Other Ways to See

Ruskin’s View in the Anthropocene

'Look closely at the painting’s background and you can actually see someone standing at Ruskin’s View... It is a memory that may never be made again.' Writer and activist Matt Sowerby contemplates the complicated legacies of John Ruskin and J. M. W. Turner in his town of Kirkby Lonsdale, even as the eponymous Ruskin's View crumbles into the River Lune. Third post in our series on land, culture and time.
is a writer and activist from Kirkby Lonsdale in North-West England. He is the director of Kirkby Lonsdale Poetry Festival and writes a newsletter about hope and climate change. Matt is inspired by etymology, activist history and the spoken word. He has performed in the Houses of Parliament and on BBC Radio 3.

By the time he visited my town in 1875, the art critic John Ruskin was already noticing a change in the weather. In his lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, he warned about ‘phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature,’ a new and persistent ‘plague-wind’ that was intensifying storms and dimming sunlight across Europe. Ruskin had no idea what could cause something like this, but today it’s difficult not to read the Storm-Cloud as a description of climate change, which had been brewing for almost a century.

Ruskin described the view from my town over the Lune Valley as ‘one of the loveliest scenes in England – therefore, in the world.’ It’s a description that radically altered our history: it wasn’t long before Kirkby Lonsdale became famously rural, the go-to place to get away from everything.

Ask anyone in the UK today if they’ve heard of my town, if they’ve been to Ruskin’s View, and the odds are remarkably high. Kirkby Lonsdale (population ~2,500) sits near the borders of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. At its edge, just past the churchyard, the ground drops away suddenly. Iron railings, new when Ruskin visited, run along the cliff edge. From there you can look over the River Lune, the valley and out towards the Yorkshire Dales. It’s the ultimate pastoral idyll, the middle of the middle of nowhere.

In 2021 the ground at the edge of the cliff began to crack, undercut by the river. The site was deemed unstable and more black iron railings were erected, sealing the viewpoint off from the public. We don’t call it climate change – the river has always been temperamental. It rains so much here that it’s quite normal for the valley to turn to watercolour, the colours mixing to brown. Flash floods reshape the river. Trees uproot and disappear. Others, ancient and giant, wash up on the far bank. Still, those larger once-in-a-lifetime flooding events have become increasingly common in recent years.

We don’t tell the tourists what else Ruskin had to say about us. To him our valley was ‘one of the loveliest scenes.…. in the world,’ but Kirkby Lonsdale itself had ‘more ghastly signs of modern temper than [he] yet had believed possible.’ Ruskin was an early environmentalist and an opponent of industrialisation. Today he is celebrated for prophetically advocating for ‘wise consumption’, warning that ‘there is no wealth but life’, and lamenting ‘the fact that we destroyed, in civilised Europe, every rare bird and secluded flower.’ Visiting Kirkby Lonsdale, he was enraged by the pollution of the River Lune, and wrote damningly of the locals. To him our valley was the ultimate pastoral idyll, but we were just the ‘improving mob.’

The people of Kirkby Lonsdale have a choice: protect Ruskin’s View a little longer, or let it slip away.

Today, the people of Kirkby Lonsdale have a choice: somehow find millions of pounds to protect Ruskin’s View a little longer, or let it slip away. Most people here want to protect it, despite Ruskin’s view of us. It’s difficult to explain the effect of the loss of the View on the town. Kirkby Lonsdale is such a small place, with so little public transport, one of the few things to do is go on walks. And all the walks here seem to link back to Ruskin’s View. And so living here without the View is a bit like being a blood cell denied access to the heart. 

Walkers pause at the railings. They stare through the bars at the bench where they used to sit and rest. Ruskin had an almost unhinged hatred for that bench, or rather the one that stood there in his day; its crude, mass-produced, snake-like legs were the serpents in his Eden. Now, empty and off-limits as Eden, the bench is a very visible reminder of a view made impossible to see.

Ruskin’s visit to Kirkby Lonsdale was inspired by a painting of the valley by J. M. W. Turner. Tourists are told that Ruskin’s View actually used to be called Turner’s View. Really, Turner’s painting looks like it was done a little down river, almost exactly where tourists now pause in uncertainty at the other side of the new iron railings. 

Look closely at the painting’s background and you can actually see someone standing at Ruskin’s View. The figure, barely visible, perhaps an afterthought, grabs my attention these days. It feels like they are trespassing. It feels like Turner painted me, a younger version that would spend hours and hours sitting exactly there. The figure is representative of a memory shared by thousands of people for hundreds or thousands of years, of stopping for a breath at the edge of the cliff. It’s a memory that unites the entire town, as well as the thousands who visit every year. It is a memory that may never be made again.

Ecofeminists argue that, for some time in the West, Nature has been treated as feminine, as property, as passive, and then destroyed. Ruskin’s View is no exception: the poet Michael Drayton described the Lune itself as a maternal figure in the 17th century. Reaching Kirkby Lonsdale, she ‘lovingly doth play / With her dear daughter Dale, which her firm cheek doth lay / To her clear mother’s breast.’ 

Gillian Rose writes in Feminism and Geography that ‘the same sense of visual power as well as pleasure is at work as the eye traverses both the field and flesh: The masculine gaze of knowledge and desire.’ Steven Adams and Anna Gruetzner Robins note that the emergence of ‘the notion that Nature was there to be subjugated coincides with increasing expansionist policies and colonialism, with the growing commodification of nature, and the corresponding upsurge in landscape art.’ I think again of the colonial undertones in Ruskin’s comment, ‘one of the loveliest scenes in England – therefore, in the world.

