Once again, it’s time for a guest post! Thank you so much to the lovely Jay Mason-Burns, for writing this! I worked with Jay at Aston Hall last year, and I’m pleased to see he’s just started a blog. I’m eternally grateful for this fab contribution to my little blog, and I’m left with an even fonder appreciation of Ruskin (if that’s possible) and a dear wish to visit Coniston and see this beautiful and peaceful spot for myself, so many thanks are in order.
Ruskin’s Grave, Coniston Village, Cumbria
I have wanted to visit the Lake District pretty much all my adult life. I’ve always felt drawn to its heroic scenery and mysterious skies. A friends’ wedding in nearby Lancaster gave my wife Sue and I a great excuse to visit the area at Coniston, whose lake has long been famed its ‘lone and lovely waters’ (‘Coniston Peace‘ by Leticia Landon 1802-1838).
We had the pleasure of staying in a very stylish boutique B&B called Lakeland House (top notch place, divine breakfasts, look it up!) just off Coniston’s High Street. Upon our arrival I threw open the capacious windows to find the glowering head of the Old Man of Coniston looming darkly over us. A magnificent view assuredly, come cloud, rain or sun the Old Man entrances the eye.
After a couple of strenuous days of gallivanting about capturing every view and spectacle the Lakes could offer, I was left alone on our last evening after an exhausted Sue retired early. This gave me a chance to have a quiet mooch around the village, snapping pics and intent of paying homage to a personal hero of mine. Less than fifty metres from our delightful abode was the Church of St Andrews. It’s odd how we often overlook what is right on the doorstep, so obsessed with seeing all the famous sights we overlook the quieter delights and softer visions of beauty. Indeed, I found I had the place to myself. A wistful wander around an old half-forgotten churchyard is a peculiar pleasure; it’s so peaceful and reassuring. One day, we all come to rest in such places regardless of whom or what we were. It fascinated me that the man that I’d come to pay homage to had chosen this place for his final rest.
Coniston’s recent history may have been drowned by the ill-fated exploits of Donald Campbell and his record breaking speedboat ‘Bluebird’, but it’s a certain John Ruskin whose name is brightly woven into the tapestry of Coniston’s consciousness. Buildings, roads, schools, halls, societies, museums, all bear his name. His gleaming house, Brantwood, still sits above the far wooded shore of Coniston Lake like a bejewelled sentinel watching over its master’s demesne.
John Ruskin was a great and humble man, born into money yet stirred by the beauty of Nature and the horrors of Victorian England to say and do great things. He was a poet, a water colourist painter, an Art Critic and champion of JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he was a geologist, a philosopher, a gardener and social critic. He started charitable enterprises, initiated forward thinking community schemes and founded a university college. He wrote 134 manuscripts on topics as diverse as architecture, great painters, social welfare, environmental conservation, education for women, social equality, political theory and faith. He advanced new ideas such as the formation of the National Health Service, state pensions, free schools and libraries, the minimum wage. He saw at first-hand the dehumanising conditions the poorest workers were forced to endure in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, which inspired his campaign for the rights of the working man, which later inspired the formation of modern Labour party.
Sadly most of his great ideas and initiatives were to be obscured during his lifetime by the scandal that enveloped his marriage to Effie Gray. Scurrilous rumours of their marriage flooded across Victorian society like a terrible stain. Speculation that sadly still persists to this day, despite the fact that Ruskin himself remained silent and private about their relationship till his death in 1900. Even in his autobiography, ‘Praeterita’ he pointedly declared that ‘I will only write about what has been pleasant in my life’. In reality the real lifelong love of his life was the Lake District itself, visiting the area constantly throughout his life until he bought Brantwood House overlooking Lake Coniston in 1871, where he lived for the rest of his days. He renovated the house extensively, putting into practice his passion for the Arts and Craft movement, employing skilled local artisans to design and produce a unique, bespoke house and experimental garden.
