Jim Spates sends out the invitation to Ruskinians

On April 30 2010, James L. Spates, creator and organizer of the On the Old Road Ruskinian pilgrimages — the very Herder of Cats himself — cast the following e-invitation into the ether:

Good Friends.

It is that time of year again — that time, I mean, when all folks with anything above a middling interest in John Ruskin start thinking that it’s time, while time there is, to head out to see something as he saw it before that viewing proves impossible too. As most of you know, I’ve been doing more than a bit of this viewing during the last four Junes. Some of you have come along for little or much of those happy journeys on what Ruskin always and warmly called his “Old Road” — and, when that happened, we had, did we not, the finest of times? The intention of this e-mail, then, is to signal the approach of more Old Roading in the not-too-distant future. (I apologize for the lateness of this notice; but, to say that things here at Hobart and William Smith, as the semester winds down, are astonishingly hectic, is to unconscionably understate the reality.) I am aware too, that many of you receiving this, will just be finishing some delightful days at a Ruskin conference in England (alas, I cannot be there!). But this may be all to the good, because you could then just come right across the Channel to join us! In any event, if, given this preamble, you think that you might have some interest in the possibility of actual ambling a la Ruskin soon, please read on:

After the fact: A sampling of the churches and cathedrals we saw at Caen, Chartres, Bayeux, and Coutances.

Perhaps, given the itinerary I will outline in a moment, it’d be a good thing to have a glance at the two attached drawings, both of which are Ruskin’s and both of which come from his great book of 1847, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (full text). Those who have already read The Seven Lamps will remember that it was his intent in those remarkable pages to lay out, using as a basis his years-long study of the great cathedrals of England and Europe, the seven laws, or guiding lights, of building well and beautifully; laws which applied not just to cathedrals or churches, but to any building — religious, governmental, or domestic. Architecture was, Ruskin said (rightly), the one art form in which everyone participated — we all have to live and work someplace, for instance — and, hence, what could be more useful to know than the principles which would make the buildings which we use not only practical, but enduring, edifying, and glorious? In which light, the first image compares, in increasing order of loveliness (easily seen in his drawing, I think), working from the lower right to the left and then to the top of the page, various apses in the churches or cathedrals of Caen, Eu, Lisieux, Countances, Rouen, Bayeux, and Beauvais, all northwest of Paris; the second shows some ornaments — among those Ruskin considered the best of their kind ever carved — in the cathedrals of Rouen, St. Lô (also in Northern France), and Venice (this last, center right). Indeed, Ruskin thought that, all told, Northern France had the greatest concentration of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in the world, and, to make his arguments in The Seven Lamps palpable, time and again he uses example after example from this region. And, since this is a region I have not studied on my previous trips on his Old Road, it is the area on which I wish to concentrate this year. (Purposefully — time and money considerations and the fact that I have visited both before and studied them well — I am leaving out of this itinerary Amiens and Abbeville, both almost due north of Paris and among Ruskin’s favorites; but they aren’t far away for anyone interested!). After days in this area, I plan to spend a few more in Chartres, home of one of the world’s greatest cathedrals and another deeply admired by Ruskin. He planned to write a whole book on Chartres, in fact, similar to the one he had done centering on the Cathedral of Amiens (see: The Bible of Amiens) but, like many of his projects, it never came to be (we are the poorer for that never coming into being). Nevertheless, throughout his works, there are many pages devoted to this remarkable place of worship. That’s the broad plan. Here’s the specific:

The trip will begin in the early evening of June 21 and end on the morning of July 2. It will be divided as follows:

June 21-25: Rouen
June 25-29: Caen
June 29-July 2 (AM): Chartres

Note: While in Rouen and Caen, we will make side trips to other “Ruskin places” in the area nearby — to Lisieux, Bayeux, St. Lô, Countances, Avranches, certainly to Le Mont St. Michel, perhaps to Beauvais.

The idea will be the same as on past ROR excursions: during the days, I’ll be taking Ruskin’s writings and drawings pertinent to the places near where we are staying. Anyone who is interested in visiting these places with me so that we might have a good, careful look is welcome to come along. But if you don’t want to accompany, that’s fine, too. Whatever happens in that regard, we’ll reconvene in the evenings for fine food, fine wine, and fine chat. I’m not really a tour guide, in other words. I’m just very, very interested in doing these things and if you want to come along, I’d be delighted! Also this: come for part of the itinerary or all; up to you entirely. Happily, I can say that, at least for the Rouen and Caen portions of the trip, the Ruskin scholar, Cynthia Gamble, will be with us. One of Cynthia’s special interests — on which she has written much — is “Ruskin in France.” She has been, with careful eyes, to all the places we will be visiting before, and so it will be a delight to have her experience to help us focus and avoid wasting our precious hours. Also coming is another Ruskin scholar, Diane Leonard. Diane’s specialty is Ruskin and Proust and, like Cynthia’s, her love of Ruskin and recognition his genius are marvels to behold. A few others have already said they would come too. Numbers, however, are not really an issue. My general rule is that, if you want to come, you need to arrange how you will get there, and also arrange your hotels and transportation (I’ll have a car; there’ll be quite a lot of roadstering; perhaps people can share car rentals and save money that way?).

If you are coming and want to “do Ruskin” with the Ruskin doers, I’d highly recommend that you get a copy of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, mentioned above. Lôts of copies for not much money (and others for very much money!) can be found at this great search engine: www.addall.com. Just go to “Used Books” and type in his name and the title. Also, if you are coming, I have a scanned version of two lectures Ruskin gave in Edinburgh in 1854 that, in effect, summarize the fundamentals of his approach to architecture. I will be glad to send these as an e-attachment if you wish. I also have a scan of another of his great lectures on the architecture of this region, “The Flamboyant Architecture of the Somme”; just ask me for it as well — but be forewarned, this piece will make you really want to go to Abbeville! And this too: since we are definitely going to spend a day at Mont St. Michel, a great preparatory overview is Henry Adams’ Mont St Michel and Chartres — a book which has, as you can see, double relevance to our itinerary! In all cases, it would be good if you started reading these before joining the group — if only because my experience has been, if you are going and seeing all day, you aren’t reading much! — of course, there are always the quiet evenings on the hotel porches — when we aren’t chatting and drinking fine French wine!

On which porches, I hope to see you soon!

Those who answered the call

George Landow arrives in Rouen and finds himself in the Twilight Zone

George Landow's first reactions: Rouen is an amazing, wonderful city with a center filled with picturesque, well-preserved medieval timbered buildings and astonishing churches, several of which almost rival its famous cathedral, which Monet painted so many times and which Ruskin earlier wrote about so enthusiastically. George would love to bring Ruth back here for three or four days. Unfortunately, the stay here didn't start out all that well for George. First there's the matter of his eight or eight-and-a-half-foot-wide room at the grandly named Hotel de Paris (see below left). As he e-mailed Ruth, “this is a strange kind of minimalist hotel.”

1. Free wifi
2. The carpets on the stairs look new with a separate runner in the middle.
3. All the plumbing is new.
4. A TV hangs on the wall.
5. Wooden hangers — new wooden hangers people could steal — in the closet.
6. Plenty of outlets.


1. Only 3 hangers
2. The room is about 8' wide (putting my feet together one after the other took 9 of them to cross the room).
3. Lighting (other than the bathroom) one tiny lamp and a wall lamp.
4. Windows, one: a ceiling window 2' x 3' (now open)
5. I'm on the 4th floor but the elevator, which only holds 2 people, goes to 3.
5. The bed is narrower than Philip's (a very small 3-½-year old).

That wasn't the real problem. As George e-mailed everyone in the group whose e-mail addresses he had: “Am I the only one in the Twilight Zone? Am I the only one in Rouen?”

I waited until 7:30 or so for Jim to have that gathering he announced, heard nothing, got worried, finally went downstairs, asked the desk clerk for him, and she knows zilch, so I ask if he's booked here, and he isn't. In fact, she'd never heard of him, and neither have the 2 other hotels she called, so I went back up the stairs to my tiny room, smaller than that allowed in US prisons, and e-mailed Kathy Wood, his travel agent, who responded fairly quickly that she thinks he had some trouble with his driver's license, was delayed, and is booked at the Hotel de la Catedral, but when I find it after while, it's a beautiful medieval or Renaissance timbered building but locked up tight, lights are off downstairs, and no one answers the bell. Sure hope I'm not here alone. . . .

The next morning George found Jim Spates at breakfast and arranged to meet with the group at ten. It took some time to find out what happened (besides the fact that Jim forgot to tell George where the group was staying), but by lunch time it became apparent that Jim's Blackberry password failed in Europe and so he had neither sent or received e-mail.

Left: George's room. Right two: The stay in Rouen didn't begin as a total disaster, since it was Music Night all over France, and from his eyrie George heard the sounds of loud music. When he went out to look around, he encountered two excellent rock bands two streets from the hotel entrance. Buying a beer and a sandwich at a cafe immediately to the left of the middle photo, George listened for an hour, after which he visited other bands or groups, which included a mixed-age drum corps and, near the Hôtel de la Cathédrale, a group playing Normandy folk tunes to which several older couples from the crowd were dancing.

Left: This Janis Joplin wannabe played in front of the famous tympanum of St. Maclou, which Ruskin praised so highly. Middle left: On the way back to his cell George passed a band that had replaced the one he had heard at suppertime. (The cafe where sat is the illuminated one in the distance.) Right two: two sights that anticipated the next day's explorations — part of the façade of Rouen Cathedral lit by the late-evening sun and a group of fourteenth-century houses next to and facing St. Maclou.

Tuesday, 22 June — George meets up with the Ruskinians

Left: Cynthia J. Gamble, Vice-Chairman of the Ruskin Society, who writes about Ruskin in both English and French, Jim Spates, and Paul André Sement, who has worked both as a town planner for Rouen and taught. He had generously volunteered to take us around the city, staying with the group until six pm! Right two: Views of a typically picturesque conglomeration of timbered buildings, some of which has slate sidings, roofs, or both. In the right hand photo one sees (left to right) Paul André, Robert Walmsley (an English Ruskinian who lives in Paris), Kevin Leonard (who accompanied his mother, who rested during the morning), and one of the Millers.

Three views of the picturesque buildings. The central one, photographed from the restaurant where we had lunch, has an interesting story: it leans that way because until the nineteenth century, houses crammed up close to the front of St. Maclou, and when they were torn down to make a little plaza, this one, dependent upon its now-vanished neighbor, began to tilt.

Lunch near St. Maclou

Left: (from left to right) Paul André, Kevin, Roger (hidden behind the menu) and Cynthia). Middle: (Now looking from the other end of the table after Diane Leonard, who teaches at Chapel Hill, had arrived): Cynthia, Jim Spates, George, Diane, Roger, and Paul André — Photo by Kevin, who, though not an academic, sure knows his Ruskin. At lunch George met Diane, who works on Ruskin and Proust, for the first time, and she told him that reading his Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin was a career-changing event. Certainly nice to hear that! Right: Cynthia's “small salad,” which all agreed had to be photographed.

Left: Jim reads Ruskin's interesting but bad poem about Rouen written when he was 16. Right two: More timbered houses, many of which house posh stores on the ground floor. After lunch off to see St. Maclou . . .

More about On the Old Road V — June 2010

Last modified 5 July 2010