The Sage At Badger.
John Ruskin's Visits to Shropshire, 1850 & 1851.
by Anne Amison.

In January 1850, Mrs Euphemia (Effie) Ruskin, of London, paid a visit to the home of Colonel Edward Cheney, of Badger Hall, near Albrighton, Shropshire. The Colonel was away, as the visit was paid in Venice.

Effie, aged 21, was spending several months in Venice with her husband. John Ruskin, at 31, was already a respected critic and author on art and architecture, having published the Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849. John was in Venice to research his new book, The Stones of Venice.

Effie Ruskin drawn by G. F. Watts in 1851.

John Ruskin in his thirties.

Effie was left to her own devices during the day, whilst John sketched, measured and took plaster casts of Venetian arches, windows and pillars. One day her friend, Rawdon Brown took her to the palatial apartment in Palazzo Soranzo, overlooking the Grand Canal, belonging to Colonel Edward Cheney. Although the Colonel was not there (he visited Venice once a year), Effie was entranced by his "mixture of Italian and English comforts" and by his collections of gems, statues, pictures "and I don't know what".

Palazzo Soranzo.

On the Ruskin's return to London, Effie was glad of the opportunity to meet Col. Cheney and his elder brother Robert, an artist, at their London home in Audley Square. (There was also a younger brother, Ralph). Effie soon became a friend of the three scholarly brothers, who were great collectors of classical antiquities which they displayed in a small museum at Badger Hall. The brothers invited Effie and John to pay them a visit at Badger Hall, and the Ruskins stayed for a few days in August 1850.

Badger Hall had originally been a timber-framed medieval manor house. This building was demolished in 1719 and replaced by a house offering more modern comforts including a drawing room, smoking room and "best parlour".

Between 1779 and 1783 the owner, Isaac Hawkins Browne, MP for Bridgnorth, added a spacious extension, turning Badger Hall into a stone-framed, brick built house with a library, conservatory and museum complete with moulded plaster friezes showing gods, heroes and characters from Shakespeare. A surviving sketch shows a comfortable, commodious Georgian home.

Badger Hall, from the Victoria County History, Salop.

The architect of the extension, James Wyatt, was also engaged by Isaac Browne to build a summer house in the style of a Greek temple between the formal gardens of the Hall and Badger Dingle.

This well-known local beauty spot is not, as most people now believe, a natural landscape: it was deliberately "improved" in 1780 as a "wilderness", a wild garden with a stream, hills and valleys.

Making artificial "romantic" landscapes for walks and picnics was very popular among Georgian country house owners: Lizzie Bennet and Lady de Bourgh walk in "a prettyish kind of a little wilderness" at Longbourn in Pride and Prejudice. The wilderness was an interesting yet safe environment for walks, sketching and dalliance. Should a picnic be planned, the servants had only a short distance to carry the rugs and tea service.
So what would John Ruskin, the well-known architectural critic, think of Badger Hall? The answer is: he would probably dislike it intensely! He made his visit there with considerable reluctance: Mr Ruskin did not like socialising as it kept him from his work; and we know from one of Col. Cheney's letters that the brothers thought less highly of John than of Effie:

Mrs Ruskin is a very pretty woman and is a good deal neglected by her husband, not for other women but for what he calls literature…. but I cannot see that he has either talent or knowledge. (August 1851)
This opinion may well have been formed during Mr and Mrs Ruskin's visit to the Hall.
Wyatt's Greek temple overlooking Badger Dingle.
The museum at Badger Hall (Victoria County History, Salop).
The Cheney brothers were no doubt proud of their Georgian country home, inherited from their childless cousin Isaac Browne.

They were proud of their museum, a photograph of which (taken in 1888) shows paintings, busts of Roman Emperors and a medieval seat with gilded arm-rests featuring winged lions: the symbol of Venice.

With the exception of the medieval seat, all of this would have been anathema to John Ruskin. He would loathe everything around him: the Georgian house with its rectangular sash windows and classical pediment; the moulded plaster Greek gods and the Roman Emperors. And, unlike polite visitors who kept their opinions to themselves, Ruskin would have had no hesitation in telling his hosts exactly what he thought. In fact, given the opportunity he would deliver lengthy lectures on his architectural views. For Ruskin, Classical architecture (and all later architectural systems influenced by it, such as Renaissance, Palladian and, to a degree, Georgian) represented a corrupt pagan decadence. The only true architecture (Ruskin went so far as to say the only "Christian" architecture) was the Gothic, the work of master-craftsmen who, unlike Classical architects, were not chained to a system of proportion and rigid orders, but were free: free to develop ideas, styles and concepts, free to travel across Europe and work wherever they wished. Indeed, in The Stones of Venice Ruskin theorised that Venice's decline from greatness coincided with her abandonment of the Gothic in favour of corrupt Renaissance and Classical styles.
Classical regularity: A reconstruction of the Roman temple of Mars together with George Gilbert Scott's Foreign Office (1858), a Victorian public building in the in the Classical style which Ruskin abhorred.
Christian "freedom": The Church of San Stefano, Venice, one of Ruskin's favourite Gothic buildings, and the chamber of the House of Lords, designed by Barry and Pugin in Gothic revival style in the 1830s.
If John Ruskin made his views clear during his visit to Badger Hall, it is not surprising that his classicist hosts thought that he had neither talent nor knowledge!

