JOHN RUSKIN claimed that “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. . . To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.”
Named after the prominent Victorian artist, writer, and philosopher, the John Ruskin Prize is an initiative of the Guild of St George (which Ruskin founded) in collaboration with The Big Draw. The Prize seeks to uphold Ruskin’s belief that drawing helps us to see the world more clearly and therefore encourages us to take greater heed of its fragility.
For the past two years, this prize has been affiliated with Recording Britain, the ambitious scheme that employed artists on the home front at the outbreak of the Second World War. Initiated by Sir Kenneth Clark, the highly regarded art historian, author and broadcaster, with support from The Pilgrim Trust, Clark considered it an extension of the Official War Time Artist scheme.
The result was a collection of more than 1500 watercolours and drawings, now stored at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which provide a fascinating record of British lives and landscapes at a time of imminent change.
In the same way as Recording Britain sought to map familiar townscapes and countryside under threat from hostilities and later from urban development, its contemporary counterparts Recording Britain Now: Society and the earlier Recording Britain Now have invited artists across the UK to observe and record our society, which is in a constant state of transition.
“Recording Britain Now”, the 2014 John Ruskin Prize exhibition, featured fresh, contemporary visions of artists’ urban, rural. or social environments, while the artworks selected for “Recording Britain Now: Society” show artists reflecting on and addressing a diversity of topics, including housing, CCTV, identity, technology, and the political climate. The shortlisted works reveal an abundant range of techniques and social commentary, often focusing on physical or emotional isolation.
In McDonalds, Whitechapel, Timothy Betjeman uses felt tips to capture a father and son having a silent meal together after the purchase of new Nikes for the son. Cherry Pickles emphasises the isolation of her solo figure exaggeratedly relaxing at Membury Services.
Urban Bed II (Dyptych) by Dominic Negus focuses on the bedding and cardboard of an absent rough-sleeper, in response to the increase he has noticed in those on the streets around his home city of Brighton and Hove.
Sally Grainger’s closely observed portraits of elderly people collaged on to mobile-phone screens explore the paradox of increasing isolation for the elderly in an age of global communication. Peter Haugh also addresses issues of ageing and infirmity in Single Room with Ensuite, where a commode and kylie become symbols of personal degeneration and the isolation it imposes.
Topical depictions of the Skipchen Food Ambulance and a Jeremy Corbyn rally outside Manchester Cathedral depict attempts to tackle social isolation.
Susie Hamilton’s work focuses on figures in literal or metaphorical wildernesses, such as the pensioner shoppers in an east London supermarket in White Shopper. Her lonely shoppers are morphing, “disappearing into the bags and background of a frozen, commercial sea”. They are, she says, “like lost souls looking for something . . . searching for something more fulfilling, some deeper good that the brands promise when they say ‘Open happiness’, ‘Because you’re worth it,’ ‘Live the dream.’ And the search goes on. Shopping becomes unending . . . shopping is a metaphor for human desire . . . and because it never gives true fulfilment . . . is also a metaphor for this endless search.”
The situations that she paints suggest isolation, but the figures themselves, standing out against dark backgrounds, have “a resilient singularity with which they resist the dreariness of the uniformity of contemporary urban life”. This is particularly so in South Transept, an image of a cleaner at St Paul’s Cathedral, taken from Hamilton’s 2015 cathedral residency.
Sam Wells argues in The Nazareth Manifesto that the issue that these artists are clearly seeing, isolation, is the true predicament of humanity, making restored relationship the epicentre of God’s mission. “Recording Britain Now: Society”, therefore, has significant resonance for the Church in reflecting on and praying about the state of the nation.
Ruskin believed that, to achieve the highest artistic ideals, the artist must understand the God given laws of nature by paying attention to minute details as well as spectacular effects. Accordingly, Hamilton, like others in the show, observes from the sidelines, “scrutinising tourists, shoppers, holidaymakers, diners, hen nights and other scenes of leisure”, working quickly to catch particular poses that say “something about human vulnerability and about the pathos of those who process or trudge or consume or travel in the quest for meaning or excitement”.
In this way, her paying attention to minute details results in the poetry and prophecy of which Ruskin spoke. Similarly, Simone Weil believed that to pay attention in this way was prayer. If we see clearly with these artists and this exhibition, then we will be praying, and, when we pay attention to the issue of isolation, which is what they see so clearly, we will be focusing on the very mission of God.
The exhibition, which the reviewer saw at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, opens today at the Electrician’s Shop Gallery, Trinity Buoy Wharf, London E14, and runs until 22 May. Phone 020 3758 4118.