In Search of John Ruskin, 28th July

John Ruskin lived in Oxford and this is where the present gallery run takes place. As a student in Oxford myself, friends who studied English would fascinate me with talk about his beautiful writing. But then as an art student, fellow students were less appreciative and Ruskin’s star appeared to be waning. Only when I was doing my art MA, writing a dissertation on Marcel Proust, did I realise that the florid array of Barthes, Deleuze, Beckett and Benjamin were all essayists of this French writer and Proust in turn was a fanatical translator, interpreter and ultimately a recycler of Ruskin’s own ideas in the great novel that he would eventually write. Ruskin is important and his apparent ability to influence other artists is evident in a lovely little architectural detail he left behind in Oxford. It’s a road. Nowadays we see only its asphalt surface. But nearby is a plaque bearing a dedication to it and as we move into its history we learn that this dull, asphalted artefact has, in fact, a glowing history. It’s stones were laid down by a team of Ruskin’s students which include amongst their number, one Oscar Wilde!

The gallery run begins with a jog to Paddington Station. Oxford is too far to reach by foot. On arrival I am struck by its many waterways. I didn’t go out much as a student so these waterways passed me by. A canal, a departing Thames wending its way to London, and three tributaries which ensure it is constantly filled with the water draining off the Cotswolds and other hills to the northeast are all features of the Oxford city centre. One hundred and fifty years ago, in Ruskin’s time, his daily walk into Oxford would take him from a little satellite village called North Hinksey and from there he would cross these waterways using a combination of ferry and assorted wooden bridges. My run is in the reverse direction, or could be described as his evening walk, with this little village as its target. I am not sure whether he actually lived in the village itself or nearby but he certainly spent a lot of time in the place and he was concerned about frequent floods that made the village track impassable. Nor is it clear why he actually built the road. Perhaps it was to improve the village infrastructure or perhaps it was for the experience of physical labour and philanthropy which he could bestow upon his team of undergraduate labourers.

I am in search of John Ruskin and find him in the form of this little green plaque and the black asphalt alongside to which the plaque is dedicated. From here I can now complete the run by making my way back to Oxford on a return leg aiming for the Ashmolean Museum, where John Ruskin taught art, trying to squeeze out every last drop that remains of him in this place before finally heading to the Museum of Modern Art. For me the approach will be a spiral one, going around the City in a clockwise direction, prolonging the green space until I am literally on the stone steps of the Ashmolean, where Ruskin ran a faculty of drawing. Thanks to the landholdings of a number of Oxford colleges (they are rich) this objective is fairly easy to achieve. Their green spaces project right up to the town centre, though the colleges are also protective about the privacy of this land (i.e they are rich!). This makes the stretch of run close to the city centre more tricky.

On the route I come across an observatory apparently converted from a shed with domed top, a cricket pitch with sight screens and rollers and then various items on wheels kept at a safe distance from the public. Streams ensure the route maintains its spiral path and all seems well until eventually I am blocked by one stream too many and a barbed gate that prevents me from crossing using the bridge above. It is as though the stealthy spiral is equal in effectiveness to that of the barbed wire insofar as they are both means of keeping the public out. Wading barefoot to make my escape seems a possibility but the shingle gives way and mud oozes between my toes. There is only one option left. I press the metaphorical eject button and head straight for the porter’s lodge slinking past the window and entering the bustling streets of the City centre. The museums now await and offer a nice finish to the day.

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

Daniel Buren 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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