MOST people have heard of Ruskin but some are still not sure who he was or why he is important. There are several answers for John Ruskin was a writer, artist, art critic, traveller. geologist. botanist. architectural historian. political and social reformer and classical scholar. He also relaunched May Day ten years before it became the workers' (lay and 70 years before the Pope declared May 1 to be the
Feast of St Joseph the Worker.
A remarkable exhibition now at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery (daily until 7 August; admission free) traces Ruskin's unceasing quest for beauty and truth in 19th-century Fngland and Europe.
Naturally Ruskin hated specialisation but his own art ,vas no mere pastime and in his drawings he imitated many fellow artists with success — his drawing of Mont Blanc is maybe even better and more daring than a real Turner. As a boy Ruskin had visited the Venice seen by Turner and so was able to defend Turner's record of St Mark's Square.
The exhibition has plenty of Ruskin's own Venetian views and architectural studies which are often complete with an intruding weed. Later he discovered the galleries and urned from examining buildings to copying the great
masterpieces such as I intoretto's Crucifixion.
Then in 1877, after a winter in Venice, Ruskin came home to produce Morning Cloud at Coniston which for us has the colour and style of a Hockney.
He returned time and time again to the places he loved. Ruskin believed the north transept doorway of Rouen Cathedral (along with the south door of Florence Cathedral) to be the most beautiful "Gothic piece" in the world and he not only brought back drawings and plaster casts but arranged for the doorway to be photographed stone by stone. This, as the catalogue admits, is a demanding exhibition.
Penny Dreadfuls and Comics at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (daily except Fridays; admission free) tells the story of another artistic activity which began in the 19th century and gave much employment and enjoyment.
An investigator wrote that "in
a lane not far from Fleet Street there is a complete factory of the literature of rasoaldom". That was Shoe Lane and, when it was realised that the lurid penny dreadfuls were being read by nine million children every week, the alarmed members of the Religious Tract Society launched the celebrated Boys' Own Paper. Later Rainbow was able to boast on its front page The children's paper that parents approve'. Its great feature was Tiger Tint who had first appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1904 and, this exhibition suggests, later collected his regular pals from the front pages of Little Sparks and Chuckles. Teddy Tail in the Daily Mail forced the Daily Express to reply with Rupert who only last year was rewarded with his own weekly.
The influx of American war comics in the late 1940s worried the Rev Marcus Morris who hit back with Eagle. Frank Hampson's original Dan Dare artwork is on display and many of the other comics carry the work of the prolific Leo Baxendale who developed the Bash Street Kids, based on a Preston street.
Some showcases are low level for child viewing but parents who want a long peaceful wallow in nostalgia could visit on a Saturday when children can be left in the adjoining painting workshop.
Also suitable for children is Triumph of Labour at the Livesey Museum (daily except Sunday's until 23 July; admission free) in London's Old Kent Road where you clock-in to enter another Victorian world. This is a packed display of trade union relics — a co-op money box among the co-op crockery, Jarrow walking sticks, sets of union badges and several banners.
The company which produced most of the union banners was set up only a few years after the Tolpuddle Martyrs' arrest. These early banners often reflected the link with guilds and were partly inspired by church banners. Many of the mottos were biblical quotations proclaiming the hopes and ideals of the union.