Conservationist, Artist, Social Reformer, Writer and Teacher


Towering polymath pays a call

Paul O'Keeffe as Ruskin calls at the Birthplace House

Paul O’Keeffe as Ruskin calls at the Birthplace House

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A giant of the Victorian art world has paid a visit to the first home of his protégée, Wisbech-born Octavia Hill, the celebrated social reformer and co-founder of the National Trust.

The actor and art historian, Paul O’Keeffe, stepped into the shoes of the mutton-chopped polymath, John Ruskin, on Friday to stage a costumed re-enactment of his inaugural lecture at the Cambridge School of art, as performed at the opening of Anglia Ruskin University.

A campaigner as well as an artist, Ruskin helped to set the town’s most famous daughter on the path of social reform, using his inheritance to buy the first houses in which she collected rents, and for a decade she trained with him as an art copyist.

Art historian Aldo Ierubino said that everyone in the audience at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House at 7 South Brink, Wisbech, was transfixed by the first-class performance of Dr O’Keeffe, who has appeared as Ruskin at the Edinburgh Festival and the National Portrait Gallery.

Mr Ierubino said:  “Dr O’Keeffe was brilliant, a veritable lookalike, and he injected Ruskin’s prose with real verve and dramatic emphasis, which took away any potential dullness in the earnest content.

“I have been reminded that I should go back to the texts, for they have a great deal to say about art that is still relevant today.”

The packed programme of events at the museum continues on Rose Fair procession day on Saturday (July 6) with an open day with free entry to the Birthplace House and a collector’s market on the adjoining Centenary Green in Somers Road, which runs from 10am to 3pm.

Visitors will have the chance to snap up collectables including vinyl, china, books, beer mats, stamps, matchbooks and bric-a-brac.   All items will be sold for £1 and the proceeds go to the volunteer-run Birthplace House.

There will also be a chance to ride on the Octavia Hill open-topped bus during the procession at 11am and 2pm.   A space has been booked for an Octavia Hill table in Museum Square and the newly opened Octavia Hill Clock Bookshop at 4 Post Office Lane is set to do a roaring trade.