Book Review

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 69-70, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

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Ruskin and Bradford. An Experiment in Victorian Cultural History

Malcolm Hardman. (Manchester University Press, 1986). £27.50

This book - a work of monumental scholarship - is the fruit of wide-ranging and comprehensive research. Malcolm Hardman has set out to relate the thought of John Ruskin, one of the prime movers in the development of Victorian and, indeed, subsequent British cultural and political life, to the vigorous evolution of Bradford in the second half of the 19th century. Ruskin lectured only twice in Bradford, in 1859 and 1864, but the influence of his ideas was widely diffused through his publications and his many other contacts. Malcolm Hardman traces in some detail the effect of this influence on the culture and politics of the varied strands of Bradford society.

The industrial and commercial revolution had transfonued Bradford from a relatively small textile and market town into a burgeoning city. The opening of the Bradford canal and the building of railway links, together with new technology, new markets, growing population, and a generation of entrepreneurs, resulted in a massive expansion of the textile industry and associated commercial activities. The town's population multiplied in the first half of the 19th century and there was a rapid increase in the number of industrial and domestic buildings. The result was the classic combination of overcrowding, unsatisfactory housing and insanitary conditions. After 1850, as in other industrial towns, things began to change when the captains of industry and commerce took the lead in implementing a civic gospel. The aim, in brief, was to imitate the great cities of the Italian Renaissance in creating a community that was not only wealthy but civilised.

The industrialists, merchants and professional men, together with the new urban working class, combined to form a vibrant, politically aware, and richly cultured society. Grand public and commercial buildings, whose Gothic or Baroque facades were intended to express civilisation as well as wealth, rose rapidly from 1850 onwards, and continued to do so until the Great War. Popular education took huge strides, and at many levels of society there was a deep enthusiasm for the arts in all their fonus. There was great enthusiasm, too, for politics, which were characterised at the higher level by intense rivalry between Tory Anglicans and Liberal Nonconformists, and lower down by growing radicalism among the working classes.

Malcolm Hardman has re-created the thoughts, concerns and actions of the people of Victorian Bradford. He brings to life a remarkable cast, including many of the most distinguished names, as well as many, until now, largely forgotten. He points out that the Bradford merchant class were among the earliest patrons of much that was most progressive in Victorian art and architecture, notably of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Morris Company, and Norman Shaw. He also traces the history of important Bradford institutions, particularly the Design School.

All this would constitute a book in its own right, but the author also brings a fresh eye to bear on the life and thought of John Ruskin. Ruskin's early reputation had been established as a creative and imaginative critic, who had delineated the relationship between art and architecture and the societies which produced them. He went on to develop a view of politics in which all the myriad aspects of life were related, and where justice and beauty were the twin bases of civilized society. There was a ready response to his ideas among the inhabitants of the new towns and cities of industrial Britain, where both artisans with a passion for education, and businessmen with aesthetic interests, came to regard Ruskin as a sage. During his long life Ruskin continued to write and lecture on many subjects, but the very fecundity of his thought led to contradictions.

He did not develop his theories 'in a meditated and steady order', and in the end there was uncertainty about what the sum of his ideas really amounted to. However, Malcolm Hardman's analysis of Ruskin's scheme of things points to the essential unity of his views, the art critic and the politician of practicalities being but parts of a greater whole. The book juxtaposes the politics and culture of Victorian Bradford with the thought of Ruskin. It seeks to demonstrate the influence of Ruskin on the cultural and political leaders of a particular city, and also to highlight the interaction between these leaders and Ruskin himself.

The author has consulted a vast number of sources and the text is copiously referenced and attractively presented. His approach is a brave and innovatory one, and the result is a striking appraisal of the relationship between one of Britain's great 19th century sages and one of Britain's great Victorian communities.

Paul Lawson

© 1987, Paul Lawson and The Bradford Antiquary