenborgian minister Joseph Worcester whose charismatic personality attracted a circle of designers whose creations continue to influence thought and lifestyle in California long after Wrorcester’s death. Listen to audio—
Sara Atwood (Guild of St George)
‘A veil of strange intermediate being’: Ruskin and Environment.
Ruskin is sometimes referred to as an early or proto-environmentalist, a clunky term that he would have disliked. Sara Atwood will explore Ruskin’s relationship to modern environmentalism in an effort to understand the significance of his ideas, not as mirroring our own, but in the context of his powerful and personal vision. Listen to audio—
Jim Spates (Guild of St George; Hobart and William Smith Colleges)
‘All of Us are Builders’: The Enduring Relevance of Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture in the 21st Century, an Illustrated Talk.
“The one form of art in which everyone participates,” Ruskin said, “is architecture.” All the more critical then, he continued, that we know what the enduring principles are which make architecture, anywhere, anytime, great. This illustrated talk, using examples both international and local, will outline the seven principles—or, to use Ruskin’s image, “lamps”—which shine in all great architecture. Listen to audio—
John Iles (Guild of St George)
“Down in the woods something stirs…”
The Wyre Forest is now recognised as the largest contiguous ancient semi-natural woodland in England. In the heart of this woodland lies ‘Ruskin Land’ — land bought for Ruskin by his friend George Baker. In this place current Companions of Ruskin’s charity, the Guild of St George, are working to realise Ruskin’s vision of “making some small piece of England beautiful, peaceful and fruitful.” John Iles will discuss ongoing and future projects. Listen to audio—
Tim Holton (Holton Studio Frame-Makers, The Hillside Club Round Table and Guild of St George)
The Joiners’ Tale: A Craftsman’s Window on Ruskin and Morris
“Have you considered,” challenged Ruskin, “in the early history of painting how important also is the history of the frame-maker? It is a matter, I assure you, needing our very best consideration.” The art of the picture frame offers an extraordinary window on the thought of Ruskin and Morris, being a “visible token” of the great problem at the center of their ideals: the place of art—the relation of the arts to each other, to life and to all labor. Being in numerous ways an art of joinery, it provides a tangible and exceptionally helpful way of understanding the great aims of two men who were themselves joiners—who above all sought “to reconstitute the world.” Listen to audio—