Lost domain – Rouen revisited

SELBY WHITTINGHAM takes a Proustian and Ruskinian trip through his and France’s past

Rouen at last, after an interval of more than twenty-five years! Again it was August, and again the rain was sheeting down upon the glass dome of the railway station. The first time, a gawky ‘teenager’, …” So began my mother’s account of her return in 1950 to where she had once stayed with a rich bourgeois family.

Her first visit had been not long after the death of Proust, who once visited Rouen Cathedral in an attempt to find the little figure on the Portail des Libraires which Ruskin had admired. I have never got to the end of Remembrance of Things Past, but have had a number of Proustian friends, among them two who each had a parent who had known the author. One of those helped Proust translate Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens into English.

In addition to the fact of my accompanying my mother, when I was aged just nine, on her return, my becoming a Ruskinian – a bridge between my interests in the Gothic and Turner – encouraged me later to love Rouen, and now to indulge in what is partly my own memory of the past, as Ruskin did in his Praeterita, in which he named Rouen as the first of “the three centres of my life’s thought”.

Rouen Cathedral, c. 1912. Pierre Dumont

My mother, Barbara Whittingham-Jones, would have been sixteen in 1923, the probable date of her holiday. She had spent most of her life in a Lincolnshire rectory, but her father in 1919 transferred to a parish in Liverpool, from where my grandmother came.

The family she was sent to stay with lived at the Château du Grésil between Grand-Couronne, an increasingly industrialised suburb of Rouen, and Moulineaux, from where came the British Molyneux family – to which the famous diarist Thomas Creevey belonged, being almost certainly an illegitimate son of the Earl of Sefton. The château is set back from the Avenue de Caen on Route D3, for some decades now threatened by an encroaching housing estate (named after a Paris Communard), though still backed by the historic Forest of Rouvray, where William the Conqueror is said to have had the idea of invading England.

Had the family acquired the house only recently? An advertisement in Le Gaulois: littéraire et politique on27 August 1920 reads: “PETIT CHATEAU HENRI-IV … GRÉSIL … A GRAND-COURONNE (Seine-Inférieure), avec très jolie vue, chauffage central, eau, l’arc de 4 hectares [=c.10 acres] entouré de murs. Prix 175,000 francs. S’adresser sur place à M. LAURENT VILLÉGIATUR”. The only early record which I have found says: “au château du Grésil, la chapelle Sainte-Catherine bénie le 5 juillet 1734”. The layout of buildings both of the very small château estate (Grand Grésil) and of the even smaller one immediately to the west (Petit Grésil) remained the same as in a map of 1816, but then isolated from other habitations.

Alterations were made over the years, some recorded in the postcards that exist. One in use by 1905 shows the house from the end of the drive, on which stands a horse with its groom, with to the right the old tower of Petit Grésil. That located it in “Environs de Moulineaux”, but another dated 1914, giving a close-up view, places it in Grand-Couronne. Both show tall chimneys which were later removed. A card produced by Shell soon after 1972 (who owned the house by then, using it to accommodate engineers) shows the house covered in creeper, which doubtless had grown since the outbreak of the war in 1939. My vague memory of it in 1950 is of a place that had run wild.

My mother read history (a lifelong love) and law (for practical reasons) at Newnham College, Cambridge, being called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1931, aged just 24. She later became a Conservative activist (trying unsuccessfully to get elected as a councillor in a Labour ward of Liverpool) and a prominent anti-appeasement campaigner. She was living in Malaya on the outbreak of war, where she married my father, Henry R. Oppenheim, in 1940. She joined the WAAF, and then became a war correspondent after her return to England. (She and I had escaped from Singapore on the last ship home in 1942; my father later escaped in a small boat with the controversial Australian general Henry Gordon Bennett, whom he portrayed as being in a state of hysteria, while his troops had all become drunk.) Apart from her war reportage, she published on subjects ranging from Indonesia and Malaya to the history of Liverpool. Most of these now are of only specialised interest, but her article about her return trip to the château, which appeared in the January 1951 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of ‘The Adopted Son’, remains by contrast very fresh and readable.

That ‘Son’ was Benito, an Argentinian by birth. He became a favourite of his adoptive la Mère, and was also adored by my mother. In my mother’s case that may have been due to the contrast with her own mother, who could be critical and satirical. La Mêre had two other contrasting children, the pale Pierre with her first husband, and the swarthier Julietta with her second, a French diplomat at Buenos Aires. The family also consisted of the benign grand-mère, her sister the querulous tante and the second (or third?) husband, who spent weekdays at his office in Paris, avoided mass on Sundays and died soon after. There was no mention of the family in the 1950 telephone directory, but a 1936 census seems to indicate that la Mère was then head of the household, Suzanne Jourjon, born at Lille in 1883. With her were a domestique and a cook and Angelito Rodriguez, born in 1900 at Morón (a district in Buenos Aires), with Argentinian nationality and described as “régisseur” or director. I shall however continue to call the latter Benito – or ‘To, as my mother referred to him.

 “We had the run,” wrote my mother, “of the park, the orchard, and the kitchen-garden. The temptations of the orchard were irresistible. Those greengages! Large, lustrous, and yellow-gold … Immediately below the château lay the ‘field’, an unfenced sward girt by the circular drive, where the cows were tethered, tended by the lodge-keeper, Marie. Above the château loomed the forest, with its muted, velvet-carpet, its long green lanes.” The latter included the Route Forestière du Grésil some distance back from the house. The daily life was rural and simple. The local curé, “Le Grosgros”, came for a delicious lunch on Mondays, fondling La Mère’s plump forearm to the annoyance of Julietta. The latter with my mother one cold night walked through the forest to his presbytery, where they were treated to tiny glasses of Benedictine.

