In Search of John Ruskin, 28th July

This week’s gallery run was in Oxford and in search of John Ruskin. He was an inspirational writer and art critic of the 19th century and championed the then radical Pre-Raphaelites. For Ruskin, a visit to see great art would require considerable build-up, perhaps involving travel to a foreign land and then a long walk and even picnic, all recorded as part of the experience. In honour of this method of art criticism, which reached its apotheosis in The Stones of Venice, I would be checking out some stones that Ruskin himself had quite literally laid down, as philanthropist, in Oxford with help from several of his students including Oscar Wilde.

The day began with a jog to Paddington, before a train then whisked me to this city of spires in which I had spent four years as a student. Although not entirely an island, at least not physically, the city is bounded by rivers running off both the Cotswolds to the West and the Chilterns to the East. One hundred and fifty years ago this was causing a considerable drainage problem and it was one that Ruskin had set about fixing in one small area by building a stone road. This would allow carriage traffic from a nearby village to gain access both to its immediate neighbour and also perhaps more importantly to Oxford stood nearby. The geography is fairly complicated but essentially there are several tributaries of the Thames out to the West. One encounters these leaving the city along the Botley road. But such was the impact of these waterways on the landscape in Ruskin’s day, that one needed to navigate them over a series of small wooden bridges before embarking a ferry to cross a further tributary at North Hinksey.

It is this village that one eventually reaches via a footbridge outside Oxford. A nearby building called Ferry Cottage matches up to the historical account of the North Hinksey ferry crossing. Then an old thatched cottage appears next to the village road with its green plaque declaring the historical importance of the site. This was indeed Ruskin’s workplace one busy summer a hundred and fifty years ago and those iconic stones now preserved for perpetuity at least to the imagination, reside under an immaculately laid asphalt surface. Then looking back at the city of Oxford one sees the spires that Ruskin would have looked at in his daily treks across the meadows to the city where he taught.

My own return would involve spiralling around to the east and then making further progress across college grounds. That was the plan. Initially it worked well but as the rivers started to complete their own circuit round Oxford before unifying in the Thames, they began to cordon off regions unpredictably and I also found myself starting to sense the boundaries of private property. A public footpath lay just out of reach on the other side of a small river whilst a conveniently placed walkway across it turned out to be locked with barbed wire suggesting that this was a place that members of the public were not meant to go. Wading across the river was no more fruitful as its soft muddy bed started to give way after the first few steps. This was to be the end of the run for today as I headed, instead to college buildings and evicted myself past a porter’s lodge and onto the busy streets of the city centre.

This week’s 9 pictures are from this run round Oxford’s meadows and also include a visit to Modern Art Oxford.

Daniel Burren at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists. Colour interventions in the gallery space.

Dan Graham at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists. Text that appears before Dan Graham’s filmed performance of two people. The performers each discuss the other’s behaviour, one, past and the other, possible future.

Dorothy Cross of Frith Street Gallery at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists. Tree fungus on a door carries the idea of damp and humidity associated with this artist but in a different direction.

Sol le Witt at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists.

Karla Black at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists with a translucent fabric piece.

Amy Sillman of Thomas Dane Gallery at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists. Sequences of printed images are on show, which she has made for what she calls “possible paintings”.

In search of John Ruskin? Cross this bridge into North Hinksey to find the road he first built.

Cottage bearing a green plaque dedicated to John Ruskin and situated on the road he first built with a team of students including Oscar Wilde.

Found this oddly positioned telescope next to St. Catherine’s College Oxford cricket pitch.

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