Speaker Information/Lecture Abstracts

Clive Wilmer (Guild of St George, Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge), Amy Woodson-Boulton (Loyola Marymount University), Sara Atwood (Portland State University), James Spates (Emeritus Professor, Hobart and William Smith Colleges), and Nicholas Friend (Inscape Cultural Study Society) will discuss today’s pressing social and political issues in light of Ruskin’s and Morris’s thought. Discussion sessions will enable speakers and attendees to share ideas, insights, and suggestions for practical action.

Admission to the one-day symposium will include morning and afternoon coffee/tea and lunch. The event will be held in the historic Swedenborgian Church of San Francisco, a venue well worth seeing in its own right.

This event is presented by the Guild of St. George, the organization founded by Ruskin in 1877 and operating today as a Charitable Education Trust.



How We Live and How We Might Live: Ruskin and Morris in Our TimeLecture Abstracts Speakers

 ⸙ “‘Fuel to feed the factory smoke’: Ruskin, Morris and Grenfell Tower”

Nicholas Friend

The conflagration of Grenfell Tower in west London on 14 June 2017, in which up to 200 people perished in a 24 story public building with no fire warning system or sprinkler, has shocked the world. The tower’s blackened carcass, its combustible cladding a hideous reminder of Ruskin’s scorn of worthless finish, has become a symbol of the cavernous gap between rich and poor in the world’s wealthiest cities. As robots increasingly take the place of traditional work and workers, this gap is set to widen. Faced with this challenge to ‘how we might live’, what do the words and actions of Ruskin and Morris have to offer us? Is there hope in their message? Could machines replace useless toil and make room for useful work, and if so, what might that useful work be in the 21st century? Reference is made to ‘The Nature of Gothic’, ‘The Crown of Wild Olive’, ‘Unto This Last’ and ‘Fors Clavigera’, as well as Morris’ ‘News From Nowhere’.

Nicholas Friend MA FRSA was for 25 years Academic Director of the Cambridge University Art History Summer School.  He is Founder-Director of the cultural history society Inscape, and co-founder of the London lecture series ‘Culture in Question’. He was Chair of the Committee for the celebrations of the centenary of Morris’ ‘News from Nowhere’ in 1990. He is a member of the William Morris Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Companion of the Guild of St George. For five years he and his family lived within 200 yards of Grenfell Tower and its vibrant immigrant community.

⸙ “The Island which is Nowhere: Utopia and Dystopia in More, Morris, Orwell and Ruskin”

Clive Wilmer

How do we imagine the good society? For Thomas More, living in the great age of exploration and discovery, you could invent an island in the New World, which has somehow escaped the Old World’s errors. More’s Utopia is a satire on the known world, it imagines ways of changing things for the good, and it mocks the idea that humans can be free from Original Sin. More’s title can mean either ‘the good place’ or ‘no place’ – and the pun encapsulates the problems the book uncovers. William Morris’s Nowhere (in News from Nowhere, 1890) is unambiguously England, but an England transformed by revolution. This was a radical act of imagination: to turn a flawed society into the good place and show what is desired through the prism of what is. Morris’s device was imitated by George Orwell when he sought to depict the bad place we might be heading for. The Airstrip One of 1984 is the flawed but legitimate Britain of 1948 seen through the distorting lens of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to show that all human societies are vulnerable to tyranny. What message could be more relevant to the world Trump and Putin? This talk will argue that the greatest danger we face is the acceptance of dystopia. We still need, with Plato and Ruskin, to imagine the good place, even if it has to be a place free of time.

Clive Wilmer is Master of the Guild of St George. He is also Emeritus Fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, an Honorary Fellow of Anglia Ruskin University, and an Honorary Patron of the William Morris Gallery in London. He edited both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Other Writings and William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Other Writings for Penguin Classics. He is in addition the author of several books of poetry, including New and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012).

⸙ “‘Blunder in thought, prolonged indefinitely’: Ruskin, Morris, and the Decay of Language”

Sara Atwood

The 2016 election delivered the usual slippery political verbiage, but was also marked by a striking disregard for meaning. Nearly a year on, it now appears clear that language has been forcefully unmoored and is floating free of reason: for those in power—and increasingly for many private citizens as well—words no longer have any inherent, objective sense, but instead assume whatever meaning the speaker assigns them. Clarity of thought and expression is rapidly losing purchase in the age of ‘alternative facts.’ My talk will explore the social and political implications of this devaluation of language. Language both shapes and expresses thought and, by extension, our values and ideals. At the highest levels of government, we now hear language used to marginalize, belittle, prohibit, and mislead; to contravene principles considered central not only to American democracy but to civilized society. Both Ruskin and Morris recognized the power of language to shape and express thought and, by extension, behavior. As Ruskin observed, “Words, if they are not watched, will do deadly work sometimes.” Divisive, inaccurate language deadens the sympathy and affection necessary for a meaningful relationship with one another and with government. Such language doesn’t just express an increasingly divisive worldview, but perpetuates it, language conditioning practice. How does the present misuse of language contribute to the erosion of civility, community, social justice and democracy? How does it affect our thinking about the environment, education, and the economy? How might a commitment to accurate, thoughtful language figure in our resistance to an impoverished, degraded vocabulary? Ruskin and Morris, pointing to the “deep vital meaning” of words, can help us to answer these questions and to find the words with which to construct an alternate story to the one now being told.