The Gros Horloge at Rouen, Normandy c.1832. Joseph Mallord William Turner

On Tuesdays Rouen was visited by train, calling at the fashionable patisserie and salon de thé founded in 1825, Maison Périer, 68 rue du Gros-Horloge – today, the facade little altered, the premises of the Parfumerie Nocibé. The clock tower was painted by a succession of English artists in the 1820s and 30s, mostly from the opposite direction, looking towards the cathedral with the bell tower on the right, the viewpoint taken c.1832 by Turner, who repeatedly visited Rouen, and by most later artists. But there is one by Gustave Henri Marchetti of 1920, with the bell tower on the left and the Maison Périer in the foreground on the right, the street filled by people in the dress of the time – as also in a photograph preserved by my mother on the front page of the Sunday Times of 8 July 1956, before the street was levelled and pedestrianised. At school about the same year my aged classics teacher brought from his stock of postcards one showing the clock tower, asking me if I knew where that was! In blogs about Rouen, people still recall the patisserie as a popular and chic rendezvous up until the 1970s.

The Gros Horloge, c. 1920. Gustave Henri Marchetti

We revisited the patisserie too in 1950, walking from the blackened and closed cathedral. An old assistant had not seen la Mère since before the war. Nothing daunted, we dashed to the modern bus station to catch the autocar, which after breaking down deposited us by the château entrance. The house was in a sorry state, the salon destroyed by a shell, other rooms bare except for the bedroom of la Mère, who had died the previous April, and which Benito had kept untouched during the war. In the neglected orchard Benito gave me the largest apple I have ever seen. Talleyrand once wrote “He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life”. What would he have said on seeing the château, and Rouen, in 1950?

Rouen Cathedral, 1946, W. Carl Berger

Our unannounced visit resulted, after recognition, in warm greetings and exchanges of memories. One was of a struggle over a gun between Pierre and Julietta which caused a bullet to graze my mother’s ear and splinter the panel of a door in the hall. Benito (or ‘To, as my mother called him) pointed to the replacement panel which had been made at the time.

One of the walks Julietta and my mother used to take through the forest was to a clearing with a Franco-Prussian War monument of two or three French soldiers reeling beneath the swords or bayonets of Prussians in spiked helmets. Some years after her visit my mother was at Heidelberg, where she met a handsome and fascist Prussian student, whom she now called Conrad von Hunziker, and who, in a neat ending to her story, brutally occupied the château in 1940.

The Latin charm of Benito, combined with the fact that my mother’s great-uncle and two of his sons had lived in Buenos Aires, then a major trading partner of Britain, may have sparked in her a desire to see that city. According to my grandmother, the invitation to stay with the family was due to a business connection between it and my great-grandfather, a manufacturer and exporter of paint. Again according to my grandmother, who, so my grandfather said, liked sometimes to embroider her stories, my mother, accompanied Randolph Churchill on a trip to South America to report on an upheaval there, but arrived after it had ended (probably the 1932-5 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay). Randolph arrived at Buenos Aires on 7 June, being ordered by his father to return home “forthwith” to deal with a libel case. He got back on 2 July, the day when my mother’s surviving journal begins.

On 23 September, for a meeting at Penny Lane in Liverpool, she borrowed her aunt’s large Austin (both going strong over 35 years later), commenting, “Had she [her aunt] known that the car of a liberal-pacifist-vegetarian was to be used for a Churchill–Tory-platform, how she’d have writhed.” The following year a spoof advertisement, showing such a car with my mother at the wheel and Randolph beside her, heralded the “New Randy-Jones … Two Lung Power – Free Squealing – Double Ball Bearing … any colour except orange.” Orange was both the Labour colour and stood for the ultra-Protestants in the city.

Randolph had split the Tory vote by standing as an independent in a still remembered Liverpool by-election in January 1935. How he and my mother got thrown together was partly due to their joint attacks on the local Conservative caucus, controlled by Sir Thomas White – hence the suit for libel, which had been instigated by White. Both Winston and Randolph occasionally said they were not Conservatives, but Whigs. In her various writings on Liverpool politics, my mother described the seven different political clubs of a century earlier supporting a whole gamut of opinions, the Conservatives opposing their corporation fellows sporting the colour red, as she did. She was drawn to the more liberal end of Conservatism and later may have voted Labour and Liberal in turn, being studiously vague because of her attachment to the historic secrecy of the ballot and a love of mystification. Winston Churchill became a radical Liberal before returning to the Conservative fold with the help of White’s predecessor, Sir Archibald Salvidge, an Orange sympathiser, who established Liverpool as a Conservative city on the foundation of the support of working class Protestants and exclusion of Catholics – which my mother opposed, looking back to the time when Canning was a Liverpool MP supporting Catholic emancipation. Moreover, my Anglican grandfather was damned as “a rather ritualistic local vicar” by the Independent Alderman, Revd Harry Dixon Longbottom, a sort of precursor of the Revd Ian Paisley.

Her teenage holiday additionally made my mother a lifelong Francophile. When I reached the same age as she had been in 1923, she spotted a small advertisement on the front page of The Times. This sought an exchange with the eldest son of the advertiser, a former mayor of Angers, which duly occurred, instilling in me too a deep love of France.

The Chateau today

Twenty-five years later on holiday, I searched in vain, to the exasperation of my wife, the location of the Château du Grésil and the landmarks I had passed en route in the autocar from Rouen in 1950. The château is not named on modern maps, but can be found just to the left of the Rue Eugène Pottier (1816-87, the Communard revolutionary), on a circular drive joined to a straight one from Route D3. In the archives there are online maps one of 1813 and another later, undated one. These show two small estates: Hameau du Grand Grésil and, just to the west, Hameau du Petit Grésil, the latter presumably the one with the tower seen in later photos. The layout of the buildings in each estate was the same and conforms to what exist today. Later maps of 1961 also exist.

Monsieur Benito had died in 1972, fourteen years after my mother’s death. His true identity until now remained hidden, as my mother wanted to respect the family’s privacy and besides, as already remarked, enjoyed occasional mystification. He had told her that he had adopted the grandson of Marie the lodge keeper, born illegitimately in the same year as myself. That boy was one of those who first greeted us in 1950.

