*William Cowper, “The Task”
John Ruskin, the polymath with strong views on work, wealth and money, was born in 1819. When he was 23, he moved with his family to a seven acre estate in what was then known as “the Belgravia of the South”, at 163 Denmark Hill. By 1871, John felt trapped in what was now a triangle of train tracks between Clapham Junction, New Cross and Crystal Palace, and he moved on.
In May this year, Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson completed a trilogy of comic books as the graphic novel “Bloke’s Progress”, an introduction to Ruskin’s philosophical thought.
My interest today, because I am attending a conference at Whitelands College, University of Roehampton, begins with the collaboration between Ruskin and the Rev John Faunthorpe, MA, FRGS, who became Principal of the College in 1874. Whitelands had been established by the National Society of the Church of England in 1841 with the aim of producing “a superior type of parochial schoolmistress”.
The two men first came into contact when Faunthorpe wrote an encouraging letter to Ruskin on reading one of his publications. As Malcolm Cole noted in the Ruskin Lecture of 1992, “The governing body of Whitelands had employed (Faunthorpe) specifically to restore Whitelands to academic and professional pre-eminence…..Ruskin had to teach the Principal that there were more important things in life than mere excellence in competitive examinations and in the necessary hard work of preparing for those exams.”.
He began by showering the college with gifts. James McNeill Whistler sneered that Ruskin was playing uncle to the girls at Whitelands. (Whistler sued Ruskin for describing him as a “coxcomb” of art, and, though he won, was awarded an insulting farthing.)
In 1881, Faunthorpe persuaded the governing body to erect a chapel in the original college grounds in King’s Road, Chelsea, though what they provided was small, dark and plain. Ruskin sent his former protégés William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to transform the interior; fairly early in their working relationship, Morris let Faunthorpe know that the chapel roof was “perversely hideous”.
William Morris and Company made the stained glass windows and the reredos. While Morris himself drew up the design for the reredos, the whole thing was made over a period of four years by his female partner at “The Firm”, Kate Faulkner. The work was carried out at 26, Queen Square, Bloomsbury, a building which is now part of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.
The windows and reredos were moved to the new buildings designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in West Hill, Putney when the college relocated in 1931. Since 2005, they have stood in Parkstead (formerly Manresa) House, the home of Whitelands College since 2001. In 1992, Malcolm Cole observed that: “Today, the windows are listed as the finest set of late Burne-Jones windows in the world.”. Morris continued to involve himself in beautifying the chapel interior until shortly before his death.
Manresa House, a neo-classical Palladian villa, had originally been built as Bessborough House by Sir William Chambers, the Scots-Swedish architect. The major rival of Adam in British Neoclassicism, his best known works include the pagoda in Kew Gardens. Bessborough House, the first of his houses for the nobility, was inspired by Chiswick House and Foots Cray Place.
Bessborough House was sold to the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1861 and renamed Manresa House after the town in Spain where Ignatius of Loyola developed his spiritual exercises. Following completion of his studies at Balliol College, Oxford, Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of the most important poets of the Victorian era, entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Manresa, Roehampton, on 7 September 1868, and remained until September 1870.
In the 1950s, the London County Council compulsorily purchased the surrounding land and part of the Jesuit land for housing. By 1962, when the housing estate began to include high rise flats, the Society had decided to sell the property to the Council. The House became part of the Battersea College of Domestic Science. Manresa House, Harborne, Birmingham, is now the home of the Jesuit Novitiate for the Provinces of Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and North Belgium.
In 1864, John Ruskin’s father, a wealthy Scots wine merchant and sherry importer, had died (his grave and his wife’s are at St John’s Parish Church, Shirley). The son John inherited a sizeable amount of property in Marylebone, then a working class area. Ruskin observed that the poor, unlike wealthier shoppers who bought in bulk, were penalised when it came to buying staples such as bread, eggs or tea. He opened a shop at 29, Paddington Street, on the northwest corner of the present day intersection of Paddington and Chiltern Streets.
He declared his intention of supplying the poor of Marylebone with pure tea, in packets as small as they chose to buy, without making a profit on the subdivision. However, Ruskin eventually acknowledged: “The business languishes…”. He turned the business over to the Marylebone-based housing reformer Octavia Hill, who made a short lived attempt to make it a going concern. More successfully, Ruskin funded Hill to redevelop a trio of run down properties in Paradise Place, now Garbutt Place, off Marylebone High Street. She triumphantly met his stipulation of a five per cent return on his money, while the properties were let to poor tenants at low rents. Hill’s legacy lives on in the form of Octavia Housing; she also co-founded the National Trust, and was the first clean air campaigner for London.
Ruskin may have hampered his own foray into shopkeeping by his conviction that there should be no advertising at all, with the possible exception of a sign over the door. Nonetheless, there is surely a touch of self-deprecating humour in his depiction of himself:
“Owing to that total want of imagination and invention which makes me so impartial and so accurate a writer on subjects of political economy, I could not for months determine whether the said sign should be of a Chinese character, black upon gold; or of a Japanese, blue upon white; or of pleasant English, rose-colour on green; and still less how far legible scale of letters could be compatible, on a board only a foot broad, with lengthy enough elucidation of the peculiar offices of Mr Ruskin’s Tea Shop.”.