- The St. George’s Museum
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The subject of this photograph is the St. George’s Museum, an experimental institution founded by John Ruskin in 1875 as a kind of “working man’s Bodleian Library” (Ruskin, Works 29: 397). Located at the hilly edge of Sheffield, on Bell Hagg Road, in the suburb of Walkley, it was designed to expose local cutlers to the fresh air blowing in from Derbyshire and to impart “the clearer light” of a “liberal education” by means of its collection [End Page 35] of Renaissance art treasures, books, minerals, paintings, and architectural plaster casts (Ruskin, Works 29: 396; 30: 39).
This modest and eccentric institution entered the local folklore, its status as a landmark confirmed by inclusion in such guidebooks as The Illustrated Guide to Sheffield and the Surrounding District and Sheffield Illustrated: Views and Portraits which have Appeared in the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph During the Year 1884. The second of these pictorial tours fashionably plots the relationship between the new institution and its physical setting as signified by an exterior view. While museums’ ability to represent their locale can be frustrated by the diverse provenance of their holdings, the St. George’s Museum was unusual in challenging that discontinuity. I will explore this effect as it applies to the museum’s structural history, its built environment, and its rural-industrial hinterland.
The emphasis of this forum is on “building” as a complete act, tied to the founding of an institution or the provision of a public utility. As a provincial and suburban venture, Ruskin’s museum differed from the metropolitan and university museums established in this period, and in that respect, it owed much to the example of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London. But Ruskin’s arrangements were makeshift compared to John Soane’s comprehensive scheme. Instead of commissioning an architect to raise a purpose-built structure, he housed the collection in a pre-existing building. Though this was proposed as an interim arrangement, Ruskin liked to make a virtue of necessity, and he duly spun stories around the new foundation in a manner that conferred “rightness” on its form, its placing, and its modesty (Ruskin, Works 30: 52).
While little is known of the building’s prehistory, a document in the Sheffield Archives indicates that the land was originally owned by the Rivelin View Benefit Building Society, whose rules were registered in 1854 (Guild of St George Schedule of Deeds & Documents). Indeed, its mere presence in Walkley served to associate it with emerging forms of co-operative enterprise. The Illustrated Guide rightly notes the museum’s proximity to “the district where, through the instrumentality of freehold land societies, so many of the more thrifty artizans have provided themselves with homes on their own freeholds” (Taylor 135). The industrial, friendly, and freehold land societies that developed the district were keen to signal their affiliations at the cartographic level. Their identities are marked on William White’s map of 1869, and their ideals emblazoned in “Freedom Road,” “Industry Street,” and “Grammar Street” (The Design of Suburbia 59). These links between the local housing stock and the process of enfranchisement were happy precedents for a museum experiment aimed at ambitious working people.
The demographics of Bell Hagg Road also suited the museum’s purpose. That street name first appeared in the town directories in the 1860s, alongside an entry for Wadsley House, occupied by a man named Henry Norton (White, Directory of the Boroughs of Sheffield 121). The district’s semi-rural, semi-urban character is recorded in the mixed occupations of Norton’s neighbours: [End Page 36] the entry for 1868 lists a file cutter (Charles Shelley) and a victualler (Joseph Stevenson); by 1875, the year Ruskin purchased his “acre of land with a good stone cottage” (Taylor 135), Stevenson had been joined by a basket maker (Joseph Hides) and a farmer (John Spooner). In 1876, the residents of the road included a scissors forger, a grinder, a spring knife cutler, and a mason (White, General and Commercial...