It's petty, I know, which isn't at all Ruskinian in spirit, but there is something satisfying about discovering that John Ruskin, the most opinionated 19th-century writer on art, architecture and design, couldn't design a boat that floated or a coach with enough storage space for his library. He kept his books in a bathtub lashed on top of the carriage, which his coachmakers in Camberwell built to his specifications, complete with secret compartments. And his broad- beamed cross between a kayak and a currach, Jumping Jenny, unlike its designer, wasn't known as a mover and shaker on Lake Coniston.
Ruskin, whose centenary in two years will be marked by an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, had volumes to say on almost every subject of the man-made world. For him, design and art were connected to morals, religion and the state of society as a whole, and his anger at exploitative capitalists and their lack of compassion for the poor made him an international hero. His book Unto this Last was translated by Mahatma Gandhi into Gujarati, Clement Atlee claimed to be influenced by him, and Kenneth Clark thought his views to be "the truisms of the Welfare State". The National Trust was another Ruskin- inspired idea.
Tolstoy said of him: "Ruskin was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in the future." With this kind of hype, you need to go back to the master and check out the relevance of Ruskin today. Two memorials administered by the Ruskin Trust that are open to the public give us a better understanding of his vision: his old home, Brantwood, in the Lake District at Lake Coniston, and the new Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster, some 40 miles farther down the M6, which opens next Saturday. This beautiful shrine to house Ruskin's writing catapults his thoughts into the electronic age, with all 39 volumes of his library housed on a single CD-Rom. Professor Michael Wheeler, director of the Ruskin programme at the university, uses it all the time as he writes his book on Ruskin. "The great prose writer of the 19th century does have his nervous tics, you know," Wheeler points out. "He uses the expression `perpetual paradise' nine times in Volume 27 of his library to describe northern France. And, for once, Ruskin wasn't being ironic." His old home, Brantwood, is eccentric and unpretentious. Architecturally it is slightly strange, as it grew from a simple whitewashed farmhouse to encompass outbuildings, boathouses, turrets with lattice windows and bolt-on mullioned stone windows with an arched double entrance. Comfortably contoured into the steep slope above Lake Coniston, it was more of a laboratory for Ruskin's ideas than a place to pass the style trial. So Brantwood comes with a disclaimer that, while Ruskin had strong ideas on the glories of architecture and ornamentation, he referred mainly to places designed for rest and contemplation, not to his own home, which was a workplace. Having bought Brantwood in 1871 for the view of the lake, Ruskin perversely turned his back on it, setting a garden seat made of granite tombstones halfway up the hill, from which one could to contemplate a waterfall trickling down the hillside. The Ruskin Trust director, Howard Hull, who came from the Royal College of Art, where he was design director, has pieced together a fascinating glimpse of Ruskin's rather reclusive life from 1872 until his death at Brantwood in 1900, using substantial quotations from his literature, photographs and watercolours. The house was in disrepair after being left to his cousin, Joan Severn, but the trust managed to recreate the interiors for eight rooms from old photographs. The bottom of the lake was dredged for a lot of china and glass, while village auctions unearthed some of the furniture. The spirit of Merrie Olde England has been kick-started by a band of potters and gardeners and the "Jumping Jenny" wholefood cafe. …