Many Britons still visit Rouen, thanks to the persistent hold its history and fabric have on our national imagination – a legacy of Monet, Turner, Ruskin, Proust and less happy wartime memories. But it cannot feel as personal for many of these visitors as it does to me – a place suffused not just with artistic significance, but memories of my own boyhood, and always the powerful presence of my mother. The Cathedral may have been restored, some old town streets can still be seen, and even the Château still stands – but it all feels increasingly distant, a domain as lost as Alain-Fournier’s ‘Les Sablonnières’ – a France, and a Europe, increasingly emptied of an ineffable “sweetness of life”.

Further reading

Ian Warrell, Turner on the Seine, Tate Gallery, pp.162-91

 J.Morlent, Voyage Historique et Pittoresque du Havre à Rouen sur la Seine, en Bateau à Vapeur, 1829 (copy owned by Turner)

 John Murray, Hand-Book for Travellers in France, being a Guide to Normandy etc., 3rd ed. Revised, John Murray 1848 (copy owned by Ruskin)

 The Traveller’s Handbook for Normandy & Brittany, Thos. Cook & Son, 1923

 J.G.Links, The Ruskins in Normandy: A Tour in 1848 with Murray’s Hand-book, John Murray 1968

 Géraldine Lefebvre, Léon Monet, frère de l’artiste et collectionneur, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 15 March-16 July 2023

 Churchill Archive, Churchill College, Cambridge

 Paul Nuttall, ‘Whiteballed’: Randolph Churchill, The Conservative Union and the Liverpool Conservative Party, 1935, 2020

 Josh Ireland, Churchill & Son, 2021

 Randolph Churchill, The Young Unpretender. Essays by his friends collected and introduced by Kay Halle, 1971. (Michael Foot recalled attending one of Randolph’s meetings in the Wavertree by-election, when Randolph cried “And who is responsible for putting Liverpool where she is today?” prompting a voice from the back of the hall, “Blackburn Rovers!”)

 Anita Leslie [sister of the unconventional Irish baronet, Shane Leslie, 1916-2016, Légion d’honneur 2015], Cousin Randolph: Life of Randolph Churchill, Hutchinson 1985

Arturo Bray (1898-1974), Armas y Letras (Memorias), 3 vols, 1981 etc

Spruille Braden, Diplomats and Demagogues, New York 1971

Work with Joy – Rawnsley, Ruskin and the Keswick School of Industrial Arts

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley at Crosthwaite
ROSALIND RAWNSLEY pays tribute to a great idealist and reformer

Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley is usually thought of today, a century after his death, as one of the three founders of the National Trust, or, in Lakeland in particular, as the Defender of the Lakes. The National Trust, it is true, remains his most tangible memorial, but his active involvement in a multiplicity of other fields, made of Canon Rawnsley a household name during his lifetime, not just in the field of conservation – but also in education as an early advocate of co-education and equal opportunities for girls, and in the encouragement of music, nature study and the arts; in public health, local government (he became one of the first County Councillors for Cumberland and towards the end of his life was co-opted onto the Education Committee for Westmorland) and literature, to name but a few of his wide-ranging concerns. Rawnsley was what today would be called an ‘activist’ – to any of the many and varied causes which captured his interest, he would devote his wholehearted attention, leading from the front wherever possible and whenever his ecclesiastical duties permitted.1

Born at Shiplake-on-Thames into an ecclesiastical family with its roots in Lincolnshire, Hardwicke, in spite of uncertain health throughout his life, was an indefatigable man of phenomenal energy and stamina. He would think nothing of tramping several miles across the fells during the night to see the sun rise over Helvellyn, catching a train to London after breakfast the next morning to attend a meeting, and returning home in the evening to deal with his correspondence or to prepare a sermon. No theologian, but a devout man of simple faith, he was much sought after as a preacher. He was blessed with a melodious voice, which he used to advantage not only in church but as a lecturer on a wide range of topics which interested him, ranging from the history, customs and archaeology of his beloved Lakeland, the influence of the Vikings, the German miners of Keswick in the time of Elizabeth I, to the archaeology of Palestine and ancient Egypt and the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, or the life and work of the Venerable Bede, and of course the application of John Ruskin’s philosophy of labour. He did however sometimes allow his vivid imagination to run away with him, and was not above reinventing history to suit his purpose. 

Rawnsley never stood on his dignity, getting on famously not only with the great-and-good, whose deep pockets could be relied upon as a source of funds for his various causes, but also with the Lake District shepherds and dalesmen. He made a study of the Lakeland native breed of Herdwick sheep, an interest he shared with his good friend and protegée Beatrix Potter, who herself in later life became a famous breeder of Herdwicks, and in more than one of his books about Lakeland he wrote knowledgeably about the upbringing and particularities of the breed. Somewhat choleric at home and in Committee, he could be rash and impatient with those who disagreed with him and his impetuosity not infrequently got him into trouble, but he was never afraid to apologise when proved to be in the wrong. To any cause capturing his interest he would not just lend his name, but would invariably be an active participant, always leading from the front. 

John Ruskin

Hardwicke Rawnsley was educated at Uppingham under the enlightened rule of his godfather Edward Thring, who introduced him to the Lake District and to the poetry of William Wordsworth, who was to become his poetic muse. From Uppingham he went up to Balliol, where he became an enthusiastic and life-long disciple of John Ruskin, whose ideas of social justice he wholeheartedly embraced and endeavoured to put into practice throughout his life.  

After university he volunteered as a lay chaplain to a mission to the poor in Soho, during which time he became acquainted with Octavia Hill, the social reformer, who was herself a disciple of John Ruskin. They remained friends thereafter and some 20 years later, in company with Sir Robert Hunter, would together become co-founders of the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, since abbreviated to The National Trust.  At Balliol, having neglected his studies in favour of athletics and the river, both areas in which he excelled, Rawnsley, achieved only a respectable Third in Natural Science. He made up his mind to follow his father and grandfather into the Church, was ordained deacon in 1875 and was appointed Curate to the newly-formed Clifton College Mission in Bristol. 

