This month, we took a trip up to the Lake District to visit the Brantwood House Bookshop, our May Bookshop of the Month. The former home of John Ruskin is a bustling hive of activity, hosting frequent exhibitions, running courses and boasting a further range of eclectic activities, all with the stunning backdrop of Coniston Water. We spoke to Fiona, Operations Manager at Brantwood, about stocking the bookshop, supporting events and their plans for Ruskin’s bicentenary…
1. As the former home of celebrated Victorian artist John Ruskin, Brantwood House is steeped in history. What’s it like running a shop on such an estate?
Running the bookshop at Brantwood is a joy and one of my absolutely favourite tasks is choosing new books. I have been running the bookshop for just under two years now and have met with Sally from Yale [Sales Representative for Northern England and North Wales] on maybe 5 occasions. Every time, she comes armed with the most amazing selection of titles – she is very in tune with what sells at Brantwood, the various subject matters that are appropriate. My only regret is that the bookshop is not larger!
2. Do you find that your customers are mostly interested in books about Ruskin and the Victorian era, or are they shopping for a wide range of titles?
There is no shortage of books out there on Ruskin and his own works so maybe 40% of the books on our shelves are directly Ruskin-related. However, as Ruskin had such a varied field of interest and influence – art, politics, environmentalism, the nature of work and our connection to the land – it gives scope to have a lot of titles in our bookshop around these subjects.
Brantwood’s estate was a living laboratory to Ruskin – he tried out various experiments in the gardens and the 8 gardens we maintain today are as per his design and creation. Gardening books are very popular in our shop, as are books on art, the Lake District and architecture. Ruskin was a vehement lecturer and writer on what he saw as the wrongs of the Victorian age and his ideas were considered radical. Our visitors to Brantwood often comment that they find their visit to Brantwood both inspirational and tranquil. As a consequence, book choices for the shop are very much made around helping our visitors to continue that journey – whether they take a book away about philosophy, politics or art and nature.
3. Brantwood House is known as a bustling centre for the arts. How does the shop support these frequent events and exhibitions?
During the course of a year, Brantwood may have as many as 12 different exhibitions, run courses on art, poetry and creative writing, host music and theatre events, as well as hosting an eclectic range of activities from yoga weekends to weddings and baby showers. For the exhibitions, we like to offer a range of book titles, again to allow people to continue to learn after their visit. We currently have an exhibition in the house by JMW Turner. As a consequence, we have a lecture at Brantwood on 8th June on Turner and we have half a dozen titles about Turner on offer in our shop. We are hosting a Japanese tea ceremony in May, to celebrate the start of an exhibition of Mingei inspired pottery – celebrating the link between Ruskin, the British and Japanese Arts and Crafts movements.
4. 2019 is a year of big anniversaries, marking 200 years since the birth of both Ruskin and Queen Victoria. What are you doing to celebrate?
We are celebrating the bicentenary year with a really exciting programme of events and exhibitions. The current show of Turner’s work in the blue gallery is on loan from the Tate and is the first exhibition at Brantwood dedicated to showing JMW Turner’s work. We are really pleased to be working with local artists, dance groups and makers this year to really celebrate the incredible talent within Cumbria, with demonstrations and workshops. On Ruskin’s birthday, we celebrated with the village of Coniston and held a wonderful memorial service at the local church, involving local school children reciting Ruskin-inspired poetry and performing music.
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop that you’d like to share with us?
We are currently launching a quarterly newsletter to the Friends of Brantwood, allowing us to keep in more regular contact about new titles in the shop, and offering some select promotions. This is facilitated with an online presence, starting with a small selection of our current new titles.