2015 has, for me, been the year of John Ruskin. It was the year of four trips to Lake Coniston, two of them holidays in a cottage which is completely Swallows and Amazons, two of them on retreat with fellow writers at Brantwood Lodge. Brantwood was Ruskin’s home at the end of his life. It was where he put many of his ideas into practice. You cannot walk those woods above the house without bumping into his gangly spirit, striding along, muttering, ‘Just look! All you have to do is just look!’
Creatively, it has been one of the profounder years. I started high, with a retreat in February, but by March I was crashing into something a friend finally diagnosed as ‘accidie’. I read Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me and realised that the way out from this awful hole of depression – a kind of well where a deep voice booms, asking, ‘What’s the point?’ – is to pay attention to detail.
Art in Action invited me to take part in their lecture programme in July and I opted to speak on Ruskin and ‘How to see’. Preparing for that helped me out of my hole. After all, I had quickly to learn what I was about to propose to others: how we need to learn how to just look.
One of the highs in this year of valleys and mountains, troughs and peaks, was signing up for a drawing class at the Ashmolean Museum. This was where, after all, Prof. Ruskin founded the Oxford School of Art and, to my joy, his spirit still presides there, too. I had four sessions of traditional instruction in drawing technique, and discovered that if you want to learn how to see, drawing is the very best way.
Ego haunts every path and turns us off the straight and narrow so quickly. ‘You wanna do art? Be an artist? Have an exhibition? You want praise? You want to impress people?’ Every day I have to remind myself, no, no, no and no. None of these things. I just want to learn how to see.
What I produce is of no importance. What matters is that for a few moments I’ve stopped to look: how a branch grows from a willow’s trunk, the angle of the crest of a grebe bobbing on the river, the slouch of an angler sitting on his stool, the shine of a crow as it pecks away at the pile of horse dung it’s standing on.
God is in the detail. Truth, happiness, knowledge. The devil is in ambition. I hope I remember this throughout 2016.