Curators in Conversation: Unto This Last (Part Two)

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Posted 30th September 2020

Curators in Conversation: Unto This Last

Victoria Hepburn, Tara Contractor and Judith Stapleton return with part two of their 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.

Missed part one? Click here to read it first!

Judith: Victoria, Tara what about you? Do you have other favourite moments from transitioning the exhibition from Yale to the Watts?

Tara: One of the highlights was that our colleague from Yale, Soyeon Choi, was able to help with the book installation. She's the head paper conservator at the Yale Center for British Art and she used her skills to help us get all of the books on display in a way that was safe for them.

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

Victoria: Yes! I think one of my favorite things in the exhibition is how the Modern Painters books are installed by the Watts team. We couldn't have done it without Soyeon. The books are displayed quite differently to how they were at Yale, where they also looked fantastic.

Judith: Yes, in the Yale display we spent a lot of time thinking about how Ruskin's approach to creating the plates (or illustrations) for Modern Painters developed. We looked at the progression from his on-site nature sketches, to the engravings and prints he commissioned for his books, and then showed how he annotated the first versions of these proofs with lots of messages to his printers about what needed to be changed. But then at the Watts we really cut to the heart of that argument by putting this giant decal, basically a sticker, on the wall behind the Modern Painters books, showing a blown-up version of a mountain illustration from Modern Painters IV. With that hovering over the final published books and Ruskin's proof for Modern Painters it's made clear in a (hopefully) striking way the care that went into producing these engravings and their importance to Ruskin's texts.

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

Tara: I love having that decal on the stairs because when you climb the stairs, you're actually climbing Ruskin's illustration of the alps. It really gets to the idea of how monumental his books were, and how you can become so engrossed in the illustrations that you almost start to inhabit them.

Victoria: We have several first editions of Ruskin's illustrated books on display, and to be able to blow-up one of the plates and show how fantastic it is, especially in terms of the colour, is very exciting.

Judith: Actually, to go back to that question of how the exhibition works so well at the Watts Gallery, the other wall decal we have is of Ruskin's curatorial display at the Guild of St. George Museum in Sheffield. It shows his eclectic curatorial installation, which includes architectural plaster casts. The decal is right next to the door that leads into the Sculpture Gallery, which is full of Watt's plaster casts. That was also a nice moment of tying the exhibition specifically into the architecture of the space.

Tara: So, I guess onto a big question: How do we think Ruskin is relevant to 2020?

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

Judith: One of the fascinating things is that we started working on this exhibition in 2017 and continued working through to 2018. Then, when we put this exhibition up at Yale in 2019, it seemed like one of the most important contributions of the exhibition lay in underscoring Ruskin's thoughts about the role of art in society. And that's only increased now, in the context of COVID, when a lot of people are thinking strongly about the role of art in our everyday lives--especially in isolation. In this context, Ruskin seems even more relevant. His notion that art can uplift individuals, and society, and that reading about art at home, or making art in our back gardens, can be an important task that has implications for society, politics, education, etc. That's a new dimension to the exhibition that has emerged, inadvertently, only in the last few months.

Tara: And of course the environmental angle, which we were thinking about from the beginning of the project, is still very much present. Ruskin was more sensitive than many in his time to the fact that the changes in the environment were the products of human intervention. Ecological balance was one of his concerns. He talked about manmade 'plague-winds', and while he was talking mostly about air pollution, it's a phrase that feels upsettingly relevant today.

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

Victoria: The way we have been forced to slow down and stay at home in 2020 has made me think a lot about how Ruskin observed the world around him. He obviously traveled and went to Venice and other places, but he really advocated for looking closely at nature outside your own back door—at trees and plants and mountains, and especially at the sky. (His prolonged observations of the skies at Brantwood led to his proto-ecological warnings in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.) I've noticed an increase in the amount of nature photos on social media, especially pictures of sunrises and sunsets, over the past few months. It's so strange because I realized I had hardly ever experienced the sunset from my apartment until the lockdown. I have taken several photos of it in different kinds of weather and have posted them on Instagram, which has felt like a very Ruskinian thing to do! These past few months have seen unprecedented tragedies, hardships, challenges, and extreme isolation. Many of us have found respite by looking closely at nature and sharing our observations, just as Ruskin did.

Tara: Thanks for tuning in, everyone, for our discussion on the process of bringing Unto this Last to the Watts Gallery. We hope you have the chance to see the exhibition. A huge thanks as well are due to everyone who worked on the exhibition in its two locations. At Yale, Professor Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, and Dr. Courtney Skipton Long, Acting Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Yale Center for British Art. We'd like to thank, too, the design and installation teams at the YCBA. At the Watts Gallery, we'd like to thank Dr. Cicely Robinson, Brice Chief Curator; Dr. Stacey Clapperton, Curatorial Trainee; Emma Coburn, ACR, Collections Manager.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin is on display at Watts Gallery - Artists' Village until Sunday 1 November. Click here to pre-book your timed admission.