A prolific writer, Rawnsley published innumerable ‘occasional’ sonnets, having been introduced to what became, under the guidance of Charles Tennyson Turner, a family connection, his favoured verse form. Unfortunately for his reputation as a poet, he did have a fatal facility for sonnet-writing, which proved to be his undoing in this field at least, since he would dash off a sonnet at a moment’s notice on whatever topic occupied his attention at any given time. As a result, the poetic quality was, to say the least, variable. However, it has recently been realised that in the absence of any surviving diaries, Rawnsley’s sonnets – especially his first published book of verse, Bristol Sonnets – prove to be an invaluable primary source of information about his life and personal feelings.2

His literary output over the next 40-odd years, published on both sides of the Atlantic, extended far beyond verse, encompassing biography, pamphlets, magazine articles, papers for learned journals, innumerable letters to the press including at least 160 to The Times, memoirs, lectures, sermons, and ten books devoted to the Lake District, its scenery, history, literary associations and customs. The lyrical writing in these volumes, to a certain extent intended as early ‘guide-books’ to Lakeland, has seldom if ever been equalled, and never surpassed.

Marrying into a wealthy mine-owning family, Rawnsley became financially independent of his ecclesiastical stipend, as Vicar first of the tiny parish of Wray-on-Windermere, in the gift of his cousin who had inherited Wray Castle, and thereafter of Crosthwaite in Keswick. (He was later appointed a Canon of Carlisle Cathedral and an honorary Chaplain to King George V.)   

At Wray, Hardwicke and his wife Edith, herself a talented artist and craftswoman, recognised the precariousness of the lives of many of their parishioners, seasonal farm labourers, laid off during the winter months.  For these men, idleness led not only to poverty but also to boredom, to relieve which they would all too often resort to the pub, as Rawnsley had also found to be the case among the poor of Bristol. In the spirit of Ruskin, the Rawnsleys decided to offer lessons in woodcarving, a Lake District traditional craft in danger of dying out. These classes could not only provide an occupation to keep the beneficiaries at home, but also give them a new skill by which they could earn a competence during the winter months. When the Rawnsleys left Wray to take up the living of St. Kentigern, Crosthwaite and moved to Keswick in 1883, the classes in Wray were discontinued, but the seed had been sown. 

The Rawnsleys, as convinced Ruskinians, and in accordance with Ruskin’s teaching that, “Art is the expression of man’s delight in the works of God”, wanted to put into practice what they understood to be Ruskin’s philosophy of labour. In his influential work The Stones of Venice, Ruskin, through a close study of the architecture of that city, made it clear that, to him, the secret of its incomparable beauty lay in the hand-work which lovingly created it – the balconies, in which each element, taking inspiration from nature, was individually wrought by a master craftsman, using as his materials the hand-cut stones and hand-made bricks which comprise materials used for the buildings and palaces. No two are identical, but all bear what Ruskin described as a “family likeness”. He pointed out that objects, when hand-made, fit for purpose, and without any superfluous embellishment, have an intrinsic charm and attraction of their own which no mass-produced item, however well-made, could ever emulate.3

Rawnsley at Balliol, 1872
Edith Rawnsley in 1874

All Ruskin’s thoughts and reflections on this subject were distilled and synthesised in the eight volumes of Fors Clavigera. This series of open letters addressed “to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain”, appearing almost monthly from 1871 to 1884, taken together afforded Ruskin with a device for a philosophical exploration of various aspects of work and its conditions in England. Labour was a topic close to Ruskin’s heart – when Rawnsley had come under his influence at Oxford, soon after Ruskin had been appointed to the chair of Fine Arts at the University, ‘The Professor’ had recruited a team of undergraduates, of whom Rawnsley was one, to build a new road for the people of the village of Hinksey, an exercise which Ruskin deemed would provide a suitable antidote to their usual diet of athletics and beer, and teach them the value of manual labour. The ‘Hinksey Diggers’, immortalised in an early photograph, and much ridiculed in the contemporary press, represented an early exercise in ‘public relations’ long before the term was invented. Ridiculed or not, the lesson was not wasted, on Rawnsley at any rate who, as a sensitive and impressionable young man, was later to put Ruskin’s philosophy to effective practical use in the Keswick School of Industrial Arts.

The Hinksey Diggers, 1874 – Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley is leaning on the spade

Returning to Fors, as Clive Wilmer in his commentary on the work remarked, while the letters are indeed concerned with labour, their subject is work viewed through the lens of human destiny, the Fors or ’Fortune’ of the title, being she who holds the key to the future of mankind. (Perhaps in the midst of the current pandemic, through which Gaia seems to be at last wreaking vengeance on mankind for destroying the planet, ‘Gaia’ should have usurped the title!)4

All forms of labour are seen as rooted in nature and having a common purpose – that of promoting the wealth that is life, rather than simple existence from day to day, from hand to mouth. “There is no wealth but life”, as Ruskin proclaimed in Ad Valorem, the fourth of his essays on Political Economy in Unto This Last, the title being a reference of course to Christ’s parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Happiness, in Ruskin’s model, a model incidentally shared by his good friend Thomas Carlyle, does not depend upon making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. Money, per se, should not be an end-in-itself, but only a means to a higher end, and payment should be geared to need, rather than to desert.

As Ruskin’s biographer, John Batchelor, makes clear, in an ideal world there would be no place for competition – no market forces – no laws of supply-and-demand – no industrial capitalism. This idealistic philosophy was diametrically opposed to the ideas of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill (Ruskin’s particular bête noir), for whom the sole purpose of labour was the generation of wealth, which in turn, it was to be assumed, would increase the overall happiness of nations.5

England in the third quarter of the 19th century, through the efforts of the newly-enriched and powerful entrepreneurs, had become the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth and the first to become an urban rather than an agrarian society. Yet at the same time, for much of the population the norm continued to be a life of grinding poverty, starvation and injustice. This paradox was not wasted on Ruskin. He laid the responsibility for this state of affairs squarely at the door of the industrial revolution. Men were no longer in touch with the land and with nature; they no longer gained inner satisfaction from working with their hands to create beautiful or functional objects, from the conception to the finished product. Instead the majority had become mere cogs in the wheels of industry – mechanical ‘hands’ on a production line. They had ceased to be individuals, happy in the joy of creation.

