John Ruskin - Later Life (1869–1900) - The Guild of St George

The Guild of St George

Ruskin founded his utopian society, the Guild of St George, in 1871 (although originally it was called St George’s Fund, and then St George’s Company, before becoming the Guild in 1878). Its aims and objectives were articulated in, Fors Clavigera (see below). A communitarian venture, it had a hierarchical structure, with Ruskin as its Master, and dedicated members called “Companions” whose first loyalty was nearly always to Ruskin personally. Ruskin wished to show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed traditionally, with minimal mechanical assistance. With a tithe (or personal donation) of £7000, Ruskin accrued some land and a remarkable collection of books, art and other precious and beautiful objects.

Ruskin purchased land initially in Totley, near Sheffield, but the agricultural element of his scheme met with only moderate success after many difficulties. Donations of land from wealthy and committed Companions eventually placed land and properties in the Guild’s care: Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire; Barmouth, in Gwynedd, north-west Wales; Cloughton, in North Yorkshire; and Westmill in Hertfordshire.

In principle, Ruskin worked out a scheme for different grades of “Companion”, wrote codes of practice, described styles of dress and even designed the Guild’s own coins. Ruskin wished to see St George’s Schools established, and published various volumes to aid its teaching (his Bibliotheca Pastorum or Shepherd’s Library), but the schools themselves were never established. (In the 1880s, loosely related to the Bibliotheca, he supported Francesca Alexander, publishing some of her tales of peasant life.) In reality, the Guild, which still exists today as a charitable organisation, has only ever operated on a small scale.

Ruskin also wished to see traditional rural handicrafts revived. St. George’s Mill was established at Laxey, on the Isle of Man producing cloth goods. The Guild also encouraged independent, but allied, efforts in spinning and weaving at Langdale, in other parts of the Lake District and elsewhere, producing linen and other goods exhibited by the Home Arts and Industries Association and similar organisations.

In Sheffield, in 1875, Ruskin established a museum for the working men of that city, and surrounding areas. Originally situated in Walkley and curated by Henry Swan, St. George’s Museum housed a large collection of art works (original pencil sketches, architectural drawings, watercolours, copies of Old Masters and so on), minerals, geological specimens, manuscripts (many of them medieval in origin) and a multitude of other beautiful and precious items. Ruskin had written in Modern Painters III (1856) that, “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.” Through the Museum, Ruskin aimed to bring to the eyes of the working man many of the sights and experiences otherwise confined to the wealthy who could afford to travel through Europe. The original Museum has been virtually recreated online. In 1890, the Museum relocated to Meersbrook Park. The collection is currently (2011) on display at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries.

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