I think about these connections between seeing, knowing and owning. I remember how the tourists used to look out over the valley, trying to identify landmarks with their maps: Ingleborough… Casterton… Kirfitt… They’d get it wrong. I’d never correct them. 

Kirfitt Hall farmhouse was left out of Turner’s painting, although clearly it was there at the time. A few years ago the farmer submitted plans for a new building. The council refused, afraid it might affect the View and therefore tourism. The farmer painted his whole barn yellow, red and blue in protest. The two artworks – Turner’s and the farmer’s – exist in tense conversation. The pastoral idyll isn’t intended for pastoral people.

Sometimes I worry about the influence of Turner and Ruskin here, that in capturing this valley on canvas and page, in turning it from place to landscape and description, they somehow flattened it, established an official way to see: an official view, an official viewing point, an official way to relate to it. But places, like the people in them, are not static. The view of the Lune Valley hasn’t always been the loveliest scene in England. Turner’s painting may be considered a pastoral idyll, but what he actually encountered when visiting Kirkby Lonsdale was an apocalypse. 

Turner’s painting was based on sketches he made while visiting Kirkby Lonsdale in August 1816 – known to history as the year without a summer. A year before, Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia had erupted. It was the earth’s largest eruption in at least 1,300 years and led to famines across the Northern Hemisphere. The planet cooled by 0.4-0.7°C. High levels of tephra in the atmosphere caused startlingly red sunsets all summer, captured in many of Turner’s other paintings. Lord Byron described in his poem ‘Darkness’ (1816) how

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day…

Byron was on holiday with friends in Switzerland at the time. Let down by the sun, they took advantage of the eerie weather to compete at writing ghost stories. The most famous contender was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Byron’s doctor John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which later heavily influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Maybe it wasn’t time that stole the light from the painting, but ash.

In Turner’s painting the colours are desaturated, as if faded with time. The sky is tinged an off-putting yellow hue, not quite sunlight. Really, it pales in comparison to the real thing and to his other paintings. Ruskin called Turner ‘the painter of light’. Perhaps there is something of the gothic to this landscape after all. Maybe it wasn’t time that stole the light from the painting, but ash. 

I wonder again why Turner chose not to include the farm, perhaps itself caught in the grips of famine. Could it have been an act of kindness? Was the kindness to the farmer – not wanting to make a spectacle of his pain – or to himself, to the viewer – not wanting us to have the pain of bearing witness to it?

The very first written reference to my town is in a book named for the Apocalypse. In 1085, William I commanded a survey of everything in his newly conquered kingdom. The subjugated English called this The Domesday Book. 

It was around the same time that William’s Norman followers built a castle overlooking the valley at what would become Ruskin’s View – owning through seeing. Their control was absolute: William’s genocidal ‘Harrying of the North’ had created ghost towns across the region. The entry in Domesday for Kirkby Lonsdale simply reads hoc est vast – ‘it is wasted’. Seventeen years after the Harrying, no human life was recorded for 30 miles around.

As I said, one of the few things to do in my town is to walk. To walk and to think. And all my walks seem to lead back to Ruskin’s View. And all my thoughts seem to lead back to climate change. Scientists are talking about my lifetime as a timeframe for societal collapse. I used to sit at Ruskin’s View and think about that, and now I stand at the railings instead, trying to find a new way to see. 

The Lune Valley from Ruskin’s View, Cumbria, UK (Photograph by Rick Parker)

This valley was formed during the last ice age, when the earth was at 4°C below pre-industrial temperatures and everything was white. When I die, the earth might be at 4°C above pre-industrial temperatures. I wonder what it will look like then. I wonder what’s going to happen to this valley.

I don’t know if the damage to Ruskin’s View is caused by climate change, just as I don’t know if Ruskin really recognised that climate change was happening back in 1871. It was Ruskin himself who coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’, when ‘violent’ feelings ‘produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things.’ 

Ruskin criticised writers who allowed this in their work, but his descriptions in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century are perhaps a great example of it. The ‘plague-wind’ in Ruskin’s writing takes on apocalyptic dimensions: it brings darkness, blowing tremulously from all directions, intensifying storms, dimming the redness of sunsets and ‘making the leaves of the trees shudder as if they were all aspens, but with a peculiar fitfulness which gives them… an expression of anger as well as of fear and distress.’

In his own words, a mind that sees this in the weather must be ‘one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.’ By the time of Ruskin’s lecture, his mental health had severely deteriorated. Part of this had been due to the death of Rose La Touche, his student since the age of nine who he had fallen in love with. It was in her honour that he had written Sesames and Lilies, a treatise of his ideas about appropriate gender roles. Ruskin is a constantly disappointing figure: a hero of the Left and a self-proclaimed Tory, a proto-environmentalist and a horrible sexist – possibly with paedophilic tendencies.

I don’t know if, like Ruskin, I might be projecting my own anxiety and grief onto the world around me. What I can say is that there are still plenty of other amazing viewpoints from which to look over the Lune Valley. 

My favourite is from Casterton Fell, the hill opposite Kirkby Lonsdale. As you climb it, bracken crunches under your feet. Cavers sludge past, head-to-toe in luminous orange. Swallows bicker from the treeline.

From up there, the Western Yorkshire Dales open up. Below, the old stone buildings of Kirkby Lonsdale tuck themselves into the valley. On a good day you can see out towards Morecambe Bay and Heysham Power Station, where curlews wade for now. 

Halfway up Casterton Fell is an ancient stone circle. We don’t know a lot about the people who built it – they left no written records – but it’s tempting to imagine theirs as a faith with better ways of looking at and thinking about the natural world, ways that weren’t so obsessed with ownership. History is filled with promises of other ways to live, other ways to see.


Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood


Read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *