Life Distilled: John Ruskin & Still Life

Artwork from the 'Life Distilled' exhibition at Brantwood, home of John Ruskin John Ruskin by JC Barry Lindsay after a photo of 1867 Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, the writer, artist and social reformer

For a cultural adventure in a beautiful Lake District setting, make a date in your diary for ‘Life Distilled’ a new exhibition at Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, the writer, artist and social reformer. This splendid Lake District house, nestled by Coniston Water, is a trove of creative delight – full of art, objects and stories.

Brantwood’s ‘Life Distilled’, on until 4 January 2016, provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of this Lake District icon. Ruskin’s detailed studies of nature were often made in a domestic setting looking at small objects picked up during travel. His analytical eye reveals universal qualities in the ephemera of everyday life, blending science, art and philosophical reflection in an approach that ran counter to the decorative tradition of still life painting.

Ruskin’s analytical eye reveals universal qualities in the ephemera of everyday life, blending science, art and philosophical reflection

Still life – the arrangement of objects, especially flowers and fruit, in a careful composition – has never featured highly in the hierarchy of categories of art, yet it has always been popular, and remains so to this day. Although he was passionate in promoting the observation of nature as an important means of training hand and eye for both professional and amateur artists, Ruskin’s interest lay in seeing things in their own setting, in the same way that he preferred living plants to cut flowers.

Although he had little to say about the artistic genre itself, there are several significant connections, not least with the work of William Henry Hunt (1790-1864), whose jewel-like watercolours of fruit, flowers and birds’ nests were avidly collected by Ruskin and his father: Peach and Grapes, bought in 1858, may be seen hanging in the Turret Bedroom, just as in Ruskin’s lifetime.

In this display is a rare example of a still life by Ruskin himself, of a bowl and beads resting on a book, shown alongside studies of book piles by two artists who were his pupils. J.W. Bunney attended Ruskin’s drawing classes at the Working Men’s College in the 1850s (later becoming a valued copyist of architecture and Old Master painting in Italy), while Louise Blandy was clearly talented but sadly short-lived.

a stone, when examined, will be found a mountain in miniature – John Ruskin

Other studies by Ruskin, especially those of shells, are rather more than simple image of items from the natural world. The Piece of Rock with Quartz Veining, one of his largest geological drawings, recalls his well-known suggestion that “a stone, when examined, will be found a mountain in miniature,” and while they could not be any more still, both his study of a stuffed fish and Henry Newman’s plate of fish seem to remain decidedly vital.

There are also studies by his friends and associates. This display marks the recent acquisition by the Brantwood Trust of two sparkling watercolours by Laurence Hilliard, Ruskin’s secretary, who left his employment in 1882 to become a professional painter, specialising in still life. A third example has been kindly lent by the Ruskin Museum, Coniston. Also of the 1880s is a composed plant study by Kate Greenaway, and of a slightly later date two works by Edith Isaac, wife of Ruskin’s subsequent secretary and helper William Gershom Collingwood.

Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, overlooking Coniston Water
Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, overlooking Coniston Water

Life Distilled is on display in the Blue Gallery at Brantwood until 4 January 2016, every day from 10.30am until 5.00pm (from 30 November Wed-Sun 10.30am-4.00pm) and admission is included in the house ticket.

For further information please visit the Brantwood website.

To enjoy this Lakes cultural event and much more, book your break in the Lake District here