It is a tribute to the continuing influence of John Ruskin that a bunch of apparently sane people will voluntarily spend a cold, damp December afternoon walking around London looking at cobbles and tracing the fossils in Portland Roach stone, in homage to his work.
Ruskin Walks, led by artist and originator Martin Fidler, with his collaborator Andrew Stuck, encourage you to look at the city around you through Ruskin’s eyes, noticing the richness of stones and craftsmanship in the urban fabric which are often being lost beneath the machine-made modern city. The most recent one took place in Camberwell, the area where Ruskin lived for over 50 years.
Landscape has always been one of the biggest touchstones for Martin. His interest started early, inspired by his upbringing in Letchworth – a place he describes as being ‘a garden and a city’ – where his grandfather was estate manager. His sensibilities were further influenced by the time he spent in Finland, after winning a scholarship from the Slade School of Art to do an MA in Experimental Painting there. The forests, Finnish design and above all the northern light were a strong influence on his work, prompting him to move from sculpture into painting. A career as a practitioner and teacher in schools and art schools in Finland, London and the Netherlands followed.
Invited by Camberwell Arts Festival to create an event about the art critic and polymath Ruskin, Martin was initially daunted, until he remembered ‘Doing the Lambeth walk’ and realized he could combine art, the history of Ruskin’s life in London and walking. He devised a circular route from Ruskin Park to Denmark Hill – the last place Ruskin lived – devising things for the participants to do, including doing some telescoping at the Bessemer House Observatory. The walk finished at St Giles’s Church, where the East Window was heavily influenced by Ruskin’s description of the stained glass at Chartres to his friend, the designer Edmund Oldfield.
Part of Martin’s practice included collaborating on artist’s books with Iain Hamilton-Finlay – like Ruskin, a multi-talented artist who is probably most famous for the creation of his garden, Little Sparta. Participants on a Ruskin Walk receive their own hand-made journal, which they can customize to create a unique record of what they have seen and experienced on the walk. Above all, though, they will come away, as I did, with a new awareness of the value and beauty of the materials and craftsmanship that surround us, and of how we need to cherish these manifestations of the local and the human hand in a world increasingly at the mercy of the machine.
A version of this post was originally published on Dulwich on View.