Born 200 years ago this month, on 8 February 1819, John Ruskin was a polymath; an artist, writer and critic who believed that culture should be available to all, not just the elite. As a new exhibition in London beautifully illustrates, Ruskin had strong opinions on most subjects. As he thought the architecture of Palladio ‘virtueless and despicable’, and the Houses of Parliament ‘effeminate and effortless’, we can probably assume that garden ornaments such as classical temples and gothic towers would not be his ‘thing’.
As a precocious child, however, one caught his attention:
Belle-view is a summer house on a crag high above Windermere. It was constructed in the last years of the 18th century as a picnic spot and belvedere on an outcrop of rock that was already established as one of the key viewing points, or stations, around the lake. From its high vantage point there were views up and down the whole length of the lake, and clambering up the slope produced that frisson of fear beloved of early tourists. Designed by John Carr of York, it became one of the essential sights on a tour of the Cumberland and Westmorland lakes – although until the 1960s county boundary changes it was actually in Lancashire.
In the first years of the 19th century Belle-view passed into the ownership of John Christian Curwen of Belle Isle, the largest island on Windermere. His quirky round mansion, likened to a tea canister, was another ‘must see’ and visitors were allowed to land and see the pleasure grounds which covered the island. Curwen extended the summer house, which was an eye-catcher from his island home, and decorated it with prints of picturesque scenes and windows edged with coloured glass. The Station, as it now became known, was used for picnic excursions and as a grandstand for watching regattas held on the lake.
Ruskin visited the Lakes on a number of occasions en route to his father’s homeland of Scotland. In 1830, aged 11, he described The Station in his diary, recording its distinctive glazing:
‘It is a large tower in which is a large apartment with various painted windows. The people tell you that on looking through the light blue it represents the appearance of winter. The green represents spring the yellow summer the purple a thunderstorm and the orange autumn. Each window of this place presented a different prospect of the lake and all were equally beautiful.’
High-minded as he was, the boy was not above being moved by a dog of ‘very wise and venerable appearance […] we all gave him a pat which he was graciously pleased to acknowledge with a wag of his tail.’
The London exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing is at Two Temple Place on the Thames, next to Middle Temple. Writing in the Financial Times earlier this month art-critic Jackie Wullschläger described the building as a folly. Whilst perhaps stretching the definition, Two Temple Place is certainly an unusual structure. It was built in the early 1890s as an estate office for the super-rich American William Waldorf Astor, and was designed by John Loughborough Pearson in a wonderfully ornate style which is impossible to categorise. Betjeman thought it ‘a little masterpiece’ and Pevsner a ‘perfect gem’. What is very clear, inside and out, is that Astor’s architect acted according to instructions and built ‘a perfect building irrespective of cost’.
The exhibition continues at Two Temple Place until 22 April https://twotempleplace.org/exhibitions/john-ruskin/
A second exhibition John Ruskin: Art and Wonder will be in Sheffield from 29 May until 15 September http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/millennium-gallery/exhibitions/coming-soon/john-ruskin-art-and-wonder
For all things Ruskin in 2019 see http://www.ruskin200.com
The Station, sadly ruinous and with the painted windows long gone, is now in the care of the National Trust who have consolidated the structure. The trust has built a viewing platform on the first floor and is clearing the slopes to reopen the views and allow visitors to understand how the building was designed to function. Coloured glass has recently been reintroduced as shown above https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/claife-viewing-station-and-windermere-west-shore