Curators in Conversation: Unto This Last (Part One)

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Posted 23rd September 2020

Curators in Conversation: Unto This Last

Victoria Hepburn, Tara Contractor and Judith Stapleton in conversation about the process of opening Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, first at the Yale Center for British Art, and then adapting the exhibition for display at Watts Gallery.

Judith: Hi both, it's so wonderful to get back together to talk about the exhibition. I guess one of the topics we could talk about first might be the process of bringing this exhibition from the Yale Center for British Art to Watts Gallery. Perhaps we should start with why we think Watts Gallery is such a good second venue for this exhibition?

Victoria: Watts Gallery has such a great record of putting together exhibitions on various aspects of Victorian art and literature. Ruskin, of course, was such an important figure within those worlds. Also, Mary Watts's later activities with The Compton Pottery and the Watts Chapel certainly speak to his ideas about art, handicraft, and labour.

Although G F Watts wasn't, perhaps, a huge Ruskinian, he and Ruskin certainly crossed paths. Thanks to an entry in Mary's diary, we know that she and G F read Ruskin's Modern Painters together; Ruskin briefly mentioned George's art in the third volume.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at Watts Gallery. Image: Andy Newbold 2020.

Judith: And, Tara, what was it like to bring the show to the Watts?

Tara: We had to think really carefully about what the most important objects were for keeping the narrative of the Yale show on a smaller scale. We are so happy with how the exhibition turned out at the Watts – we think it's a really distilled version of the Yale exhibition. There are a couple of objects that weren't in the Yale version that we think bring a new life and energy – it's not just the same exhibition in a different location, but a new iteration.

Judith: Yes, precisely! We loved the fact that the exhibition could explore the same themes but have an entirely different feel at its new venue. Watts Gallery is such an intimate space, and that was amazing for us, as a lot of the objects in the exhibition are designed to be looked at really closely. At the Watts you can have a really personal experience with these works in the galleries and we really tried to emphasize that one-on-one connection.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art.

Judith: One of my favourite aspects of the Watts exhibition is also the fact that we were able to introduce a totally different colour palette. At Yale, the works were displayed on the elegant linen walls of the Yale Center for British Art, with a number of purple accent walls that reflected Ruskin's preference for displaying objects - particularly minerals - against a purple backdrop. At the Watts, however, we chose a different colour scheme to really highlight some of the stand-out loans from the Yale Center for British Art. Upstairs, one of the most striking pieces on display is Turner's large watercolour Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc. This is a stunning work from Yale's collection and we worked with Cicely Robinson, the Brice Chief Curator at Watts Gallery and her team, to find a colour which did it justice.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at Watts Gallery. Image: Andy Newbold 2020.

Likewise, downstairs we looked at Turner's Port Ruysdael, and we were able to use an amazing blue-grey colour to bring out the waves and stormy sky of Port Ruysdael. The fact that this colour brings out the jewel-like tones of the bright Pre-Raphaelite landscapes next to it really sold us on this colour choice.

Victoria: I was just going to bring up a little bit of a coincidence with the wall colours. They strangely align with how Ruskin explains the colours of mountains. He described green and grey as the colours of mountains when seen at close range; he also observed, though, that mountains appear purple when viewed from a distance. We used a deep purple colour for some of the accent walls when we staged the exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. I think there's a temporal poignancy to this given that the YCBA version of the exhibition is literally in the distance, in the past, and now, in the present, we're staging the show at Watts Gallery with green and grey walls! But I suppose there's also a geographical poignancy as well. We're much closer to Ruskin's world here...

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art.

Judith: Yes, and that was a fabulous part of the process. In this exhibition, we were able to bring objects from Yale's collections back to the UK, some of which haven't been seen here since Ruskin's lifetime. Tara, when we moved the exhibition from Yale to the Watts we included new items which weren't in the Yale iteration of the exhibition. What new objects did you like best?

Tara: It was really exciting to bring the Turner watercolour, Lake Geneva, that you mentioned. We just didn't have a perfect place for it in the Yale exhibition, like we do at the Watts. It's such beautiful, bright, watercolour. And it's especially exciting to show the work in the U.K. because it was part of Ruskin's own collection, and something he displayed in his Lake District home, Brantwood.

Judith: What about you, Victoria?

Victoria: I love how the contemporary Ethics of Dust works by Jorge Otero-Pailos work in the space at the Watts. They really speak to each other there. We had his lightbox, Distributed Monument 15, and his altered book, Scraping Ruskin, in the Yale exhibition. But at Watts Gallery we have the addition of the video installation, which shows Jorge's process in making Scraping Ruskin. I think it might be one of the first times that's been on display.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at Watts Gallery. Image: Andy Newbold 2020.

Judith: Yes it's one of my favourite moments of this exhibition, to walk down the stairs and see Jorge's glowing light box at the end of the downstairs gallery.

I also like that we were able to include some local loans from British collections at the Watts iteration of the exhibition. At Yale, we were able to borrow some samples from Ruskin's own mineral collection which are now housed at the Morgan Library in New York. But when we brought the exhibition to Watts Gallery, the curatorial team at the Watts were able to find these amazing, large-scale minerals from local collections including the Dorking Museum and the Haslemere Museum. These look brilliant paired with Ruskin's manuscripts borrowed from the Beinecke Library at Yale. We also borrowed a gorgeous Bernard Leech vase and Hamada Shōji pot from Eton College for our section on Ruskin's legacy in Japan. All of these loans really add something special to the display.

The conversation continues! Click here for part two.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin is on display until 1 November. Click here to find out more.