This history draws on information contained in Janet Barnes's Ruskin at Sheffield
(Ruskin Gallery, 1985).Founding of the Museum
In 1875, Ruskin came to Sheffield to visit a former student. Henry Swan was an engraver whom Ruskin had taught in the 1850s at London's Working Men’s College. Swan had moved to Sheffield because of its reputation for fine metal work. He set up home with his family in the suburb of Walkley.
Much taken by Swan's new surroundings, Ruskin saw the opportunity for a museum that would meet the needs of local 'workers in iron' (Works
, 28, p. 395). He hoped it would be 'extended into illustration of the natural history of the neighbourhood'. A cottage was purchased for the purpose in 1875, and Ruskin installed his old student in the role of museum curator.
Ruskin called this new foundation The St George's Museum. He had been interested in the legend of St George from a young age, having characterised the saint in 'The Puppet Show', a work he wrote at the age of nine or ten. Its first stanza read,
'"I am the bravest Knight of all
My armour is of gold;
O'er all the field death spreads his pall
When I my wrath unfold."'
, 2, p. xxxiii).
This boyish fascination with chivalry was supplemented when, in later life, Ruskin began to associate dragon-slaying with the fight against social injustice.
Always interested in the links between the two sea-going empires of England and early Renaissance Venice, Ruskin identified in St George a shared object of veneration. St George was England's patron saint, but also an important figure in the iconography of Venice. Ruskin was especially attracted to Vittore Carpaccio's cycle of paintings in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni.
He notes of Carpaccio's representation that 'His St. George exactly reverses the practice of ours', in that 'He rides armed, from shoulder to heel, in proof -- but without
his helmet.' (Works
, 27, p. 476). He explains that 'the real difficulty in dragon-fights [...] is not so much to kill your dragon, as to see
him; at least to see him in time, it being too probably that he will see you first.'
One might understand the Museum, and the Guild (see below), as attempts, in this spirit, to 'see' the dragon first.The Guild of St George
The St George's Museum was not meant to be an isolated enterprise. Rather, it was conceived as one element in a wider programme of social reform.
This was to be pursued by a body called The Guild of St George. The Guild had its origins in a Fund established by Ruskin in 1871 for 'the buying and securing of land in England'. The Guild's land was not meant to be 'built upon', but rather 'cultivated by Englishmen with their own hands' (Works
, 27, p. 95).
In the following months, Ruskin paid £1000 into the Fund. He then increased his contribution to bonds worth £7000. He did this according to the principle that the Guild's 'Companions' (its members) should donate a tenth of their annual income. He intended an analogy with the medieval system of tithes, whereby parishioners gave one tenth of their annual income to the Church.
Ruskin initially named the new organization 'The Company of St George'. In 1877, the word 'Company' was replaced by 'Guild', to avoid the legal complications associated with using that term.
Ruskin outlined the Guild's purposes in a series of 'Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain', entitled Fors Clavigera
. This title meant, among other things, 'the strength of the nail bearer' (Works
, 27, p. 28). Ruskin summed up the Guild's impetus as 'simply the purchase of land in healthy districts, and the employment of labourers on the land, under the carefullest supervision, and with every means of mental instruction' (Works
, 30, p. 17). He insisted that this was 'the only way of permanently bettering the material condition of the poor'.Why Sheffield?
Swan's link with Walkley provided the impetus for the Museum's location. Ruskin felt obliged, nevertheless, to develop elaborate justifications for his choice of setting.
‘Sheffield’, he wrote, ‘is in Yorkshire, and Yorkshire yet, in the main temper of its inhabitants, old English, and capable therefore yet of the ideas of Honesty and Piety by which old England lived’ (Works
, 30, p. 52).
The artisanal traditions perpetuated by Sheffield's metal industries were also a source of appeal. ‘Sheffield', Ruskin noted, 'is within easy reach of beautiful natural scenery, and of the best art of English hands, at Lincoln, York, Durham, Selby, Fountains, Bolton, and Furness’ (Works
, 30, p. 52).Why Walkley?
Ruskin considered Walkley a particularly suitable site for his museum. Within walking distance of Sheffield’s industrial heart, it nevertheless retained a relationship with the countryside. Parts of the suburb overlooked the pastoral beauty of the Rivelin Valley; and, being on a hill, it benefited from comparatively clean air.
Ruskin explained that ‘The mountain home of the Museum at Walkley was originally chosen, not to keep the collection out of smoke, but expressly to beguile the artisan out of it’ (Works
, 30, p. 317).
This reference to a 'mountain home' seems an exaggeration, but it makes sense as an invitation to see Sheffield in a wider European frame. The wording reflects Ruskin's early reverence for Alpine landscape, which he developed whilst touring the Continent with his parents in the 1820s and 1830s.
Ruskin was not alone in thinking of mountains. A visiting journalist wrote that the Museum was 'Built on the brow of a hill', in a 'house', that 'overlooks the Rivelin Valley, or rather a series of converging valleys, that in their wild uncultivated beauty are suggestive of the Alps' (Edward Bradbury, 'A Visit to Ruskin's Museum', Magazine of Art
, December 1879, 57-60).
The Museum's physical eminence was also part of its function. Metal workers from the city were invited to undertake a symbolic ascent, which would take them up the steep hill of South Road, leading to Walkley's upper reaches.
Once achieved, their orientation would be altered.