From agriculture to culture culture

Tour of Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house and gardens

2009/10/23 14:00

Guided tour and intro to Ruskin's ideas and work on experimental farming/local production (such as the Migratory Dairy School).

Brantwood House and Gardens are John Ruskin's former home and now open to the public. We meet in the café on site which is run by someone with a rather posh southern accent and the special of the day - pasta with some veg - is smaller and pricier than most cafes in London. It's Autumn holiday in the UK, and the owner makes it clear that we all need to consume.

The session started with a general introduction by Howard to the Lake District and the life of John Ruskin in context, explaining his shift of interests during his lifetime (from geology/biology to art and architecture to society and education) and his reasons for settling in the Lake District.

Interesting in regards to local production and translocal dissemination were following points :

  • the landscape of Coniston Valley landscape is shaped by the historic commodifications of its resources, starting with the exploitation of its natural resources such as timber and mining for trade and (pre)industrial production, and later on its natural beauty for tourism
  • the transport infrastructure (train) provided by the mining industry later facilitated early mass tourism from the nearby industrial areas of Manchester and Liverpool, who came to escape to nature and country side
  • by the time Ruskin moved to Brantwood he was such a public and popular figure that he became a famous local resource, followed by a certain Ruskin tourism. People would settle to be near-by/visit his house.
  • By that time his interest had shifted to more general social and political agendas and he used the gardens for small scale agricultural and botanical experiments.
  • He strongly believed in domestic production in order to emancipate the working class, and in particular women. He introduced lace making from local wool in the area.
  • His social and political ideas were often taken on by close friends and sympathisers who would then carry his ideas further and be instrumental in setting up large scale schemes such as the National Trust.
  • He financed his experiments with the fortune inherited from his parents (wine merchants)
  • Ruskin wanted the house and gardens to be small scale and private. It was the extended family of his care who required a bigger and more formal building and gardens.

Ruskin has never been acknowleged as one of the radical and influential thinkers which transformed european politics. Throughout the tour the gap between his priviliged upbringing/personal wealth and his at times worthy and patronising sounding ideas for society remained open. Some of the group started to state their dislike for him.

The tour of the garden showed some of his experiments (e.g. teraced gardens) and Howard explained how the Trust keeps applying his ideas by e.g. facilitating current forms of alternative gardening.

Current interpretations of Ruskins writings were made into temporary gardens, e.g. the one that tells the story of Dantes Inferno which contains sheep-wool and strange big red mouths, let you doubt if Ruskin is looking down with a smile or says NONO you misunderstood me !

About the Rhododendrons and the Japanese Cherry Trees Ruskin must have know, cause his cousin was planting them to fulfill here longing to non-authentic stuff. So these trees are not originally from the UK but still delightful in the autumn.

The garden is divided as it was by Ruskin, into different parts, each dedicated to different experimentation in land management and horticulture. The trust maintains these both as sites imagined by Ruskin and as places of experimentation. Particularly of interest is their recent reintroduction of coppicing. Parts of the garden are now being coppiced, ie cut righ back to the root after periods between 7 to 10 years, in this way both stimulating the re-growth of the wood and also providing firewood or timber. Barntwood produces coal with the coppice which is high quality, and is proving to be quite successful. By reinstating an activity that used to be very widely spread around this area, such work is both actively present and reinvigorating a certain cultural heritage.


Brantwood House

Brantwood House
Brantwood, East of Lake, Coniston, Cumbria, LA21 8AD, United Kingdom
54.35351153401761, -3.05919413

Report from AAA

by Howard Hull

We took a short walking tour through the wood that Ruskin managed, and around the gardens that he plotted.

Experiments with the land by Ruskin: Brantwood House was visited by Ruskin when he was 18 and bought by him when he was 56. Ruskin got his qualities and interests from his parents and from his time spent here (had passions for art, geology, evolution, religion, travel).

Ruskin wrote at this time about the 'domestic economy' as being at the heart of all economies, and 'home' as a place of production. The importance that everyone should have 'enough land of their own to fall onto': something that was more relevant to a rural context than an urban one.

Based on this belief, Ruskin would take a small parcel of land that he thought a person could realistically own, and experiment to see what could be done with it.

Experiments with the land today; there are lots of issues these days about land use and land management - e.g. the massive issue of food security!

There is a clear incentive to make more organic and environmentally friendly methods of farming the land (opposed to the government's direction which involves artificial and inorganic ways of simply making the soil as productive as possible); but the problem is lack of human labour in farming, making the 'organic' (and more 'human') alternative more difficult.

Therefore, a challenge for artists/experimenters is to come up with some innovative ideas about the future of land use and land management. (And to try to find a way between blue sky thinking and practical application!)

As for the woods today, they are currently coppiced every 8 years and the wood is used to make charcoal, used for many things locally including for BBQ fuel, for putting back into the ground as a soil additive, and for artists materials.

The view from Brantwood House

The view from Brantwood House

Walking through the gardens

Walking through the gardens

Report from PS2

What is interesting is how the 'museum' approach to display and conservation of the site is combined with a more expansive programme of music/art workshops etc. to extend Ruskin's ideas. The curator's willingness not to 'fix' Ruskin in a single form seems key.

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