The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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Ruskin Linen and Lace

Towards the end of his life, Ruskin identified the Langdale Linen Industry as his most successful practical attempt to improve a local economy through a ‘Rural Arts Revival’, something better known today perhaps as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Ruskin preached truth to local materials and traditional craft skills, the job satisfaction instinct in hand-work as opposed to the factory, making for need and joy rather than profit. The Langdale Linen Industry was also about validating worthwhile work for women.

The Ruskin Museum contains an extensive collection of hand-spun, hand-woven linen, including items embroidered from nature, and many fine examples of  Ruskin Lace, a form of cut or  reticella lace, and needle lace, inspired by the sumptuous ruffs and collars worn by sitters in portraits by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese.

One of the museum’s treasures is Ruskin’s funeral pall of hand-spun, hand-woven Langdale Linen, embroidered with wild roses and buds in a design by Harold Stabler, and worked by Mrs Rawnsley, Marion Twelves, and a team of ladies from Keswick.

The Langdale Linen Industry and Ruskin Lace

The Ruskin Museum holds a fine collection of fabrics produced by The Langdale Linen Industry and related Lake District establishments, embellished with embroidery or the type of reticella lace which is now known locally as ‘Ruskin Lace’.

Perhaps because he [and Canon H. D. Rawnsley] wrote up its history, the credit for starting The Langdale Linen Industry is usually given to Albert Fleming, a Companion of The Guild of St George, Ruskin’s somewhat Utopian campaign against the evils of Industrialisation and the Victorian predilection for Laissez-Faire Capitalism. Ruskin was fighting for the return of an ideal and equitable way of life, in a self-sufficient and holistically sustainable agrarian economy, to be lived through the mediaeval Guild system.

However, her anonymous, but clearly very well informed, obituary in The Westmorland Gazette, 11 November 1893, [which was almost certainly written by W. G. Collingwood, or possibly by Herbert Bownass, both regular Coniston correspondents for the local paper], specifically records that Miss Susanna Beever ‘with Mr Ruskin’s advice, planned and fostered the first carving classes at Coniston in the earliest days of that movement. It was she, also, who promoted the hand-spinning and weaving in Langdale, with the help of Mr Albert Fleming, who in 1887 edited a collection of Mr Ruskin’s letters to her, under the title of Hortus Inclusus, a selected few out of the almost daily messages that passed between “the wood and the garden”, - Brantwood and the terraces of flowers that skirt the foot of the Thwaite grounds. And though the failing health of both the two friends has diminished the intercourse, the friendship has not failed. But a few days before she died came a letter, his only writing since Praeterita stopped, to assure her of his constant regard’.

G. Collingwood’s portrait of Miss Susanna [Susie] Beever of the Thwaite is in the collection of The Ruskin Museum.

According to W. G. Collingwood, who wrote a memoir of the Beevers in the Foreword to his second edition, published earlier in 1893, of John Beever’s Practical Fly Fishing , the family had settled, with their widowed father, [who died four years later], at the Thwaite House in 1827. One of the sons, John Beever, was a passionate angler, and had dammed a beck behind the Thwaite to create a pond which he stocked with various types of fish in order to experiment with different foodstuffs to discover which of them promoted the best growth. The fish were netted regularly, and weighed and measured to monitor how well they thrived. The pond also powered a small water-wheel, which John Beever harnessed to a printing press, on which he published his sisters’ poems, various texts, posters and tickets for the Sunday School, local events and performances, playbills, etc, or, alternatively, to a wood-turning lathe. He made all sorts of pretty objects, which he embellished with carving; he also produced elaborate and intricate inlaid mosaics of ingenious design, according to Collingwood. He was assisted by a 17-year-old local carpenter, William Bell, who went on to become one of Coniston’s most respected residents, closely involved with Coniston Mechanics’ Institute and Literary Society, as was his son, John. This is suggestive, making it tempting to speculate that the Beevers, who clearly encouraged William Bell to develop his personal talents to the benefit of his local community, might have been amongst the instigators of that organisation, whose origins are unknown, but which was certainly in existence before 1852, when, by law, it was incorporated as it provided a free library. Manchester’s Mechanics’ Institute had been established in 1824. The Beevers were from Manchester, and would have known about its growth from their brother, a lawyer, who remained there.

In the mid-1850s, Ruskin began his deep involvement with the Working Men’s College, in London. To aid his teaching, he transformed his classroom into a sort of museum, bringing examples from nature and from his own extensive collections for study by his drawing pupils.

This led to a continuing - and active - concern with adult working-class education, which fed into and upon Ruskin’s increasing worries about the social and economic state of the nation.

Following publication of Volume V of  Modern Painters in 1860, Ruskin devoted much of his energies to denouncing, in increasingly apocalyptic terms, the social, economic and environmental evils manifested by the faithlessness, materialism, and greed of Victorian society.

The practitioners and apologists of Laissez-Faire Capitalism were excoriated in Unto This Last, the series of essays published in book form in 1862, the year in which essays in political economy, Munera Pulveris, began to appear in Fraser’s Magazine.

In 1871, Ruskin began Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, and founded The Guild of St George, for the renewal of England, with a gift of £ 17,000. St George had long symbolised, in Ruskin’s mind, the necessary fight with the dragon of evil, which, in simplistic terms, he identified with Capitalism. So Ruskin invested all his understanding of a true society and its arts under the tutelary aegis of St George, the patron saint of England.

It should be remembered that Ruskin’s formative education came from his strongly Fundamentalist mother, Margaret, who indoctrinated him with belief in the literal truth of the Bible, and so the literal truth of The Fall of Man. Ruskin spent the next eighty years seeking the route to Paradise Regained. His early art criticism seeks perfection, and morphs into a search for architectural perfection, which the Seer [in all senses] within him sees as the result of a perfect social and economic system, with man in perfect harmony with himself and nature.

