Brantwood is a historic house located on the eastern shore of Coniston Water in the Lake District. It was the former home of John Ruskin, a famous Victorian writer, artist, and social reformer, and is now open to the public as a museum, showcasing Ruskin’s life and work. The property also includes guest accommodations, a cafe, and extensive gardens and woodland trails.
John Ruskin – His Life
John Ruskin was born in London in 1819, the only son of a successful Scottish sherry merchant. His father encouraged him to take up painting and poetry; his mother hoped that he might be a minister. He was educated at home and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was profoundly influenced by the evolutionary sciences of the day, especially geology. At the same time, Ruskin started to write about art and architecture, and began a lifelong advocacy of the work of Turner. As a result, he became an inspiration to a generation of younger artists, most notably the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
At the age of 29 Ruskin married Effie Gray but the marriage was never consummated and ended disastrously six years later. Effie became romantically attached to the painter Millais, whom she subsequently married. Ruskin buried himself in work, in particular a lengthy study of the city of Venice, producing a remarkable three-volume study of the architecture of the city.
At the heart of the Stones of Venice he contrasted medieval craftsmanship with modern manufacturing – something hugely influential on William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. It marked the maturing of Ruskin’s interest in social justice and the beginning of his attempts to influence the shape of society.
In his forties Ruskin fell deeply in love with Rose la Touche. Rose died aged 29 and Ruskin carried his feelings for her with him for the rest of his life. With the death of his father, Ruskin added wealth to influence. He became Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, an educational philanthropist and an increasingly radical voice in Victorian society. In 1878, at the age of 59, he suffered the first of several breakdowns that eventually stopped him working. Ruskin died in 1900 at the age of 81, leaving behind him collected writings that stretch to 39 volumes, thousands of drawings and watercolours, and a legacy of influence that is felt to this day.
Ruskin was an artist of great sensitivity who, nonetheless, chose never to exhibit his work professionally. Instead, he painted and drew in order to study the world around him and to communicate his discoveries. Many of his architectural and natural history studies were engraved or otherwise reproduced in his books, some were scaled-up for use in his lectures.
The collection on display at Brantwood at any one time is part of a rotating display from the collection at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, where the world’s largest archive of Ruskin material is based.
John Ruskin left a legacy of influence that stretches from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mahatma Gandhi. He championed many of the tenets of the welfare state, and inspired the founders of the National Health Service, the formation of Public Libraries, the National Trust and many other cornerstones of civil society in the last one hundred years.
His influence reached abroad in such areas as women’s education, the minimum wage, child labour, and environmental protection and has served both as a restraining influence on unbridled capitalism and a moral conscience for the nations of the world.
Ruskin Today is a resource based upon an informal alliance of organisations and individuals with an interest in the life, work and continuing relevance of John Ruskin.
Home to the leading collection of the works of John Ruskin (1819-1900), the epoch-defining writer, artist and social thinker
Artist's impression of the original cottage
Sketch by Ruskin on the day he moved in
John Howard Whitehouse at Bembridge School
A brief history of Brantwood
Brantwood was originally built as an 8-room cottage on a three-acre piece of land in 1797 by Thomas Woodville. Over the years, the cottage was expanded, with part of the drawing room and four more rooms on the ground floor added in 1830.
In 1851, the house was purchased by William James Linton, who set up a printing press for political pamphlets on-site. However, it wasn’t until 1871 that the most famous resident of Brantwood, John Ruskin, acquired the property for £1,500, sight unseen. Ruskin embarked upon a renovation program, eventually coming to live at Brantwood on 12th September 1872.
During Ruskin’s time at Brantwood, several significant additions were made to the property, including the Turret Room off Ruskin’s bedroom in 1872 and The Lodge, built on the site of the old stable block as a home for Ruskin’s valet. A new coach house and stables were also built at this time.
In 1878-79, the dining room was added, with the seven lancet windows said to represent the “Seven Lamps of Architecture.” In the 1880s, the second storey at the rear and a studio for Arthur Severn were added.
John Ruskin died on January 20, 1900, and the Severn family inherited the house and much extended estate. In 1905, the drawing room was extended with an additional annex. In 1924, Joan Severn died at Brantwood and was buried next to Ruskin.
After Arthur Severn’s death in 1931, much of the contents were dispersed in a series of sales. In 1932, J. Howard Whitehouse bought Brantwood, together with 200 acres of the estate, in order to open it as a memorial to John Ruskin. Brantwood opened to the public on April 21, 1934.
In 1951 Whitehouse established the Brantwood Trust to care for the property for posterity.
After Whitehouse’s death in 1955, Brantwood came under the care of his successor, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. In 1973, the nature trail was opened, and in 1982, the Linton building was renovated.
A fire in the coach house in 1989 completely destroyed the upper floors, which had to be reconstructed. In 1991, Lord Lloyd died, and Michael Prince succeeded him as Chair of the Trust. Tony Cann CBE succeeded Prince as Chair of the Trust in 1992.
In 2008, the upper floor of Brantwood was renovated and converted into “The Eyrie,” guest accommodation. The Lodge was renovated and made into guest accommodation in 2012, and in 2017, the coach house was renovated, and the Trust took over the running of the cafe. Charlotte Robins succeeded Tony Cann CBE as Chair of the Trust in 2019, continuing the legacy of Brantwood for future generations to enjoy.
If you would like to know more about the house we would recommend James Dearden’s book ‘Brantwood’ – The Story of John Ruskin’s Lakeland home, available online or in our bookshop.
