Drawing by John Ruskin, 1857
I. On the road.
Today we drove through much country to the north and west, then south to Furness. A never-ending spectacle of soft and bright variegated hills, infinitely delicate in their colouring, infinitely varied in their softly moulded shapes. A hair-raising climb up the Honister Pass, all slate and scree in driving rain, gave way to a rose-gold fairyland as we crossed over to Derwentwater. The lake not so much blue as purple rose in the trembling light. As rain and sun alternate with one another constantly, as clouds shift and re-shift overhead, the landscape is dappled with light and shade in ever-changing patterns – here a hillside glowing golden orange and porphyry, there a neighbouring hillside plunged in blackest shadow.
The small town is dominated by a great rearing head of volcanic rock known as ‘the Old man of the Mountain’. From a distance the hills are intensely coloured – russet with great golden slashes of wild gorse , purple bracken, mossy green, chocolate , lavender and black – very black at the summits drifting in and out of white mist. I followed the course of a little waterfall, perhaps five feet across at the widest part, but moving very fast, the water clear and smooth as glass, tumbling over black slate stones. In a desolate high hollow of the hill are the ruins of the old copper mine – a few tall heaps of slag and a lonely house that must once have served as a shelter for the mine workers. It’s set so far back into the hill that both the town and the lake are invisible. Cut off from the world, a dark place, and somehow terrible.
Viewed from above, the slate-coloured town nestles firmly in its niche beside the lake, very much a part of the landscape. The birds were singing like mad, and all the streams full and gushing. Even much of the footpath uphill was covered over with running water about an inch deep, despite the numerous devices in place to drain it away. The long, slow spring twilight set in as I began my descent, the lake appeared dark as slate and a cold, high wind was blowing.
We stayed in an old farm cottage, painted white and with massive slate floors worn smooth with age. A pair of pure white doves were fluttering in the garden. The landlady’s family came to this area four hundred years ago to work the copper mines, having previously been employed as tin miners in Cornwall. Thus she thought of herself as an ‘outsider’! I saw many sheep grazing on the mountain, even very high up, and many lambs as well, some with shaggy coats and curly horns, others very neat, with black faces and trim black legs like can-can girls. Many of the smallest lambs were completely black. There are a few cattle here as well, mostly russet with great broad faces, and a few of the classic ‘black and whites’. The view from our window includes a very small calf, no bigger than a dog, and soft brown all over.
John Ruskin - the Hall at Coniston
When I crossed the threshold at Brantwood and stood in the entry hall with its slate blue walls, Ruskin drawings on the walls, silvery waterfall just outside the door, a lump came in my throat and tears in my eyes – he was that close. The house and setting are very beautiful but somehow terribly melancholy – how could it be otherwise? The spirit of my beloved ‘Papa John’ Ruskin is everywhere to be felt here. Most especially in the large, light dining room which he designed himself, complete with a seven bay Venetian window which manages to achieve something of the aspect of a piano nobile transported to the frozen north. The windows look out onto the lake, which must do service for the Canal Grande but alas, senza palazzi! The wild scenery could not be more different from that quintessentially civilised blue lagoon, and the contrast is as good as a mirror of Ruskin’s own split soul and divided loyalties. It is nonetheless a superb room – high and well proportioned, exquisitely lit with the pale blue ethereal light off the lake. Ruskin turned his hand to practically everything here, and it is wonderful to see how his genius, so well known to me through words and drawings, expresses itself with comparable eloquence in everything here. For example a design for wallpaper: taken from a bit of Italian renaissance drapery, a scrap of negligent loveliness trouvé upon the sleeve of a bending figure, perhaps a High Priest. The paper shows bright blue diamond-figured patterns on an ivory ground accented with flecks of scarlet. Most of this paper would have been covered with his innumerable paintings, though!
His genius also expresses itself in beautiful additions: a new coach house , graceful and elegant; an extraordinary coach with ‘secret compartments’ that must have recalled childhood journeys across the Alps and those first glimpses of a world beyond the narrow confines of Britain; a bright blue skiff with a white wave pattern painted along the side. He even designed the fire shovel, a veritable pattern for simplicity and utility in domestic ironmongery in the soon-to-be born Bauhaus style! (The joiner’s cottage, who made the coach, lies directly beside the house in which we are staying, still in the same family, still in the same business, with a row of wooden doors for sale in the yard.)
The walls are hung with a fine selection of his drawings and watercolours – rocks, trees, plants and flowers, Venice and the Alps, Coniston and the lake... and the lovely portrait of poor little Rosie LaTouche with a garland of wild roses in her hair. At Brantwood wild roses, his secret symbol for Rose, are planted everywhere. The gilded picture frames in his bedroom that once held his favourite Turners (and now hold only prints of the same) were designed by Ruskin as wild roses entwined. In his own favourite garden these same wild roses grow upon the low trellised walls that enclose it – he would have been surrounded and enfolded by wild roses here. Several of his drawings also show the wild rose, alone, or in a landscape.