Ruskin almost reaches the concept that ‘property is theft’, but not quite. He corresponded with Engels, but there is no evidence to prove any communication with Karl Marx. The first volume of Marx’s Das Kapital had been published in 1867.

The Trade Unions were legalised in 1871. And Ruskin’s personal life suffered an ending and entered a new phase with the death of his mother, and his purchase of Brantwood, in that same year.

Almost immediately, the community across the lake - Coniston - became a working laboratory, in which Ruskin was able to experiment with various aspects of his social, economic, environmental, and educational philosophies, in order to test whether or not they might prove workable in practice. Discovering that Coniston Mechanics’s Institute, established for the benefit of the copper-miners and slate quarrymen, was about to be made homeless, he encouraged the construction, by public subscription, of spacious purpose-designed-and-built new premises on Yewdale Road. The new Coniston Mechanics’s Institute, opened in 1876, housed a public library, a Reading Room, meeting/class rooms, and a village assembly room. Coniston’s population was still growing, and this necessitated further extensions in 1897, to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The enlarged premises had a much larger assembly room, suitable for exhibitions and performances, a caretaker’s house, a public bath, and a Billiard Room-cum-men’s smoking room. In 1884, Ruskin had given some of his minerals and crystals, which, together with a variety of curious local bygones, were to become the foundation of The Ruskin Museum.

Ruskin fostered craftsmanship and aesthetic education by developing the Wood-Carving Classes; he was much encouraged by Susie Beever, and greatly assisted by the man he described as his indefatigable ‘aide-de-camp’, W.G.Collingwood. Local men and women were taught the principles of making basic furniture and wooden items, and were trained in traditional carving techniques so that they could embellish their handiwork. A proper balance between function and decoration was decreed: their work was to be both useful and beautiful. One of the most influential tutors - and judges at the village arts & crafts exhibitions - was Arthur Simpson, a friend of W.G.Collingwood. Simpson established what is now recognised as a leading Arts & Crafts Movement furniture workshop in Kendal. Simpson was familiar with Ruskin’s precepts, encouraging individualism in the more able, capable of devising their own carved decoration, to use the wood to advantage, knots and whorls and all, whilst supporting the aspirations of the less able through the provision of items in kit form and the development of pattern books. The classes were intended to take students up a learning curve.

It is clear that Arthur Simpson and W.G. Collingwood introduced the technique of embossed leather-work, which led to experiments in metal-working, embossing copper, brass and silver. An early sign for The Ruskin Museum, with pointing hand and Norse interlace, is on display, together with other items that are somewhat cruder in their seams and feet and texture than the products, a few years later, of the Keswick School of Industrial Arts, founded by the Rawnsleys, who had copied Ruskin’s Arts & Crafts at Wray Village Hall, before their move to Crosthwaite, Keswick.

Meanwhile, in 1875, Ruskin had founded St George’s Museum in a cottage at Walkley, on the outskirts of Sheffield. The collections were chosen from the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’ – crystals, minerals, shells, coins, Audubon & Gould’s bird engravings, copies of the Old Masters and Turner, plaster casts of Gothic carving and leaves, missals and illuminated manuscripts – all chosen to bring ‘St George’s Work’ for the education, edification and enjoyment of the local steel-workers and their families. To help them to see.

The Ruskin Museum contains an equally serendipitous range of items, all lovingly selected by W.G. Collingwood to demonstrate the fascinating diversity of the multi-faceted but inextricably linked interests of The Professor of All Things.

Perhaps the most difficult branch to grasp of Ruskin’s symbiotic and inter-connected philosophies is his social economy, exemplified in the Lake District by the Langdale Linen Industry and the introduction of the reticella lace technique now known in his honour as ‘Ruskin Lace’, and, at a remove, by the Keswick School of Industrial Arts [KSIA].

In Fors Clavigera Ruskin emphasised the place of hand labour in bringing satisfaction and joy to the arts of domestic life, and in providing a helpful industry for women in their own homes – enabling them to find fulfilment as well as to contribute towards the household costs. He sought to validate the idea of paid work for women. It is worth noting that many of the women involved in the Lake District’s Ruskinian Arts & Crafts Industries became leading Suffragists, emancipated before the attrition of the Great War made it essential to extend the franchise by giving women the vote.

Ruskin said that St George’s mission was to revive ‘the trust of past time in conscience, rather than in competition, for the production of good work; and in common feeling, rather than in common interests, for the preservation of national happiness and the refinement of national manners.’ Ruskin founded The Guild of St George for the organisation of country life in the best traditions of agriculture, education and hand work.

Ruskin’s fascination with the ‘following of the clew’ through the patterns knotted in carpets, through webs and gossamer, through the markings in pebbles, began in early childhood, through close scrutiny of his surroundings, and continued through his writings, where his favourite images included Ariadne unwinding her ‘clew’ of thread [her ‘clue’] through the Cretan labyrinth to aid Theseus’ escape after slaying the Minotaur, and Atropos severing the thread of Fate with her shears.

It is not, therefore, surprising that his own elevated interest in weaving, his aspirations for The Guild of St George, and his antiquarian interest [fostered by W.G. Collingwood] the Lake District’s textile heritage [of Herdwicks, ‘hodden grey’, the Monastic Wool Trade, and the remains of the pits where flax had once been ‘retted’], together with his promotion of hand work’s superiority over the machine-made, and his observation of the hard life endured by the families of the local fell-farmers, miners and quarrymen, should have culminated in the establishment of the Langdale Linen Industry.