The evening I visited Ruskin’s grave the skies were darkly poised upon the brooding brow of the Old Man of Coniston. The Church of St Andrews occupies but a small place that seemingly recedes from the opulent scenery and the noisy gastro-pubs surrounding it. A strand of enormous Yew trees shelter the churchyard, the constant cool breeze breathlessly whispered through long skeletal fingers. The graves, marked in the main by plain grey stone crosses, aren’t numerous and cluttered like a city’s cemetery. These few were hardy devout souls, their simple lives highlighted by the honest beauty and craftsmanship of the church itself (built in 1819). The building is a quiet hymn to God, a stone and slate song that harmonises with the soaring landscape around it. Long grass, verdant mosses and spidery ferns thrive amidst the long liquid shadows thrown by its stolid spire. I walked about the place once, then once again, quietly considering across old flagstones, taking in the spartan ranks of graves. Ruskin himself must have worshiped here, indeed I imagine he would have gleaned a lot of satisfaction from how the church reflects the landscape around it, capturing what Alexander Pope referred to as ‘the genius of the place’.
His graveside is quiet and simple. Despite being the tallest memorial within the cemetery, it sits gently like an old guard at rest. It doesn’t shout out that an important person rests within. It’s almost hidden at the very back of the churchyard, a simple slate sign points you to it, near the boundary wall, beneath a particular tall Yew tree. The grasses glimmered in the shadows deep and the air whispered his name, perhaps….
The memorial, despite one hundred and fifteen years of Cumbrian weather, remains a delight to the eye. It is a stylised Celtic cross, made from locally quarried green slate that stands two meters tall. It is intricately carved with symbols, soft and sinuous vignettes that capture Ruskin’s life in pictures, his achievements and aspirations, his passion for nature, art and literature, his love for his God and for his fellow Man. I found myself breathless in reverence, the cool breeze feathering the wispy yew tips that hung all about the place. Rain began to fall like soft tears shed for a longed for lover, lost long ago but never forgotten, whilst upon the shoulders of the Old Man above, a lacy pall of funereal mists laid in sombre tribute. Here before me the Seer of our time, a right-minded humanitarian prophet, an Englishman who dared to think better for the world by confronting the deepest woes of his society. Gandhi himself said that without Ruskin’s teaching he never would have felt stirred to action.
I lingered, kneeling in benediction to look closer, my eyes were ravished by the rich, almost joyful carvings. Green slate is a modest stone, unlike luminous Carrara marble or indomitable granite. It is very much OF the Cumbrian landscape which I think was a very deliberate choice by its designer, W.G. Collingwood, himself an artist, writer and renowned authority on Anglo-Saxon art and iconography. He became great friends with Ruskin after moving to Coniston, and later became his secretary during Ruskin’s decline in old age. The carvings were made by a local artisan, H.T. Miles, which Ruskin doubtless would have approved of, he actively patronised several local cottage industries that produced bespoke items unique to the area. He funded the local production of Langdale Linen and also a lacemaking firm who’s much sought after Lacewear and funeral palls became known as Ruskin Lace.
I am so glad I visited and paid him due homage. I don’t quite know what I expected, but in retrospect, should I have been surprised that such a self-effacing, private, right-minded champion of the working man would have chosen such a humble but glorious memorial? And here, amidst the glories of Nature that he loved and tended so much, of course he chose here! Despite the setbacks in his personal life, Ruskin was highly esteemed in Victorian society. Yet when he was offered a plot at Westminster Abbey he turned down the acclaim of his country, such veneration didn’t suit this humble man. Why would he want to be anywhere other than close to the earthly bliss that had transported his soul and inspired him in his youth to take up poetry, painting and literature? This in turn inspired a generation of writers and artists. By getting to know the man through his books, poetry, politics and art, I’ve come to see that this place at Coniston, his final rest, makes absolute sense, it’s completely true to who he was, what he stood for and what he loved. A quiet humble place with a view of his own personal Heaven; what more could any of us ask for?
Artingsoll, Belina, ‘To commemorate the remarkable man that was John Ruskin’, transcript of radio feature, BBC Radio Cumbria, 19th March 2010, from website http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/cumbria/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8575000/8575989.stm, accessed 10th July 2015.
Prodger, Michael, ‘John Ruskin’s marriage: what really happened’ The Guardian, 29th March 2013, from website http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/29/ruskin-effie-marriage-inconvenience-brownell, accessed 10th July 2015.
Ruskin, John. ‘Praeterita’, Everyman’s Library Classics, London, 2005 (1887).
The Ruskin Museum, ‘Who Was John Ruskin [1819 – 1900]?’, 2015, from website http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/content/john-ruskin/who-was-john-ruskin.php, accessed 10th July 2015.