His study, on the ground floor, is a bit grim, as rooms in old houses can sometimes be. It has a fine view of the lake but is dark, a bit close, and smells dreadfully of damp. It must have been freezing most of the year. There’s an odd, perhaps somewhat random collection of Ruskin’s old books, everything from ‘Arabian Nights’ to ‘Rogers’ Italy’ to the minor Greek poets, and curio cabinets full of, well, ‘curios’, mostly rocks and seashells, mostly in a jumble.
Last of all I dared mount to the bedroom, which is ghostly indeed, with its famous turret (a Ruskinian addition ça va sans dire) where he used to sit for hours looking out at the lake after illness and sadness had overwhelmed him. It’s built in the form of a broad octagonal platform, glass-paned round about, and you are like a bird in its nest there, or perched high on the mast of a ship at sea. What strange thoughts must have visited him here, the man who once said ‘Never, if you can help it, miss seeing the sunset and the dawn. And never, if you can help it, see anything but dreams between them.’ Not many sunsets, nor many dawns, I fear, in this rainy country, and as for dreams – what shattering nightmares did attend upon him here, in this little room! This modest little room – it looks such a simple place to have witnessed such horror. After his first serious breakdown in this house he moved his sleeping quarters to a smaller bedroom across the landing. It seems the amount he had suffered here made the room unbearable to him, although he continued to use the turret. But how much more suffering was to come! Poor Papa John – how much more. I briefly touched the knob of his mahogany bedstead, which once troubled him in his deluded fantasies.
The whole house is constantly murmuring with the sound of rushing water, which falls in channelled rivulets from the rocky hills above, a thousand tiny waterfalls of quicksilver. One hears as well the constant lapping of the lake upon the shore, and these perpetual watery sounds are another reminder of Venice. Lying in bed at night, eyes closed in the darkened room, the sounds would be familiar yet different, like the view from the dining room through ‘gothic’ windows – the same but not the same, a Venice made in a magic mirror, transplanted, altered, an illusion that almost works but in the end eludes you.
The sound of birdsong is everywhere, so many sweet calls, twitters, replies, echoing around the house and through the gardens. And then there’s the sound of the wind in the trees, a swift rustling sound as if someone were running up the path to meet you , but there is no one...
The gardens are so very beautiful! Wildly beautiful rather than tamed or civilised, set among the woods and the hard slate hills. There’s a riot of bloom this time of year – you approach the house through a forest of towering azaleas – yellow, orange and fiery pink, and absolutely reeking with perfume. Then the softer apple blossom, the dark, silky red maples, and, best of all, high in the wooded hills, a whole cloud of bluebells like a quivering blue veil cast upon the ground. In the cups of the leaves were crystal drops left by the rain, no mere poetic conceit but actual crystal drops, in appearance prismatic and hard as glass, but dissolving at a touch to dew. The streams run quick among the hills, very fine between steep banks of blackest slate. There’s an odd sort of’chair’ made from great slabs of stone where Ruskin used to sit. I tried it and found it hardly congenial! I feel how sad he was here. It’s a hidden place, where a wounded man might hide.
The whole effect of the house, of its furnishings and gardens, is one of great taste and great simplicity. All the more remarkable when we remember the Victorian fashion for copious adornment, and moreover, that Ruskin was a very wealthy man. It is a much simpler place than I’d imagined it, indeed, the study, which I’d pictured as something rather grandiose – a fit setting from which my sage Papa would pontificate – isn’t grand at all but low-ceilinged, homey, a bit cramped. The uncompromising, unselfconscious modesty of all his arrangements gives a rare insight into his character, especially as he often accuses himself of being ‘soft’.
Poor Papa John! For all its loveliness I think it would make one sad to live here. It’s so cold and gloomy, and the hills don’t look very friendly. I think my poor Papa ought to have retired to Italy. I can imagine a whole alternative existence for him: Instead of freezing to death and going mad among these sodden hills he, moves to Italy, Naples perhaps, or even Sicily, marries an exquisite twelve-year-old bride, and spends his declining years roaming the sun-drenched hills and writing up the local mineralogy. But I suppose it would never do...
In the churchyard at Coniston I visited his grave. There’s a very lovely cross in stone, unostentatious, and beautifully carved with symbols of his life’s many works: the Angel of ‘Fors’, the Lion of San Marco, the wild rose... the whole the work of the loyal Collingwood, who lived close at hand. I left a sprig of wild lilac and said a prayer – May he rest in peace at last.
I visited Brantwood on Friday, the 19th May 2006.
John Ruskin - Wreath of Wild Rose
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