In Search of John Ruskin, 28th July

This week I went gallery-running round Oxford 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 to 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 these over a series of small wooden bridges before embarking a ferry to cross a further tributary at North Hinksey.

It was this village that I would eventually reach via a footbridge outside Oxford, though still not sure in my mind if I had actually reached the location I was searching for. Then I noticed a nearby building called Ferry Cottage matching up to the account I had already experienced on the internet. A brand-new-looking tarmac road passed right through this village and eventually I noticed an old thatched cottage stood to its side with rather important looking green plaque. Its message confirmed that this was indeed Ruskin’s workplace one busy summer a hundred and fifty years ago. Having reached this historic goal and enjoyed a few moments of reflection, I then considered how best I might return to the city in a way that should honour Ruskin’s own daily treks to the spires in his capacity as Oxford don.

Thinking off the hoof, I would start here in the west making headway through several meadows, before 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. Eventually I tried to reach a public footpath and my exit on the far side of a small river but even this natural landmark proved as good a barrier as the barbed wire that blocked the various pipes and walkways that spanned it. Then with newly bared feet, I attempted a plan B that would be to create a crossing of my own, but alas this was to end in failure as my ankles began to sink into the soft cool mud. There was only one option left, plan C, and hoisting the metaphorical white flag, I retreated 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.

301
Daniel Burren at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists. Colour interventions in the gallery space.

302
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.

303
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.

304
Sol le Witt at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists.

305
Karla Black at Modern Art Oxford in Kaleidoscope Mystics and Rationalists with a translucent fabric piece.

306
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”.

307
In search of John Ruskin? Cross this bridge into North Hinksey to find the road he first built.

308
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.

309
Found this oddly positioned telescope next to St. Catherine’s College Oxford cricket pitch.

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