In his writings, Ruskin urged the socially conscious middle-classes to put the clock back by restoring to nature the urban wastelands which they themselves had created. Perhaps the new-rich individual with a social conscience would be in a position to put into practice Ruskin’s exhortations, but for the urban man-in-the-street this must have seemed a vain hope and an idealistic philosophy, impossible actually to put into practice. Those who do not have enough to eat do not have the time, leisure or inclination to engage in philosophical reflection.

Rawnsley in 1885

It was in reaction to this state of affairs, and drawing on Hardwicke’s experiences in Mission work in Soho and Bristol, that the Rawnsleys, building upon the work they had already carried out at Wray with the woodcarving classes, decided during the winter of 1884 that the time had come to put into practice some of Ruskin’s ideas about the dignity of labour. Ruskin had taught that for work to be enjoyable the worker must not only learn new skills, but he must at the same time have some autonomy and control over the task in hand – a notion completely at odds with the modern and more cost-effective factory system, where each man was employed to carry out one single repetitive task on a production line.

No doubt actively encouraged by Ruskin, who now lived conveniently close at hand at Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water, the Rawnsleys wasted no time in setting up classes in woodcarving and metalwork. These classes were financed by local ladies, who paid to attend classes in the Parish Room in the afternoons, so that the classes for working men could be held in the evenings, free of charge. Woodcarving was taught by a local artist and designer, and Edith Rawnsley, who had taught herself to do metal repoussé, took charge of the metalwork classes. In this she was aided by a talented jeweller from the vicinity, she herself providing many of the designs. And so, the Keswick School of Industrial Arts (KSIA) was born. It was an immediate success, owing, as Ian Bruce observed in his magisterial history of the KSIA, to “the careful selection of instructional material and tuition”, and grew rapidly in size and scope. After two years, some 30 students were attending full time, rising to 67 after four years, with many more attending the evening classes. Every finished article remained the property of the school, with the student who had created it receiving part of the proceeds when it was sold.6

After only a few years of activity the School outgrew its makeshift temporary premises; better workshops and a showroom were essential. Accordingly, by the late 1880s, fund-raising for the erection of purpose-built premises had already begun. The money was raised with astonishing rapidity; in 1891 land was acquired on the banks of the River Greta in the centre of Keswick, and the first turf was cut in May 1893. The attractive building, in Arts and Crafts style, reflecting Westmorland vernacular architecture and featuring the round stone chimneys on square pedestals which Wordsworth had so appreciated, with a traditional ‘spinning gallery’ providing access to the showroom on the first floor, was largely built of various types of native slate-stone. The new School, with workshops adorned with improving quotations from Ruskin and others, was opened in April 1894 with considerable ceremony, though Ruskin himself was not well enough to attend. Ruskin’s philosophy of labour was encapsulated in the couplet, inscribed underneath the spinning gallery, and undoubtedly composed by Hardwicke himself:  The Loving Eye and Skilful Hand shall Work with Joy and Bless the Land.

The Carlisle Journal on 6th April 1894 reported that a particular feature of the new building was a collection of art objects and models, designed to constitute a museum of reference for art workers. A library well-stocked with reference works, displayed gifts from artists including William Morris, who presented specimens of printing by the Kelmscott Press, self-portraits by Holman Hunt and G.F. Watts, later to be joined by others promised by William Morris and Walter Crane. Since observation from nature was a key element of the teaching at the School, the grounds were planted with trees, shrubs and flowers. As Ian Bruce recognised, the school “embodied the ideas and philosophies which underpinned the idealised communities envisioned by the proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement.”

From its earliest years, even before the opening of the new building, the School flourished, making a wide range of products in silver, copper, and wood, such as trays, candle sconces, bowls and vases. In the woodcarving department, tables, screens, corner cupboards and clock-cases were produced. All were individually hand-worked and finished, to point up the contrast between these lovingly created objects and the soulless factory-made, die-cast products then flooding the market. Good design was of course vital, and this became even more important as the School, with its growing reputation, began to attract special commissions, often for church furnishings such as altar crosses, chalices, alms dishes, candlesticks, and so forth. One of the School’s most important commissions was for a new reredos for Rawnsley’s own Crosthwaite Church, designed by Edith and worked by her with craftsmen from the School.  She also designed elegant copper electroliers for the church and for the new Keswick Museum building, all of which were made at the KSIA and are still in use today.

The reredos at St. Kentigern’s church at Crosthwaite, designed and worked by Edith Rawnsley

In addition to metalwork and woodcarving, another local craft which had almost died out was the hand-spinning and weaving of linen. This had first been revived by Albert Fleming, another disciple of Ruskin, who with Marion Twelves, had set up the Langdale Linen Industry. Miss Twelves and her team of ‘spinsters’ had eventually moved ‘over the Raise’ (a reference to Dunmail Raise, now the A591, a mountain pass that connects the southern and northern sides of the Lake District, the main route through the centre of the Lakes) and became for some years amalgamated with the KSIA before differences of opinion between Miss Twelves and Edith Rawnsley resulted in the amicable separation of the two enterprises. Miss Twelves, yet another follower of Ruskin, then set up her own linen manufactory, which with his permission she named the Ruskin Linen Industry. Apart from beautifully worked items in what she called ‘Ruskin Lace’, a form of embroidered lacework incorporating different types of stitching and cutwork, two of the most publicised of the items produced by Marion Twelves and her team were the unbleached handwoven and embroidered linen palls, designed by Edith Rawnsley, for the funerals of Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, in 1892 at Westminster Abbey, and for John Ruskin eight years later. Ruskin’s pall is still on display in the Ruskin Museum at Coniston.

