Ruskin Mill

Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0LA

1981

Ruskin Mill Centre for Arts and Cultural Regeneration, the predecessor to Ruskin Mill Trust, is founded by Aonghus Gordon. Students from a nearby specialist school come to work alongside master craftspeople in the gardens and help restore the timeworn mill building

Ruskin Mill origins

Ruskin Mill was built in the early 16th century, on the foundations of the Great Mill which is listed in the Doomsday Book, originally as a corn mill for the Horsley Estate. With the growth of the textile industry in Nailsworth in the 16th and 17th centuries, the mill was converted into a fulling mill and a dye house.

In the 1800s, the textile industry was booming and local textiles were exported all over the world. The owner of Millbottom Mill, as Ruskin Mill was then known, decided to rebuild the mill on a larger scale. He had grand designs for the building but because of financial problems and a reduction in trade, the full design was never completed; the internal structure indicates that another storey and a pediment were intended. The building bears the strong Regency symmetry of four windows on each wing and three in the central section.

The industrial depression in the 20th century caused many businesses to fail and the mill went through a succession of owners and tenants. During this time the mill was used for corn milling, brass finishing, leather stiffening, as a sawmill, a grocery, a cider press using the local apples from the valley, and making aniline dyes and inks.

Ruskin Mill under renovation in 1983

Ruskin Mill from the back, with the water wheel on the ground, 1983

First steps

In 1967, Millbottom Mill was purchased by the Gordon family from Midland Fisheries. Robin Gordon and his family had returned from Venice where he had founded the Ruskin School of Art Appreciation two years earlier. He had been looking for a site to create a centre to continue his support of cultural endeavours, guided by the principles of Rudolf Steiner and John Ruskin. The old mill seemed an ideal property for this work, and as a family home. Sadly, Robin was not able to fulfill his vision as he died later the same year.

Robin’s sons, Aonghus and Alasdair, took on the renovation in the early 1980s. Over the next three years, the valley was energised by the inspiration of Morris, Ruskin and Steiner’s educational ideas, which have shaped the lives of the Gordon family. Through this time the transformation of the building continued. By 1984 the newly named Ruskin Mill was ready to welcome the first craftspeople.

During those early years, pupils from the nearby Cotswold Chine School helped to restore the building and the water wheel. Inspired by the encounter, one Chine pupil, Jason, chose to engage with craft and social enterprise with the artisans working there on stained glass, leather, textiles and metal. The next year, two more joined and Aonghus launched the Living Earth Training Course, the seed of Ruskin Mill Trust. The course combined biodynamic agriculture in a market garden with the craft curriculum inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, the insights into human development provided by Rudolf Steiner, and a commitment to responsible stewardship of the land for future generations. This vision has remained at the heart of the Trust’s work ever since.

Robin Gordon and his son Aonghus, restoring Ruskin Mill in 1967

Robin Gordon and his son Aonghus, restoring Ruskin Mill, 1967

Culture

The tradition of bringing social thinkers and artists into the mill was started by Barbara Foster, Aonghus Gordon’s mother, who invited groups and activists to the mill from the late 1960s. It became a centre for new social thinking during its first phase of development.

The mill initially provided accommodation for the Gordon family; later Aonghus and his brother developed craft workshops. From 1982 craftsmen and women restored the building on a voluntary basis to provide workshops, exhibition spaces, and space for public events. The intention was to form a community of craftspeople inspired by the work of William Morris, Rudolf Steiner and John Ruskin.

This significant initiative brought the Arts and Crafts movement back into the once industrial building, a place where creativity and individuality had been stifled. William Blake’s poem Jerusalem refers to the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. With this intention, the scorpion sting was transformed into a dove.
Graham Dowding has been a longstanding tenant of Ruskin Mill. He initially trained under Edward Payne, a renowned stained glass artist, son of Henry Payne who, through the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, was connected to the work of William Morris. Graham has worked with students on mosaic projects and stained glass, while supporting them to create personal items such as mirrors and glass boxes.

The tradition of students working alongside master craftsmen and women as soletraders also continues in Glasshouse College, Argent College and Freeman College.