The home of John Ruskin
Brantwood offers a fascinating insight into the world of John Ruskin and the last 28 years of his life spent at Coniston. Filled with many fine paintings, beautiful furniture and Ruskin’s personal treasures, the house retains the character of its famous resident.
Brantwood remains a place of inspiration. Displays and activities in the house, gardens and estate reflect the wealth of cultural associations with Ruskin’s legacy – from the Pre Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement to the founding of the National Trust and the Welfare State. Brantwood is a registered museum, but is still kept very much as a home.
The house affords a unique opportunity to look into the daily life of one of England’s most important social and cultural figures. The atmosphere at Brantwood is special, and because so many of Ruskin’s possessions remain, it feels as if the man himself has just stepped out into the garden!
Visitors to the house are introduced to Ruskin’s world by a brief introductory talk and are then free to explore the seven historical rooms which he occupied during his lifetime, all of which are filled with his furniture, art and objects.
Information panels are in each of the rooms (foreign translations are also available) and volunteer stewards are often on hand to answer questions. For younger visitors there are a range of quizzes and activity sheets.
Entry to the house also includes admission to the Blue Gallery and Severn Studio where there is a changing programme of specially curated exhibitions.
Not Just A House
Brantwood’s historical Lakeland estate comprises 250 acres, with remarkable gardens created by John Ruskin, his cousin Joan Severn and head gardener Sally Beamish. Beautiful in all seasons with spectacular views across Coniston water to the fells.
At the estate’s heart are eight unique gardens which continue the many radical experiments in land management and horticulture which Ruskin began. Broadly divided into three areas – the northern and southern gardens which involve some walking uphill, and the lower gardens which are suitable for all.
The Lower Gardens
The lower garden’s perform an important task at Brantwood and always have as they connect the house to the lake. The lake was both an important utility and amenity in Ruskin’s time. It was Ruskin’s cousin Joan Severn who created the harbour walk which is a pleasant and gentle way down to the lake.
The most important garden Ruskin created at Brantwood, designed as an entrance to the whole estate. It is a mythological garden based on Dante’s Divine Comedy which Ruskin admired hugely. Particularly based on the idea of the Purgatorial Mount on the passage of the soul to paradise. Paradise for Ruskin was a state where man and nature are working in harmony with one another; in order to do that you first had to get rid of your worldly sins hence each of the terraces of the Zig-Zaggy are designed to represent one of the seven deadly sins.
The High Walk
This spectacular and genteel garden was situated to provide a vista across the lake to the Old Man of Coniston, providing easy access to some of the greatest scenery of the Lake District. Having been lost for a century after the death of it’s creator Joan Severn, the rediscovery of this garden in the 1990s changed both the character and balance of the gardens at Brantwood, providing an elegant contrast to Ruskin’s more wild style of garden.
The Professors’ Garden
The Professors’ Garden was a working garden and the one most likely for Ruskin to be found in. The limited area provided a place of tranquillity and peace of which he desperately needed as well as an opportunity to experiment with the cultivation and display of wild, ornamental and edible plants. The garden was planned and managed by Ruskin and is the place where he grew flowers, fruits and herbs suitable for a local cottager’s garden – arranging them in such a way to provide examples of the cultivation of food for the soul, as well as the bodies, of the local labourers.
Ruskin’s World: A Journey Through Brantwood
Discover the hidden side of Brantwood with our Director Howard Hull as we explore the stories behind some of the rooms and objects within the house.
Ruskin’s Study: A Journey Through His Mineral Collection
Ruskin was fascinated by the beauty and science of minerals since he was a child, and he amassed over 5000 specimens during his life. He retained here at Brantwood his personal collection which meant a great deal to him.
The minerals are housed in Snell & Co. classic mahogony collection cabinets, made to store the minerals safely but readily accessible.
“I begin today on my return from London a revised catalogue of the minerals which I hope may remain mine as long as I can enjoy them, and afterwards, somewhere and in some sort, serve in my monument, having in their time, given me much pleasure, and been the sources of helpful knowledge”
Ruskin attempted to catalog his minerals many, many times, but with that many minerals, it was quite the challenge. At Brantwood we have 3 bound volumes of Ruskin’s mineral catalogues, and within you can see Ruskin’s various attempts to catalogue all the minerals in his collection including unused labels that he would cut out and stick to specimens.
Ruskin’s Bedroom: A Window into JMW Turner
Ruskin encountered Turner’s work for the first time when he was 13 years old, thanks to a gift from his father’s business partner Henry Telford.
The gift was a book of poems by Samuel Rogers, titled Italy, which featured splendid illustrations by Turner. Ruskin was fascinated by them, and they inspired him and his family to travel to the Alps and Italy to see the places that Turner depicted.
Ruskin was an avid collector of Turner’s paintings, owning more than 300 of them at various points in his life. He preferred Turner’s watercolors over his oil paintings, only possessing one of the latter, The Slave Ship. At Brantwood, he displayed many of Turner’s watercolors in his bedroom.
Although all of Turner’s paintings were sold after Ruskin’s death, their original frames are still preserved at Brantwood, now containing modern reproductions of the paintings that hung in Ruskin’s bedroom. These frames have small leather flaps underneath and grooves on the side, which allowed Ruskin to store them in a specially made cabinet in his study.
The paintings in the bedroom were some of the more important to Ruskin, including Richmond Bridge which was the first of Turner’s paintings that he owned. Others are ones from Ruskin’s travels, as well as some close to home including a view over morecambe bay.