Many thousands of items were produced by the Keswick School of Industrial Arts during its century of existence, and are now much sought-after, commanding high prices. Unfortunately, however, in the end the KSIA became the victim of its own success. Increasing demand meant that orders could not be fulfilled without resort to the introduction of some mechanised processes. The range of goods was simplified; products in stainless steel which could not be entirely made by hand, were introduced and proved very popular, and in spite of the best efforts of the Trustees and management committees, changing tastes and the effects of two World Wars finally caused the School to close a few weeks short of the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. The fatal flaw of Ruskin’s philosophy of labour was embedded within it from  the start – as long as the enterprise remained small, with only a limited production, hand work from the drawing board to the finished product by a single craftsman as an ideal could not be faulted, but in practice, as the organisation grew, it simply was not commercially viable, and Ruskin’s principles had to a certain extent to be jettisoned, for the business to survive.

Today, in spite of various vicissitudes including serious flooding on more than one occasion, the attractive KSIA Arts and Crafts building, now a restaurant, still stands – a monument to the vision of the School’s founders, Hardwicke and Edith Rawnsley, and to John Ruskin, who inspired them.

Rawnsley, photographed by Herbert Bell (Courtesy of Armitt Centre)

Ruskin, in Ad Valorem, wrote:

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration. That man is the richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost; has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions; over the lives of others

If Ruskin’s dictum is accepted, Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley was a rich man indeed.7

  1. Rawnsley, E.F. – Canon Rawnsley []
  2. Rawnsley, H.D. – A Book of Bristol Sonnets. Ruskin & The English Lakes []
  3. Ruskin, J. – The Stones of Venice, Unto This Last, Fors Clavigera []
  4. Wilmer, Clive – John Ruskin: Unto This Last and other writings []
  5. Batchelor, John, John Ruskin: A Life []
  6. Bruce, I. – The Loving Eye and Skilful Hand – The Keswick School of Industrial Arts []
  7. Carlisle Journal 6th April 1894 []

English impressions

The Wilton Diptych

SELBY WHITTINGHAM looks back on a life in the arts, from the New Elizabethans to Generation Z

The latest bout of iconoclasm has produced renewed demands for a statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from a building built with his money at his and my alma mater, Oriel College, Oxford. The protesters claim that he was an imperialist and racist, though some authorities say that the charge of racism is partly misplaced. At least one protester was under the misapprehension that he was a slave owner.

At the same time, the BBC has been showing programmes on the history of Persia, reverently admiring its emperors, whose images are set amid the figures of the tributary peoples whom they had conquered. Of course the Persian empire belongs to the distant past, while the British one is more recent and its misdemeanours still a live issue for some of its subject peoples. Other bouts of iconoclasm are also now remote, such as the Protestant destruction of Catholic images. Today no one is very concerned about those disputes, but art lovers deplore the loss of works that once adorned our churches.

Among the last I count myself. Believing that everyone suffers from prejudices in varying degrees and that I too am a product of my background, I feel I should state what that was. I was brought up by my mother, who was a Conservative, an historian, a barrister, a journalist and a lover of the theatre. Those interests led to my being taken to see the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard IIHenry V, at Stratford-upon-Avon put on by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1948, John Harvey, the promoter of Perpendicular Gothic as a great English stylistic invention, had had published The Plantagenets, which began with a paean in praise of monarchy and continued by emphasising the biographer’s need for authentic portraits of his subjects. That led to my helping my mother with the task of finding such for her history and then to my doctoral thesis. Harvey’s royalism was matched by my mother’s. She would stand when the national anthem was played, even at home.

In 1953 I witnessed the preparations for the coronation, which seemed like some glorious pageant, a fit opening for the New Elizabethan Age. At the same time was performed at Stratford Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Redgrave as Mark Anthony and Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and directed brilliantly by Glen Byam Shaw. The French were rather rude about Redgrave, comparing him with a Scottish highlander rather than a Latin lover. I was particularly captivated by Ashcroft, and avidly eavesdropped – not quite the word to describe listening to her declamatory style of talking – when my mother and I sat at the theatre restaurant table next to hers. That was the closest I got, whereas in 1951 Richard Burton had shown us round back stage and we got reluctant permission to attend a rehearsal taken by Redgrave.

The schools which I attended conventionally prized the classics most highly and at university I continued to study them while pursuing my mediaeval interests. Visits to the Mediterranean had complemented that. In 1948 we stayed at the seaside villa of an anglophile Italian family at Sta Margherita Ligure. Being covered in oil discharged from an Italian warship into the sea, to the indignation of our Italian hostess, who said the British navy would never do such a thing, did nothing to diminish the shock of delight after the bleak 1947 winter and rationing in the UK. The fresh food by itself was a revelation. And the unaccustomed brilliance of the scene enhanced by the colourful cafe umbrellas at Rapallo, which my mother and I tried to catch in chalk sketches (now lost), created an indelible impression.

I made many visits to Italy later, partly in pursuit of mediaeval portrait sculptures. At university I twice joined parties visiting Greece, and was delighted both with the classical sites and the Byzantine churches. I was already in agreement with those who believed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens, not so much on national or moral grounds, but because I thought that they could be much better appreciated there than in the British Museum. This contributed to my long-held view that art should generally remain in its original situation. Once the British had returned works to Italy that Napoleon had taken for the Louvre, but that of course was different! Curators have a similar Napoleonic urge to amass and centralise and to set up the Universal Museum as the great desideratum, though the public does not altogether share that view.

