William Gershom Collingwood

W G Collingwood, who was an author, artist, antiquary and was also Professor of Fine Arts at the Reading University, was born in Liverpool on 6 August 1854. He went to University College in Oxford in 1872 and it was here where he met John Ruskin. Collingwood visited Ruskin at Brantwood in Coniston during the summer of 1873. Approximately two years later he was working at Brantwood with Ruskin and his associates. Collingwood studied at the Slade School of Art between 1876 and 1878, as Ruskin greatly admired his draughtsmanship, he also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880. Collingwood dedicated himself to helping Ruskin for many years, he stayed at Brantwood as Ruskin’s assistant and even travelled with him to Switzerland.

However, he married Edith Mary Isaac in 1883 and took up residence near to Ruskin in The Lakes. He published a biography of Ruskin in 1893 and edited a number of Ruskin’s texts. Arthur Ransome met the Collingwoods and their four children in 1896. He became a firm friend of the family and learned to sail in Collingwood’s boat, Swallow. However, in 1928 after a summer of teaching Collingwood’s grandchildren to sail in Swallow II, he wrote the first book in his Swallows and Amazons series. Apparently he used Collingwood’s grandchildren’s names for this characters, the Swallows.

Collingwood became a skilled painter by the 1890’s and joined the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. He became editor in 1900. Collingwood, who was very interested in Norse lore and the Norsemen, wrote a novel called “Thorstein of the Mere” – this had a huge influence on Arthur Ransome. Collingwood’s study of Norse and Anglican archaeology made him widely acknowledged as a leading authority on the subject.

He became a member of the Viking Club and even served as it’s president. In 1901 he was also responsible for setting up The Ruskin Museum in Coniston. This was set up both as a memorial to Ruskin and a celebration of the area’s heritage. He continued to help with secretarial work at Brantwood after Ruskin’s death, however, in 1905 he went to University College in Reading and became professor of fine art from 1907 until 1911. At the outbreak of the First World War he joined the Admiralty intelligence division.

He returned to Coniston in 1919 and continued with his writing of the Lake District’s history, and perhaps his most important work, Northumbrian Crosses of the pre-Norman age. His services, following the Armistice of 1918 and the peace treaty of 1919, were in great demand as a designer of War Memorials. His enthusiasm and knowledge for Scandinavian crosses is exhibited at Grasmere, where the memorial on Broadgate Meadows is an imitation of an Anglican cross. Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, Collingwood’s close friend and who was chair of the memorial committee, penned the short verse at it’s base.

There are many other examples of his Celtic type memorial crosses, however, the one at Hawkshead was sculpted by his daughter, Barbara. He also designed John Ruskin’s cross, which stands in the churchyard of St Andrew’s church in Coniston, with symbols which represent the important aspects of Ruskin’s life and work. His diary for 1919-20, which is held in The Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, contains brief implications to other possible memorials. Collingwood, who was a great climber, swimmer and walker into an advanced age, experienced the first series of strokes in 1927. Sadly, his wife died in 1928 and was followed shortly by Collingwood himself in 1932. It is said that his most lasting legacy was his influence on his son, Robin G Collingwood, the famous philosopher and historian.

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