Graham Dowding working with a student apprentice in stained glass

Graham Dowding working with a student apprentice in stained glass

Festivals

Although it was never the original purpose of the building, Horsley Mill is perhaps best known for the trout farm, one of the oldest trout farms in the United Kingdom. The spring water that made the site suitable for the mills is also perfect for fish due to its high quality and flow rate.

When Ruskin Mill Trust acquired the trout farm, it was still operational but on a very small scale. Water still ran into the basement of the mill building to feed the hatchery tanks. The ponds leaked and many of the fish were not healthy.

The landscape around the mill building changed. Channels were built to feed the ponds and space for trout production was increased. Over the next five years, whilst maintaining a small-scale trout farm, the ponds were completely dug out, reshaped and lined with blue clay and limestone, all done by hand, with students. A new building was constructed with a hatchery and fry tanks and gradually the stocks were increased from the original line of brown trout.

Our students participate in all aspects of breeding, caring for and harvesting the trout that are prepared in the canteen and café.

An exhibition of student work in the Gallery at Ruskin Mill

An exhibition of student work in the Gallery at Ruskin Mill

The Zodiac Floor

Horsley Mill is the administrative centre of Ruskin Mill College. As the college site is spread over 140 acres, it was important to create a vessel to hold the college community.

The courtyard, incorporating the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), is a paved, social space in front of the mill building. To provide a focus, there is a bread oven that is used to make pizzas for celebrations or to bake the bread students have made.

The carving behind the bread oven is by Andrew Geary, a Ruskin Mill College student who became a master in stonecarving. After completing his apprenticeship, he returned to work on two limestone carvings. One is a Celtic design (pictured) and carved around the edges are tools of the crafts of the college: anvils, axes and bellows. His peers observed his transformation as he carved the limestone panel into a beautiful ornament that welcomes people into the Horsley Mill courtyard.

The Zodiac Floor

The Zodiac Floor

The Cupola

When the Gordon family moved into the building, no pediment or cupola existed. However, research on the structure revealed the original intention. For Aonghus, the evidence that a pediment was once planned was like finding a way back to Venice.

The cupola was designed to crown the pediment, with a new bell that would ring out on festival days and times of celebration, to re-imagine the use of bells on industrial buildings that historically marked the beginning of a working day.

The cupola was installed on top of the main oak frame which is carved with the names of the students who worked on the project. This had to be done quickly; it was difficult to put the lead on with the required double curve. To hang the bell, old phosphorous bronze bearings from the mill were attached to an old cart axle that was bent into shape. The cardinal points were added to the cupola; the building faces almost due south. The cupola is designed to let in air and light. Cupolas and roofs were not added to non-domestic buildings unless they contained something that needed to be covered. The cupola represents the strength of a cultural idea, of consciousness; it is a signature in architecture of the human head. Adding the cupola to the pediment at Ruskin Mill reinforced the cultural and conscious integrity of the building and the activities and intentions that were emerging within its walls and grounds.

 

 

David Austin’s architectural drawings of the pediment and cupola

David Austin’s architectural drawings of the pediment and cupola

Lamp of Truth

The renovation of Ruskin Mill, as with all such projects in the Trust, was informed by the genius loci of the building, the materials and the human need. Particular care was taken to reinstate the building as true to its original intentions as possible, removing layers of earth that covered the original basement floor and later additions that were not in keeping with the rest of the structure. The mill’s wooden beams are visible, the stone walls are exposed and there is a celebration of the building’s origins.

“But in architecture another and a less subtle, more contemptible, violation of truth is possible; a direct falsity of assertion respecting the nature of material, or the quantity of labour. And this is, in the full sense of the word, wrong.”

“The true colours of architecture are those of natural stone, and I would fain see these taken the proper advantage of to the full. Every variety of hue, from pale yellow to purple, passing through orange, red, and brown, is entirely at our command.”

Ruskin Mill, like Horsley Mill, is a celebration of the local limestone of the Cotswolds. It is decorated in alignment with the natural colours of the building and the surrounding landscape.

“I would have the Spirit or Lamp of Truth clear in the hearts of our artists and handicraftsmen, not as if the truthful practice of handicrafts could far advance the cause of truth, but because I would fain see the handicrafts themselves urged by the spurs of chivalry.”

 

– John Ruskin 

 

A window in the Gallery

A window in the Gallery