On the return from Italy we stopped briefly at Paris and visited Versailles – my mother wanted to show me the Galerie des Glaces – where guided parties of different nationals followed closely one after another. The following year my father, on leave from Malaya, was nostalgic for England and as a compromise we stayed on a farm on Guernsey. But in 1950 my mother and I went to a small village on the Normandy coast. We combined that with a day excursion to Rouen, the cathedral blackened by war, and then took a bus to the 18th century Chateau du Grésil where my mother had stayed with a family, which I think had a South American business association with her grandfather, when she was a teenager and was the commencement of her Francophilia. She wrote an account for Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of “The Adopted Son”, in reference to an Argentinian boy and now in 1950 an elderly man and sole family survivor at the house. Later for a while it served as a research centre for Shell.

The article followed immediately on an hilarious contribution by a British army officer who had been invited to stay with the 7th Raja of Poonch (1) in the 1930s, an example of the friendly relations that often existed between the British and Asiatic rulers in their colonies. However, the British were never so sentimental as to prefer these ties to realpolitik and in a postwar treaty partly dumped the Malay sultans, an act deplored by my mother in 1946 in an article “Malaya Betrayed!” for the World Review, edited by Edward Hulton (2) – who incidentally had an address in Cromwell Road when I first came to live there, and whose nephew, Jocelyn Stevens, was the partner of Sir Charles Clore’s daughter, to whom I come later.

Like Hulton, my mother had been an active Lancashire Conservative in the 1930s, supporting Randolph Churchill’s doomed attempt to be elected an MP and then his father’s opposition to Appeasement. She embarked on a history of Liverpool politics, in which figures such as Canning and Gladstone’s father had played a part. In her time, it was divided into two cultures, Protestant English and Catholic Irish, not reconciled until Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Warlock (whose parents, later neighbours of my father, I knew). My grandfather and mother, part of the Anglican tradition, already favoured greater unity, but the local Conservative party was strongly Protestant and tolerated with difficulty one of its MPs who, following a long Lancashire tradition of recusants, was a Roman Catholic. This made my mother both a constitutionalist and a rebel.

After the visit to Stratford in 1951 we toured the vineyards of the Rhone, on which my mother wrote several articles, at the invitation of Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, who had been a French fighter pilot in World War I, winning the Croix de Guerre, and had set up the system of Appellation d’Origine Controlée. My mother had had the option of writing about the Rhône wines or those of Languedoc, staying at Perpignan. She was torn between the two and left the choice to me, and I plumped for Provence because it seemed more historic. This showed that I had already developed a taste for the past, perhaps encouraged by the Shakespeare history cycle seen a few months earlier. My mother too was more interested in history than in wine, and her account of Rhône viticulture was mostly about its Roman past and its being prized by the English, first under Queen Eleanor of Provence and again in the 18th century. The 19th century phylloxera outbreak was devastating (a company started by my great-uncles, McKechnie Bros, exported sulphate of copper to spray on the vines, and a photograph exists of their stand at the 1919 Lyons Fair). In 1951 Rhône wines were again at a low ebb, despite the efforts of Baron Le Roy, and in need of publicity.

From an historical point of view, the trip was partly disappointing. Avignon, where we spent the first night in a small modern hotel, was unexciting, and the Palais des Papes was closed to visitors. The Roman remains at Vaison-la-Romaine and theatre at Orange left me rather cold. But the romance of the vineyards, which suggested to my mother the idea of a film about the oldest, Chateau de la Nerthe, was different. I had not read then the memoirs of Captain Gronow (3), who was equally at home in London and in Paris, a fact appreciated by Winston Churchill when preparing to meet De Gaulle. One of his most entertaining anecdotes was about General Palmer, who bought a fine Bordeaux vineyard (still called Chateau Palmer), whose wine he ruined after taking the advice of the Prince Regent, who shared the English preference for fortifying claret with the more robust Hermitage, where we were the guests of Louis Jaboulet, whose firm was founded by his ancestor in 1834. Its labels depicted the hermit’s chapel, while those of Le Roy showed Chateau Fortia on labels unchanged down to the present. However, under the pressure to appeal to non-Europeans unconcerned with history some Bordeaux vineyards have jettisoned the chateaux for silly names and trite designs. This dumbing down was in contrast to the commissioning by a Rothschild of designs from the leading artists of the 1950s, an example of innovation which is fruitful rather than destructive or decadent.

Then in 1957 I followed my mother’s teenage experience by staying with a French family at their Angevin chateau which had the ruins of a mediaeval castle in its grounds (they had advertised in the Times for an exchange with their eldest son, whose English needed improving). Three years later, before entering Oxford University, I spent two terms at the Sorbonne studying the course for foreigners on French Civilisation. A popular lecturer on French 19th century literature, Antoine Adam, declared that there were two types of Frenchmen, ‘Franks/Germans’ and ‘Gauls/Latins’. He was the epitome of the second, while his fellow lecturer on literature epitomised the Frankish strain.

The contrast between the English and French has been endlessly drawn. It was shown in stylised fashion in the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson, and later in Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to which we took my French teenage exchange. Often, of course, people do not conform to these stereotypes and one needs to regard people as individuals. However, the generalisations remain, though in the case of the English (sent up by our neighbours, Flanders and Swann (4), in their song, The English, The English are Best, which they performed to the slight bemusement of an American audience) the image with which I grew up, of the stiff upper lip and either bowler hat or cloth cap, has now gone, though the reluctance to make a fuss remains. It is a nice philosophical question how far such generalisations, whether about race or tradition, are ever valid. What many hold as tradition only goes back a few generations or, with regard to the fine arts, to the Renaissance, whereas my mediaeval and classical perspectives are different.

In a stay on a farm at Coniston with my father in 1956 among the places visited was Brantwood, the last home of John Ruskin. I was then more in tune with Wordsworth, one of whose descendants, with a marked resemblance to his ancestor, was the only other visitor to Dove Cottage when I entered it. It was only some years later that I began to read Ruskin’s works that I found I had an affinity with him. This began with his championship of Gothic and contention that all portraiture is essentially Gothic, while the Renaissance sculptors “rounded their chins by precedent” (5). This view appealed to me because it suited my thesis, and for its contrarian nature.

In 1975, when I started a campaign to honour Turner’s testamentary wishes to have his works displayed in a special Turner gallery, I had Ruskin again as on the whole a support. This campaign naturally met the opposition of the three (now two) museums between which Turner’s paintings had been split. But it had the support of leading panjandrums in the art world and of some politicians. Decades later, Boris Johnson wrote that the continuing failure to observe Turner’s last wishes merited an enquiry, but latterly there has been silence. Various Conservative politicians have expressed an admiration for the work of Turner as well as for heritage, and some even for honouring conditions attached to gifts and accepted with them. But, despite the Turner wing at the Tate given by Sir Charles Clore’s daughter being an additional failure, they have latterly shown no concern. The Conservative Party, as Matthew Parris has written, has no set beliefs, and today is more the heir of Gladstonian liberalism than of the conservatism of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (6).

While at university I became a supporter of the Liberal party and have remained one of its successor. This is mainly because of its emphasis on individualism and free choice, but also because influences were the party’s colour, yellow, the colour of Turner and Van Gogh, and the fact that some of my forebears and cousins were Liberals on free trade or other grounds. That may seem a trivial reason, but others were Liberals by heredity as well as belief, and the same goes for other parties, which all are conscious of their traditions. Bertrand Russell, though not a member of the Liberal Party, was conscious of his Liberal heritage. He regarded doubt as essential and that addiction to certainty as the cause of the world’s ills. Today he would surely condemn the epidemic of wokeness, puritanism and illiberalism masking as liberalism, a distinction made recently by among others Tim Farron, who was pilloried for his evangelical beliefs, regardless of his liberal voting record.

Memorial to Byron, Walter Scott & Thomas Moore, by J M W Turner

If the arts in England, especially the fine arts, are now at a low ebb, there are many causes. Traditional Englishness has been diluted by foreign influence, notably from America. Of course English art has always been subject to foreign influence, from France especially. But it evolved some distinct traits in the Middle Ages, as Nikolaus Pevsner traced in his now unfashionable 1955 book The Englishness of English Art (7) (my copy of which a young, non-English architectural student stole!). I found this useful in my analysis of the style of the Wilton Diptych, with its puzzling portrait of Richard II, on which my mother had started me. While looking at popular books on Gainsborough and his contemporaries on the bouqiniste stalls by the Seine I was struck by how they had an English air distinct from that of French portraits. But Pevsner’s rules only hold good so far, and in the end artists are individuals and go off in all sorts of directions. That is especially true of Turner, who early on captured the Englishness of the Thames and Medway valleys, and also was steeped in tradition and the past (Lady Eastlake commented how knowledgeable he was about the history of all the castles he depicted). However, in his later works he moved on and prompted commentators to call him un-English, Germanic, a proto-French-Impressionist and so on.

In the Turner campaign one of our supporters, the late Dr William Allen, a scientific adviser to the National Gallery, discouragingly cited the law of physics, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, as also a law of society. That is certainly true in history. The enthusiastic admiration for British imperialism has given rise to an equally passionate denunciation. Lenin acted partly in reaction to the Tsarist execution of his teenage brother, and liberals have then reacted violently against him, whereas I would keep some of his statues as being of historical importance. Of course Africans had not done anything to cause them to be enslaved, but those today demanding extreme measures in recompense risk provoking a violent counter-reaction.

Unfortunately, academics have too often failed to be more objective than their students. When I was an undergraduate at Oriel, it was a notably conservative college, with Hugh Trevor-Roper a hovering presence. Today the enlarged body of fellows has few historians but a number of colonials (as has the university), and few are former alumni. The Provost (8), however, is one, and has just been ennobled as a Conservative peer ostensibly for his involvement in the museum world. Will he be willing or able to direct the college to keep the statue of Rhodes in line with the opinions of the Chancellor of the University and the Prime Minister? I have tried to show why my bias is in favour of retention.


  1. Both India and Pakistan have districts named Poonch, parts of the disputed Kashmir region (Editor’s note)
  2. Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, 1906-1988, chiefly remembered now as founder of the Eagle comic and The Picture Post, whose name is perpetuated in Getty Images’ Hulton Archive (Editor’s note)
  3. Captain Rees Howell Gronow, 1794-1865, who served in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, dandy, debtor, briefly an MP, and author of four volumes of justly highly-regarded reminiscences (Editor’s note)
  4. Flanders and Swann, British comedy double act, made up of Michael Flanders, 1922-1975, and Donald Swann, 1923-1994 (Editor’s note)
  5. “You may understand broadly that we Goths claim portraiture altogether for our own, and contentedly leave the classic people to round their chins by rule, and fix their smiles by precedent” (The Art of England, III, “The Classic Schools of Painting”, 1873, pp.72-3;  Works, ed. E.T.Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 1905, XXXIII, p.316). Also “Some Characteristics of Greek Art in Relation to Christian”, (Works, XX, p.409). I returned to this question in “The Face in Mediaeval Sculpture”, ArtWatch UK Journal, 32, Autumn 2019, pp.12-17 (Author’s note)
  6. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903, three times Conservative Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902 (Editor’s note)
  7. London: Architectural Press, expanded and annotated version of the 1955 BBC Reith Lectures. Pevsner says “the English portrait keeps long silences, and when it speaks, speaks in a low voice”. He goes on to say English painting is characterised by an interest in the everyday world and the observed fact, by “temperance, smoothness, judiciousness, moderation”, a consequence of “a decent home, a temperate climate, and a moderate nation”. He goes on, “There is no Michelangelo, no Titian, no Rembrandt, no Dürer or Grünewald… but there are exquisite water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale, and there are in the Middle Ages exquisitely carved bosses and capitals…The amateur is altogether characteristic of England, and not the specialist. This has much to recommend it.” He also cites the understatement of Perpendicular architecture, and feels England has contributed more to architecture than to either painting or sculpture (he does not discuss music) (Editor’s note)
  8. Neil Mendoza, Provost of Oriel since 2018, also Chairman of the Landmark Trust, and the government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal (Editor’s note)