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.

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.

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.

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!)

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.

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.

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.