Tuesday, 25 June 2019

REPORTAGE: EXHIBITION: John Ruskin: 'Devil's Darkness' To Beacon City - All Saints' Library, MMU, Manchester.


First, I would like to say that I shall be using names and terms that some may not be familiar with and to describe them would detract from the hard work put into this exhibition, nor would I do as good a job. This exhibition will explain all!

Tucked away on the third floor of the library of Manchester Metropolitan University lies Special Collections. Upon stepping out of the lift I was welcomed by a large dark blue and orange poster, with “Ruskin’s Manchester” in large letters standing out on it, and walking up to it I found myself stood at the doorway to a relatively small, dimly lit room, filled with artefacts and documents galore. A real treasure trove for ‘Ruskinites’.

I am somewhat familiar with the works of John Ruskin (1819-1900) from my days at the University of Lancaster. The Ruskin Library sits adjacent to the library there and was the perfect getaway from revision and essay writing. It was to my delight to see that the Ruskin’s Manchester exhibition had worked with the Ruskin Library as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum among many, many other peoples and institutions. This exhibition was curated by Dr Rachel Dickinson and looks at the relationship between Ruskin and the City of Manchester, the story of Ruskin’s cultural figure and furthermore touches upon how Manchester has gone from being the ‘Devil’s darkness’ of smoke belching cotton mills to a ‘beacon city’ of open public spaces, free museums and art galleries. The centre point of this exhibition are the lectures given by Ruskin in Manchester in the 1850s, his dismissal of the ‘Manchester School’ and celebrates the city’s reaction.

Hosting a wide range of historical artefacts pertaining to this and much more, as well as contemporary pieces highlighting Ruskin’s relevance in the modern age, one is able to look at Ruskin the man in the form of busts, Ruskin the celebrity (if you want to sell cigars and cigarettes you better have the leading art critic and social thinker’s face on the packet), and also Ruskin the thinker as numerous books as well as notes made by Ruskin are on display for all to see. Featuring works by Samuel Prout, a key influencer to the young Ruskin as well as fabric swatches from the Lake District based cottage industry, Ruskin Linen Industry (if you want to sell linen you better have the leading art critic and social thinker’s surname in the company name), which on a serious note details the rise of businesses in Victorian Britain which devoted themselves to Ruskin’s principles and themes.

A favourite section of mine were the architectural concept drawings and plans to the Albert Memorial and other Manchester landmarks and how their creators were influenced by Ruskin and take note of his seven ‘lamps’ of architecture. Seeing and learning how Ruskin theorised his idea of aesthetics and ethics and how it is applied not only in Manchester but throughout the country, one doesn’t really realise just how much his principles are applied to civic places even today.

As I said in the disclaimer at the very beginning, there are many themes, terms and people which may be unfamiliar to you, however I must stress that this is not to say that you need some basis of knowledge on Ruskin or the topics presented in this exhibition to see it. Everyone who visits this delightful exhibition will certainly learn something from it. It’s an exhibition that Ruskin would be proud of (in terms of aesthetics), a small but thought provoking presentation which appeals to those who are diehard fans and followers of John Ruskin or those who are just looking to get out of the rain, it is definitely a must see for anyone who has an interest in Ruskin/ civic architecture/ art/ literature/ textiles/ philosophy, etc. you will not be disappointed.

Unfortunately for some, Ruskin’s Manchester is only open 10:00am – 4:00pm on weekdays, limiting the chance for many to attend this wonderful exhibition. However it is on until the 23rd August, so if you do happen to find yourself around the Oxford Road area and have 30-45 minutes to spare then pay the special collections a visit.

Reviewer – Daryl Griffin
on – 24/6/19

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