The making of John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls

John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls is a Radio 3 Sunday Feature which airs this Sunday Feb 26th at 645pm

Intellectual and art school champion of medieval art he may have been, but it is John Ruskin’s alleged horror of female pubic hair that seems to define him in the popular imagination now. I first heard the claim as an undergraduate. Emma Thompson’s film Effie Grey appeared to add that he was an oppressed mummy’s boy, too. My documentary programme grew out of an invitation to address Speech Day at Queenswood School in Hertfordshire 2 years ago which suddenly opened up a new way of seeing him.

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The school had been named in reference to Of Queens’ Gardens, Ruskin’s famous speech and subsequently published essay about raising girls like flowers, to be educated and freed from the narrowest constraints of traditional feminine upbringing. Archivist Dr Wendy Bird showed me photos, letters and a mini mock up of the infamous “purple horror” floaty Liberty-designed dresses that early pupils would wear for special occasions. There was a white wafting gown, too, really very Isadora Duncan, to dance like flowers. I was fascinated by the unashamedly aesthetic glamour. There were photos of the Queen Mother who came to a display back in the 1950s.

Sutton High School chemistry lab designed by teacher Annette Hunt (far right) photo taken between 1895 and 1928 (photo SHS archives)

I thought of my own memories of attending a girls’ school, founded in 1880 and of the many like it; their photographs of Victorian and Edwardian girls in laboratories or lined up in teams as hockey players in long skirts and piecrust collared blouses. How did girls’ education come so rapidly to include the same ambitions of sporting and scientific prowess as boys? Did Ruskin, even before the female suffrage movement, help set that off?

I enlisted Simon and Thomas Guerrier, my regular Sunday Feature producers from HG and the H Bomb and The Fundamentalist Queen, to help me explore John Ruskin’s Victorian vision of female liberation.

Ruskin wanted to educate women only as far as they would make superior wives and companions for their empire building husbands, and bear healthy children. Actor Toby Hadoke does a wonderful job bringing him to life for us, while Dr Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians, gives an insight into his huge intellectual celebrity. But it wasn’t a simple revisionist thesis, to reclaim Ruskin the medievalist as a feminist. There was a prejudicial disgust at what he regarded as inferior races. The V&A’s excellent Lockwood Kipling exhibition catalogue on the renowned sculptor and art and design teacher points out that Ruskin dismissed the richness of Indian art because of his insistence they were savages.

Drill at Darley St School (copyright Leeds Library and Museum)

Yet there were clearly so many revolutionary ideas brewing in his theories. At a time when reading novels was considered dangerous for female minds he promoted the idea that girls should have a wide education in science and art (though not theology) and that a “noble girl” should be given free rein in books as she would choose wisely and not be harmed. Asa Briggs’ Victorian Things quotes his advice, in a letter to a girl correspondent, about using a magnifying glass to look at crystals: “I send you one for yourself, such as every girl should keep in her waistcoat pocket always handy.”

Talking fit bodies with Fern Riddell

At the British Museum Fern Riddell, author of A Victorian Guide To Sex discussed Ruskin and Charles Kingsley’s fascination with the muscular bodies of the Greeks in their loose robes. The idea that healthy bodies made healthy minds would have had a political power in Victorian England, where childbirth was so dangerous and malnutrition, poverty and child labour stunted growth. But Riddell warned against giving too much credit to Ruskin and his friends, when women doctors and health campaigners were at the forefront of female education programmes around sexual health. Still isn’t there a fascinating modern legacy in women, whether homemakers or career women, obsessed with both success and strength, having abs as honed as those of Jessica Ennis Hill?

With Dr Debbie Challis and Dr Amara Thornton. 3 career women discussing Ruskin & mummies around the kitchen table

Dr Debbie Challis from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL and Dr Amara Thornton from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL offered insight into the world of adult education opening up for women who whether as archaeological explorers themselves, or night school enthusiasts, signed up to study the growing knowledge about the Egyptian and classical worlds.

At Angels Costumes with Louise Scholz-Conway

Ruskin’s focus was on middle class women as the angels of the hearth. To get an insight into what physical liberation meant to them, Simon insisted I needed to try on corsets at Angels Costumes. The experience challenged another of my lazy assumptions – that women hated corsets. To liberate oneself from the feeling of protection and support it gave at a time when women were considered physically weaker, required a significant leap of faith.

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The dancing that schools like Queenswood promoted represented both a very Ruskinian idea of the intrinsic beauty of the feminine and a delightfully female-focussed physicality. The school staged elaborate classical and mythological based plays and masques. The development of Delacroze Eurythmics formalized aesthetic ideals amid the more traditional wholesomeness of outdoor games.

Queenswood register (Queenswood archives)

One of the most moving moments of making the programme was when Dr Wendy Bird showed me through the registers of Queenswood School. Reading the entries of when girls joined and when and why they left was an insight into changing times: In the early years many were returning home to nurse invalid relatives or to early marriage. But surprisingly fast, they are going to be teachers and company clerks, and increasingly to university, as female colleges began to flourish.

Old Queenswood girls Annette Haynes (L) Diane Maclean (centre) Dr Jean Horton (seated)

For our programme Queenswood brought together old girls Annette Haynes, Dr Jean Horton and Diane Maclean, from the 1930s and 40s who remembered eurythmic dancing lessons and the unexpected paths their lives took after. They looked themselves up in the register Dr Horton holds in the photograph.  Some of their generation had become wives of empire, joining husbands working for Western corporations in Africa and the Far East, but others, like Dr Horton, a renowned anaesthetist in Hong Kong, never married, defying the goal Ruskin had in mind for his flower girls.

Queenswood girls today: Check out those badges

It was fun to read Ruskin’s own views on girls to current sixthformers (left to right above) Isobel Beynon, Aoife Morgan Jones and Natasha Ragan, and hear what they made of him. Their blazers were festooned with shields and badges celebrating sporting and debating and academic success; exactly the kind of ambition Ruskin thought so unladylike.

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The Victorian ladies’ schools that still thrive today, and there are many of them, have long defied the idea of producing humble helpmeets. Girls from all over the old Empire come to get a British girls’ school education. Would Ruskin flinch in horror, Effie Gray-style at the monster he’d created? Does it matter? Now more than ever a young woman finds herself entering a garden of delights thanks to the possibilities of a good well rounded education.

With gratitude to all our interviewees, but especially the staff and pupils of Queenswood School.

John Ruskin’s Eurythmic Girls is on Radio 3 on Sunday February 26th 2017 at 630pm and iplayer after

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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