In August 1850, after their visit to the Cheneys, the Ruskins moved on to stay with more congenial company (for John, at any rate; the fun-loving Effie's thoughts are not recorded): John's friend John Pritchard at Broseley Hall.
Broseley Hall was built in the mid-1700s, so it would still, from Ruskin's point of view, not have been an ideal place to stay. As the photograph above shows, is is a brick-built, symmetrically-proportioned house with its roots (as with all Georgian domestic architecture) firmly in the Classical tradition. However, by the end of the 18th century it had been "improved" with the addition of a Gothic summerhouse and a "Gothic three-seater boghouse" (not a Gothic privy, but a rustic seat or arbour), both designed by the probable architect of the Iron Bridge, T. F. Pritchard (no relation).

Broseley Hall (photo: Anne Amison).

All Saints, Broseley. (photo: Anne Amison)

John Ruskin would also have liked the view from the front of the house over to All Saints Church, a very new building at the time of his visit as it dates from 1845.

It is in the Gothic Revival style so popular in the 19th century; specifically, it is in the Perpendicular style which was originally used in England from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

John Pritchard of Broseley trained as a lawyer. On the death of his father (also called John) in 1837 he and his brother George became partners in the bank their father had helped to establish: Vickers, son & Pritchard, with offices in Bridgnorth and Broseley. At the time of the Ruskins' visit, John Pritchard was MP for Bridgnorth. He and John Ruskin had met through Mrs Pritchard, whose brother, the Rev Osbourne Gordon, had been Ruskin's tutor when he was a student at Christ Church College, Oxford.

The two Johns were great friends: in the following year the Ruskins and the Pritchards travelled to Switzerland together before the Ruskins returned to Venice so that John could finish his book.

John Pritchard must have been a far more receptive listener to Ruskin's lectures about Gothic architecture, since he encouraged the erection of buildings in the Gothic style in Broseley. A local architect, Robert Griffiths, was commissioned to build a National School in blue brick in Tudor style in 1855, just a few years after Ruskin's visit. A building like this exemplified Ruskin's philosophy: its two-fold purpose was to both introduce something aesthetically pleasing into the daily lives of ordinary people (to give public art to those "whose childhoods were without beauty" as Ruskin's protégé Edward Burne Jones put it later in the 19th century) and to improve their prospects through a better education.

In 1861the same architect built an elaborate well in the style known as "Venetian Gothic" popularised by Ruskin. Broseley had a very poor water supply and by the mid-19th century still relied on only two wells. The well was intended as a memorial to John Pritchard's brother George. Unfortunately (but perhaps understandably, given its situation in the Shropshire iron fields) the water had a very high iron content and was undrinkable.

John and Effie Ruskin paid a second, very brief visit of only 24 hours to Badger Hall in 1851. During their second stay in Venice in the same year Effie resumed her friendship with Edward Cheney, who was then in the process of giving up his Venetian apartments and packing up his collection to take it back to England. Although Col. Cheney gave excellent advice and assistance when some of Effie's jewellery was stolen, he and John Ruskin were never on the best of terms: when John was negotiating with the National Gallery in London to purchase two paintings by the 16th century Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto on their behalf, Col. Cheney tried to discourage him on the grounds that the paintings were church property and it would be impossible to export them. When the National Gallery withdrew from the sale, Ruskin placed all the blame on the Colonel, writing many years later in his autobiography Præterita that Edward Cheney "put a spoke in the wheel from pure spite."

None of the three Cheney brothers married. In 1884 Badger Hall passed to a cousin. In 1953 it was demolished, like so many country houses in the decade after World War Two. Badger Dingle, the pretty little wilderness, remains a much-loved local beauty-spot.

Broseley Hall still stands, although The Venetian Gothic well was demolished in 1947. The Tudor schoolhouse is now used as Broseley's library and health centre. It is a very attractive building, sadly marred by the modern desire for large and inappropriate signage. The building has two wings, each with a large arched window: one is decorated with the sort of additions Ruskin loved, the heads of a medieval king and queen.

The former schoolhouse, Broseley, with decorative details from the window on the extreme right of the picture. (photo: Anne Amison)
The marriage of John and Effie Ruskin ended in 1854. Effie later married the artist John Everett Millais. Ironically, they fell in love when Millais was commissioned to paint a portrait of John. Effie died in 1897.
Two portraits by J. E. Millais: "The Order of Release", for which Effie was the model, and his picture of Ruskin.
John Ruskin became the foremost writer and critic on art and architecture in the second half of the 19th century. The Stones of Venice, written during his two visits with Effie, was instrumental in the first moves to protect and restore that loveliest, most fragile of cities, and his name is still revered in Venice today. He was patron of the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists; the executor of J. M. W. Turner's will; one of the founders of the Working Men's Colleges. He worked to protect rural crafts and prevent industrialisation. In old age, when he had made his home at Brantwood near Coniston in the Lake District, he was honoured and respected as "The Sage of Brantwood". He died in 1900, fifty years after the Sage visited Badger.

John Ruskin in his study at Brantwood, W. G. Collingwood, 1881.

Works Consulted:

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice.

Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years, London, Yale University Press, 1985.

Mary Lutyens, Effie in Venice, Pallas Editions 1999.

Niklaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Shropshire.

Victoria County History of Shropshire, Volume X. University of London, 1998.

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