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Cover of the book under review, showing an undated photograph of Benjamin Creswick in his studio.

Even now, with so much technology at our disposal, nothing brings history to life more vividly than a good biography. If the subject is less well-known, so much the better. There is a double sense of discovery then, both of the subject and of his or her context, as events unfold from a new perspective. Sadly, few if any Victorian sculptors are household names. Benjamin Creswick (1853-1946) is no exception. But his story is as illuminating as it is heartening. Under the patronage of John Ruskin, and during the glory days of the Arts and Crafts Movement that Ruskin inspired, Creswick rose from being an apprentice knife-grinder to becoming the Royal Birmingham Society's Professor of Sculpture. In his own life he illustrates the artistic endeavour and achievement of which Ruskin believed the working man to be capable.

Creswick was born later than most of Ruskin's protégés, and had a large family — both factors in the preservation of his life story. Biographer Annie Creswick Dawson is the granddaughter of his fifth child, Charles Creswick, born in Middlesex in 1883. The first five children were all boys, and in 1914 Charles went to Edinburgh to work along with the fourth son, his brother John. Dawson reveals in a prefatory chapter, "Personal Recollections of My Great Grandfather," that she spent much of her early life enjoying the run of her grandparents' studio-workshop there, a veritable Aladdin's Cave for a child, especially in the days before "health and safety" considerations. Stoves burned white-hot, chemicals bubbled and implements were sharp, but from these "raw, rough, grubby" premises emerged handcrafted "works of great beauty and variety" (8). Ruskin, who had nurtured and directed Benjamin Creswick's talent after he turned to stone-carving, would surely have been gratified to know that the flame of his inspiration still rose high in the hearts of Creswick's descendants then, and continues to burn in his great-grandchild's memories even today.

"Rough Talent"

The Grinding Hall, part of Creswick's frieze on Cutlers' Hall, Warwick Lane, London EC4 (1888). Dawson tells us that the figure sharpening a blade at the big grindstone (fourth from the left here) is "almost certainly" a self-portrait (12).

The next chapter, entitled "Early Years," traces the upward trajectory of Creswick's career from his beginnings as the son of a spectacle-frame maker, and his apprenticeship at a "Grinding Hall," to his marriage in 1873 and his introduction to Ruskin in 1877. By then, the young man had been warned that his health could not withstand the polluted air of his workplace, and had already begun taking modelling classes. These had brought him into contact with the architect Henry Dent Lomas, and his work had been noted for its "rough talent" at an exhibition held at the Sheffield Society of Artists in 1876. "Rough talent" was just what appealed to Ruskin, with his scorn for pedestrian, finished work, and Henry and Emily Swan of the Walkley Museum, which Creswick often frequented, duly put him in touch with the great man.

Ruskin's Patronage

Creswick's bust of Ruskin (the original dates from 1877).

In September 1877, probably after the Swans had shown him a miniature bust that Creswick had already made of him from a photograph, Ruskin invited the young man to Brantwood to make a bust of him from life. The bust must have been a great success, since it was presented to Prince Leopold on his visit to the Walkely Museum in 1879. From then on, Creswick's future was assured. Although this was a difficult period for Ruskin, he put his protégé in the way of his first big commission, for work on George Baker's house Beaucastle, in Bewdely. Moreover, determined that his talent should be nurtured, and feeling that he had "more to say to Creswick than any other of his friends" (54), Ruskin decided to mentor him himself. In May 1879 Creswick and his family moved to lodgings in Coniston, and Ruskin is thought to have supported them for as long as four years, "charging himself with the cost of their worldly necessities" (qtd. in Dawson 17), though apparently not without the occasional hiccough. But what extraordinary generosity!


An Establishment Figure

Such a state of affairs could not continue forever, though, and Charles Creswick, the biographer's grandfather, was born in Enfield, which was then in Middlesex, in 1883. By then, like so many other artists and craftsmen, Creswick had moved to London and been accepted into the flourishing Arts and Crafts scene of that time. Welcomed by Arthur Heygate Macmurdo (again, probably through Ruskin's introduction), he was associated with the group who formed the Century Guild; another close and lasting friendship was with Frank Brangwyn, who shared his studio for a while. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, and his career went from strength to strength. One major commission was the Cutlers' Hall frieze, illustrated earlier on in this review. Dawson tells us that this powerful work is 31 feet long, and of course the subject acquires not only accuracy but also great poignancy from the fact that Creswick himself had been employed in this trade in early manhood, and was able to put himself into the frame. When working outside the metropolis in Leeds, he was now described as "Mr Creswick of London" (qtd. in Dawson 21).

(a) Creswick's portrait of Carlyle on his house in Cheyne Row (1885). (b) Portrait medallion of Homer in the Tiled Hall of the Central Library, Leeds (1884). (c) Another, of Sir Walter Scott, showing the setting (1884).

However, Creswick had by no means forgotten his roots, and continued to exhibit in key northern towns. It was no real surprise, then, that in early 1889, after some negotiations, he accepted the position of Head Teacher at the new modelling department at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. "He was seen as one of the key figures from outside Birmingham who could further the growing Arts and Crafts ideals within the School of Art" (Dawson 26). This did not mark the end of his career as a sculptor in his own right. On the contrary, after a certain inevitable slowing down in the early years of his new responsibilities, he continued to develop his skills over the next three decades. The quantity, quality and variety of his works is made amply clear in the next section of Dawson's book, which discusses his design and execution of selected works in different media, including bronze as well as stone and terracotta, and even woodblock designs on paper friezes. Without losing sight of Ruskin's eye for raw talent, his generosity and the powerful influence that he exerted, Dawson also and very properly draws attention to Creswick's own efforts and gifts, and points out that "he later found a lifetime of work entirely independent of Ruskin's patronage" (53).

Domesticity, with its unexpected note of sadness.

This plentifully illustrated book leaves us in no doubt about Benjamin Creswick's rich legacy. As an architectural sculptor, he made many an important building "sparkle with interest," as he put it (qtd. in Dawson 25). The panels of the Bloomsbury Library in Birmingham are particularly attractive, as well as thought-provoking. Examples of his war memorials, wrought-iron work, repoussé work and so on are also very striking, and will probably be new to most readers. In general, it is wonderful to have more information about him. That this information also yields more insight into Ruskin, by giving a detailed account of how he helped one particular working man to realise his full potential, is a welcome bonus. In this respect, Dawson's book serves as a warm tribute to both men equally. The Guild of St George, which has published the book, was founded by Ruskin himself in 1878, and this makes a valuable addition to its growing publication list.

Related Material

References

(Book under review) Dawson, Annie Creswick, with Paul Dawson. Benjamin Creswick. York: The Guild of St George Publications, 2015. 61pp. £10.00. ISBN 9 780993 200939. [The Guild is now a charitable education trust. Click here for their website.]


Last modified 26 October 2015