Sara Atwood’s work has appeared in publications including The Ruskin Review and Bulletin, Nineteenth-Century Prose, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, Carlyle Studies Annual, and Earthlines magazine. Her book, Ruskin’s Educational Ideals was published by Ashgate in 2011. She is a contributor to the Yale University Press edition of Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (2013). Dr. Atwood has helped to organize a series of symposia about Ruskin in Berkeley, CA and was co-organizer of a symposium on Ruskin and education at Toynbee Hall, London in October 2014. She presented the 2015 Whitelands Ruskin Lecture at Whitelands College, London, and has spoken at various symposia in the UK. In 2016, she gave the annual Ruskin Art Club lecture at USC in Los Angeles. She is a Companion and North American Development Director of the Guild of St. George. Dr. Atwood teaches English literature at Portland State University.

 ⸙ “Ruskin’s Truths in the Age of ‘Fake News’”

Amy Woodson-Boulton

What do the writings of John Ruskin have to offer us in this age of suspicion, partisanship, doubts about even the possibility of civic public debate, and fears of “fake news” across the political spectrum? In this address, I argue that Ruskin’s ideas allow us to consider moral and aesthetic questions together in a way that is, not coincidentally, extremely well suited to our current politics. Writing at the height of Liberalism and laissez-faire political economics, Ruskin worked for a society that would consider human well-being first, ahead of simple measures of wealth or productivity. In my talk, I will consider why “truth” was such a crucial aspect of Ruskin’s critique of his own society (and by extension, of ours), by examining three aspects of “truth” in Ruskin’s writings: the idea that artists must find truth by first learning to see the world through their own eyes, and not through preconceptions or convention; the idea that all instances of human creativity, and all economic relationships, contain the history and morality of their conditions of production; and the idea that industrial capitalism, as Ruskin observed it in the 1850s, consistently works to undermine the truth of both raw materials and the conditions of production by emphasizing superficial appearances. Each of these aspects of “truth” in the middle of the nineteenth century still has meaning today – perhaps even more so, in our digitized, plastic, disposable culture. Indeed, under the guise of Neo-Liberalism, Austerity, the Free Market, or Development, among other names, we may find that much of the underlying logic of Ruskin’s period does not look that different from that of our own. By exploring Ruskin’s “truths,” I hope to show that his perspective gives us a profound means of understanding not only that logic, but also how people have resisted it, finding new ways to relate to each other, to the economy, and to the natural world.

Amy Woodson-Boulton is associate professor of British and Irish history and recent past chair of the history department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. She earned her doctorate from UCLA in 2003. Her work concentrates on cultural reactions to industrialization, particularly the history of art museums, the social role of art, and the changing status and meaning of art and nature in modern society. She has received funding from a number of institutions, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She became interested in John Ruskin through her study of the city art museums in Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, published as Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain (Stanford, 2012). Her work on Ruskin and Victorian “Aesthetic Ideology” also appears in a volume that she coedited with Minsoo Kang, Visions of the Industrial Age, 1830–1914: Modernity and the Anxiety of Representation (Routledge, 2008). She has written essays on the social role of Victorian art, frequently engaging with the impact of John Ruskin, for Victorian Studies, History Compass, The Journal of British Studies, museum & society, Victorian Review, and the BRANCH online collective (Britain, Representative, and Nineteenth-Century History). She teaches courses on Britain, Ireland, modern Europe, world history, historiography and methodology, history and detective fiction, public history, and a history seminar, The Artist and the Machine. She is currently working on a book-length study of the relationships between ideas about “primitive art” in anthropology and art criticism, tentatively titled Explaining Art: Anthropology, Culture, and Primitivism in the Age of Empire.

⸙ “For the Love of Beauty: Ruskin, Switzerland, the Alps, and Italy”

Jim Spates

As we think of Ruskin’s relevance for the future, it is good to remember that, always, at the heart of his work was his love of the beautiful in life and the world. The talk will begin by outlining Ruskin’s Theory of Beauty and will then proceed to illustrate that argument with a profusion of pictures based on Ruskin’s last “working” tour on what he called his “Old Road,” a trip he undertook in 1882 with his secretary and friend, William Gershom Collingwood—through France, Switzerland, the Alps, and Italy. The talk will conclude with comments about the importance of maintaining, cherishing, and constantly recreating the beautiful in our lives.

Jim Spates is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. He has been under Ruskin’s spell for almost thirty years. During that time, Jim has given many lectures, published many articles, and written one book about the Victorian master. Currently, he is working on an article intended to unravel the conundrum of Ruskin’s sexuality, and writing another book introducing Ruskin’s overlooked social thought to a general audience, the provisional title being, Availing Toward Life: The Radical Social Thought of John Ruskin.