The Etheric Boathouse
Imagining Ruskin's Boathouse
The Brantwood Trust, on Coniston Water in Cumbria, is currently reconstructing John Ruskin’s lakeside boathouse, thereby completing the harbour project that so preoccupied the writer and critic in the late 1870s. In parallel with this renovation project Ewan Forster & Christopher Heighes have been commissioned to devise a separate construction that will illuminate the complexity of thought that underpinned Ruskin’s ‘domestic’ projects and reconnect a contemporary public with his artistic, educational and economic radicalism.
In 1872 John Ruskin wrote “a man may hide himself from you, or misrepresent himself to you, every other way; but he cannot in his work: there, be sure you have him to the inmost. All that he likes, all that he sees, - all that he can do – his imagination, his affections, his perseverance, his impatience, his clumsiness, cleverness, everything is there.”
As with so many of his building projects, Ruskin discovered that zeal and energy were no match for practical skill and experience. When it came to the construction of his own slate harbour at Brantwood he found it necessary to bring in a local waller from a neighbouring farm once he had admitted: “My own better acquaintance with the laws of gravity and statistics did not enable me, myself, to build six inches of dyke that would stand.”
The completion of his harbour project marked the beginning of Ruskin’s declining mental health. Always curiously attuned to cultural and meteorological change he became increasingly withdrawn and alone. Ruminating on the death of his mother he walked, chopped wood and rowed on the waters of Coniston, his harbour finally constructed as two enfolding arms to which his craft might instinctively return. This daily waterborne activity, no doubt rationalised in terms of physical exercise, was in fact a far deeper psychological pursuit; a rhythmical exercising and reworking of unresolved thought and inner reflection.
It is this activity that prompts the question, what kind of protective shelter might house these dynamics of aspiration and despair, of increasingly unstable thought and idea floated daily on the prehistoric waters of Coniston
Following a period of research and development in 2006, funded by the Arts Council of England, we propose to build an ‘etheric boathouse’. Constructed openly in the gardens of Brantwood and placed at stages in the harbour, on the shoreline and upon Coniston Water itself. The ‘etheric boathouse’ will be an ‘outline’ building that will provide a holding structure to present and consider the wide-ranging philosophies of Ruskin. Ours will be a temporary, short-lived, but useful structure, a place to hold mutual fragile ideas and provocative hypotheses.
Visible from 15 miles of shoreline and accessible only under oars, thereby making it reliant on the ‘vital’ effort so beloved of Ruskin, the ‘etheric boathouse’ will function as a portal to the ‘secret laws of nature’ which so occupied his mind for much of his life; a sacred site for Ruskinian pilgrims, curious visitors and Lakeland skullers alike
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