From ‘devil’s darkness’ to beacon city, the Victorian visionary helped inspire modern Manchester

He wasn’t a big fan of nineteenth century industrial Manchester, famously calling its factory smog ‘the devil’s darkness’. But it was here that John Ruskin - artist, writer, social reformer, philanthropist and ecologist - gave some of his most important lectures, and his legacy has had a lasting impact on the city.  

As a visionary thinker, expressions of Ruskin’s ideas can be seen in the National Trust, Green Belt, Welfare State, National Health Service and The Big Draw. He was a supporter of initiates like the Ancoats Art Museum, to which he donated several pieces including a Turner, and his namesake society was founded in 1878 by of some Manchester’s most influential people.

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The Ruskin Society organised the first exhibition (1904) entirely dedicated to Ruskin

That’s why Ruskin’s 200th birthday is being commemorated this summer, with Ruskin in Manchester; a citywide festival that explores how the ideas he championed are as powerful and relevant now as they ever were. 

The festival’s curator Dr Rachel Dickinson, a principal lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and director of education for Ruskin’s Guild of St George, said: “The relationship between Manchester and Ruskin is fascinating. Ruskin raged against the city for its pollution, dirty industrial environment and poor living conditions. Its reaction says a lot about Manchester, whose people and civic leaders listened and responded to Ruskin’s ideas around art, craft, education, localism and sustainability as they sought to make the city a happier and healthier place to live. At the heart of this is a special relationship that can still be found in Manchester today.”

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Manchester will host the prestigious John Ruskin Prize this year

Here’s what’s on… 


'DEVIL'S DARKNESS’ TO BEACON CITY | MMU Special Collections | 24 June - 23 August

Manchester School of Art (founded 1853) is the second oldest design school in Britain, and the importance of art education was something that Ruskin spoke of during his lecture there. Key objects and artworks including books, drawings, paintings, studio pottery and textiles from its extensive collections (now held at MMU Special Collections) and loans from other Ruskin-related collections will be shown in this diverse exhibition, which explores his relationship to Manchester.

AGENT OF CHANGE | MMU Holden Gallery | 11 July - 24 August

Prestigious national art competition The John Ruskin Prize is being hosted by MMU’s Holden Gallery this year, themed around ‘agent of change’.

“MY DEAR MR RUSKIN….” FRIENDSHIP, INSPIRATION AND SCANDAL | Elizabeth Gaskell’s House | 17 July - 2020

The first event in a Heritage Lottery-funded programme that explores the relationship between Gaskell and Ruskin - two mutual admirers and influencers of Victorian life - this exhibition highlights their contributions via the Pre-Raphaelite studios and Italian grand tour to legacies in education and social reform.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House will also be hosting a series of family friendly workshops each Wednesday of the school summer holidays (24 July to 28 August), inviting young makers try a range of activities including: cloud observing, weaving and drawing nature. And on Friday 9 August, urban sketcher Liz Ackerley will be hosting a sketch workshop that draws upon the inspiration of Ruskin.

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Often at odds with their contemporaries, Ruskin and Gaskell (pictured) were controversial writers, often sharing the same ideals


RUSKIN REVIEWS | Manchester Art Gallery | Various

'Perfectly painted' or 'catastrophe'? Join Manchester Art Gallery’s curator Hannah Williamson for a gallery tour to consider what Ruskin had to say about works in Manchester's collection in this series of tours; taking place on Monday 17 June, Tuesday 25 June and Wednesday 3 July.

THE RUSKIN LECTURES, RE-ENACTED | Portico Library & Manchester Art Gallery| Monday 8 July & Saturday 13 July

In July 1857, Ruskin came to Manchester to deliver A Joy Forever; a pair of lectures presented over two evenings. These lectures, subtitled The Discovery and Application of Art and The Accumulation and Distribution of Art, will be re-enacted by actor and art historian Paul O’Keeffe in two of Manchester’s most important Victorian architectural treasures.

MANCHESTER: RUSKIN-FREE-CITY | Portico Library | Wednesday 17 July

Ruskin said: “I perceive that Manchester can produce no good art and no good literature”. In his eyes, this city saw the price of everything and the value of nothing - not grasping art’s true potential as a tool for social change and for the development of an ethical society. In 2019, his bicentenary year, what does Manchester have to say to this influential but controversial thinker’s ideas? Pose your questions to the new director of Manchester Art Gallery and The Whitworth, Alistair Hudson, and Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera. Hosted by Tunde Adekoya, director of Big People Music, this lively debate will be an opportunity to ask important questions about art, power and society.

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John Ruskin died in 1900 but his legacy lives on

Ruskin in Manchester is funded and supported by MMU and Ruskin’s Guild of St George. For full details, visit

Main image: Head, Heart and Hands by Michael Parker