Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest

May 28, 2016 | Neil Sinden

This week saw the third in our series of consultation seminars to help us explore ideas for the future of Ruskin Land.  The event was kindly hosted by the vibrant Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and involved participants connected with a range of cultural institutions in region.  The purpose of the day was to consider the connections between John Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest, and to discuss how we might develop a programme of activities in tune with Ruskin’s thinking.

Readers of this blog and those that have visited Ruskin Land will know what a special place this is.  We must ensure that its distinctive qualities, its beauty and tranquillity, are safeguarded and even enhanced by the activities we pursue.  This was reinforced by participants in the seminar one of whom stressed the need to be ‘light touch’ with any activities or interventions to protect ‘the integrity and unspoilt nature’ of the place.

As a basis for the discussion, Philip Fisher from the Birmingham and Midland Institute provided a short but informative summary of the links between Ruskin and the city.  While he visited just once, his influence was considerable: the Birmingham branch of the Ruskin Society, set up in 1896, was one of the most active;  the great city architect John Henry Chamberlain became a trustee of Ruskin’s charity, the Guild of St George (and incidentally designed Oozells Street School home of the Ikon Gallery); he inspired many of its artists and craftspeople such as Edward Burne-Jones, Benjamin Creswick and Joseph Southall; and Ruskin  Hall still at nearby Bournville was home to the Birmingham School of Arts.  The strongest link between Ruskin, Birmingham and the Wyre Forest though is through George Baker who gave land in the Wyre Forest to the Guild of St George.  Baker, a quaker businessman, was a Mayor of Birmingham and of Bewdley where he lived at Beaucastle.  On his death in 1910 he was described by the Birmingham Post as ‘one of the builders of Birmingham’ and by the Birmingham Gazette as a ‘civic pioneer’.

The overwhelming message from the seminar for me was the great potential for Ruskin Land to become a place that, through the involvement of people working in all sectors of the arts, can inspire people and improve their lives in many different ways.    Participants were enthusiastic that so many of Ruskin’s preoccupations still resonate today: the vital importance of access to beauty and nature, the nurturing of physical and social wellbeing, and provision of meaningful and fulfilling work –  or ‘right livelihoods’.

It was when Baker was Mayor of Birmingham in 1877 that Ruskin paid his only visit to the city.  During that visit Ruskin wrote ‘I have been staying with the good Mayor of Birmingham; and he has shown me St George’s land, his gift, in the midst of a sweet space of English hill, dale and orchard, yet unhurt by the hand of man.’   Ruskin Land, as it is now known, still fits this description.  In realising the potential of the place, it is our responsibility to ensure it continues to do so for years to come.