JOHN Ruskin is hailed as the greatest British art critic and social commentator of the Victorian age.

A gifted artist and environmentalist, his ideas inspired the Arts and Crafts movement and the founding of the National Trust, among others.

He lived at Brantwood for the last 28 years of his life, passing away in 1900 at the age of 81, leaving behind him writings that stretch to 39 volumes, thousands of drawings and watercolours, and a legacy of influence that remains to this day.

With its many contemporary exhibitions, concerts, courses and special events, together with its education work in the wider community, the revered former Coniston home of the great man has upheld many of his traditions.

Measure of Venice: John Ruskin’s Working Papers runs at Brantwood's Blue Gallery until April 6 and includes unfinished watercolours and sketchbooks, loaned from The Whitehouse Collection, housed in the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Venice to Ruskin’s life, emotionally as well as intellectually. Initially seduced by its romantic beauty, he went on to undertake a far deeper study of its art and architecture than anyone had previously attempted.

In 1845, having already published the first volume of Modern Painters, he travelled abroad alone for the first time. In the six months spent in Italy, he familiarised himself with the art of Florence and the architecture of Tuscany before again moving on to Venice. The winters of 1849-50 and 1851-52 were also spent in the city, in the company of his wife Effie, gathering huge amounts of detailed information, especially on the great Gothic buildings of St Mark’s Basilica, the Ducal Palace, and grand private houses such as the Ca’ d’Oro.

In the fruit of this early study, the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-53), Ruskin also traced the city’s history in terms of his own aesthetic and spiritual view of civilisation, from its Byzantine origins (the ‘Foundations’ of volume I) to a Fall (volume III) after the Renaissance. Unspoken contrasts were made between the heyday of Venice as a city state and its present forlorn position under Austrian rule. The chapter on The Nature of Gothic at the heart of volume II – one of his most celebrated pieces of writing – offered a convincing picture of an idealised society, with art and craftsmanship fostered by religious faith and benign government.

Ruskin was never to produce another such sustained piece of writing on Venice, but returned many times both for pleasure, spiritual refreshment, and to draw in front of his best-loved buildings and pictures.

The Whitehouse Collection houses a large amount of preparatory material for Ruskin's The Stones of Venice. Alongside one of his most famous works, the 1845 watercolour of the Ca d’Oro, the Brantwood display includes some of his best ‘worksheets,’ detailed studies of individual buildings.

Brantwood is open Wednesday-Sunday, from 10.30am-4pm (from March 21 each day, 10.30am-5pm). Telephone 015394-41396.