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To commemorate the remarkable man that was John Ruskin
Belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special Features Producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

The maquette of the Ruskin Cross
The maquette is made from wax

At first glance this object looks rather brown and rather plain.

But this maquette or model is actually highly decorated and commemorates a remarkable man whose influence is still felt today.

The maquette, made from wax and designed by Ruskin's friend W.G Collingwood, forms the design for the cross which sits his grave in St Andrew's churchyard in Coniston.

The maquette is on display in the village's Ruskin Museum.

First published

The curator, Vicky Slowe, says that each side of the cross carries symbols and designs reflecting the many interests of Ruskin. He was an artist, art teacher and critic, amateur geologist and philosopher.

He wrote about everything from architecture to nature and from pollution to politics. He is credited with coming up with the inspiration for the NHS, the state pension and the minimum wage. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela both quote him as a big influence on their thinking.

John Ruskin was born into a well-off family in London in 1819. From a young age he was thinking and writing about a wide range of subjects. He was first published when he was just 15 years old. At 16 or 17 he had written a series of articles on architecture for a national magazine.

He was passionate about the need to look after old buildings both at home and abroad. He wrote a famous series of books about the architecture of Venice and also inspired the setting up of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in this country.

St Andrew's churchyard in Coniston

Need for a fair wage

He became known for his outspoken and radical views in many other fields too. He was a big fan of the more modern and controversial painters of his time like Turner and the Pre-Raphelites. He supported them at a time when many other people were criticising their style.

He was also a great social reformer and believed in a fairer society for all. He disliked the effect that industrialisation was having on Britain and its people. He pointed out the dangers of pollution and the effect of working in factories on the mental and physical health of the workers.

He believed that life should be on a smaller scale with people working and living in the countryside, growing their own vegetables and preserving local crafts. Ruskin Lace, which is still made in the Lake District, was named after him. He wrote about the need for a fair wage many years before the minimum wage was introduced in this country.

His ideas about healthcare, pensions, education for women and so on inspired the first generation of Labour politicians. A college at Oxford University set up to educate trade union members was named after him as was the secondary school in his adopted village of Coniston.

Enduring effect

The Ruskin Cross in St Andrews churchyard, Coniston
The Ruskin Cross at Coniston

Many of these interests are reflected in the design of the cross although you have to look very closely at the maquette to see them. You can see them much more clearly on the cross in the churchyard. The cross also shows his interest in nature with flowers, birds and animals depicted on its two narrower sides.

The museum also has the candlesticks which were on either side of Ruskin's coffin in the church the day he was buried plus the handwoven and emboidered pall which was draped across the coffin during the service. Apparently it was raining very heavily that day and two boys were in the grave bailing it out until they were ready to put the coffin in.

When he died in 1900 The Clarion newspaper said "There is not a centre of art or literature where John Ruskin's influence is not visible. Half the enthusiasm still existing for art and nature we owe to him and the enduring effect of his life and teachings upon modern ethics would be hard to overestimate. Ruskin's genius has become part of the national thought."

Vicky Slowe says the cross and the maquette are like the microchip in a computer. They carry the code to Ruskin's life and show what an amazing man he was.

Ruskin lace


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