John Ruskin

John Ruskin



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John Ruskin, the only child of John James Ruskin (1785–1864), a sherry importer, and Margaret Cock (1781–1871), was born on 8th February 1819, at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London. In 1823 the Ruskin family moved to a semi-detached house with a large garden at 28 Herne Hill, Herne Hill. His father was chief partner in firm of Ruskin, Telford, and Domecq, that imported and distributed sherry and other wines.

Ruskin was educated by his parents, with the help of private tutors, until the age of fourteen. His father encouraged a love of Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. His mother was a devout Christian. Every morning, from the age of three, his mother made him read from the Bible and learn passages by heart. According to Robert Hewison: "Ruskin's certainty in the rightness of his views and independence from received opinion - his critics might say his dogmatism - is attributable to his mother's cast of mind. Yet the conflict between his father's expressive desire and his mother's cautious restraint was to undermine his apparent confidence throughout his life... The puritanism of his religion was in conflict with the sensual appeal of much of the art that he was to study, and inhibited the enjoyment of his own body. " Ruskin gives an unfinished account of his childhood in Praeterita (1885), but most historians consider it untrustworthy. In 1828 he was joined from Perth by his cousin Mary Richardson, whose mother had died.

In 1833 he spent his mornings at a day school run by the Revd Thomas Dale of St Matthew's Chapel, a Church of England establishment in Denmark Hill. In 1836 he attended lectures at King's College, where Dale had become the first professor of English literature. In October of that year he enrolled at Christ Church. At Oxford University he wrote a series of essays linking architecture and nature for Loudon's Architectural Magazine.

Ruskin was an extremely shy man and made few friends at university. However, he did develop good relationships with two fellow students, Charles Thomas Newton and Henry Acland. Ruskin spent most of his time reading books and writing and in 1839 won the Newdigate Poetry Competition. Ruskin had the pleasure of meeting one of his heroes, William Wordsworth, when presented with the prize.

Ruskin had developed an adolescent passion for the daughter of his father's partner, Pedro Domecq. Adèle, was the subject of much of Ruskin's youthful poetry. She was only fifteen when he first fell in love with her and was devastated when he learned of her engagement. In April 1840, shortly after Adèle's marriage, Ruskin suffered a mental breakdown. After two years of rest he returned to Oxford University where he achieved the unusual distinction of an honorary double fourth, taking his MA in October 1843.

Ruskin took a keen interest in art and at university gained a reputation as a skilled water-colourist. He wrote that he had "a sensual faculty of pleasure in sight, as far as I know unparalleled." Robert Hewison has argued: "Ruskin's perceptual sensibility, and his ability to deploy it both as a draughtsman and a visual analyst, marks him out from his more book-bound peers... although his drawings would justify the appellation, he never considered himself an artist, emphasizing always that he drew in order to gain certain facts, and he exhibited rarely. None the less, Ruskin's drawings are a remarkable achievement, both as a record of his mind, and as works of great beauty. His ability visually to depict architecture and landscape was matched by his genius for the verbal description of works of art."

Ruskin developed a great passion for the work of J. Turner. Soon after graduating he met Turner and began purchasing his work. In 1842 Ruskin and his father became patrons as well as collectors, when Turner's dealer Thomas Griffith included them in an invitation to Turner's circle of patrons to commission finished watercolours based on preliminary sketches. Later that year Ruskin read a newspaper review of that year's Royal Academy Exhibition, attacking Turner's contributions. Ruskin was furious and wrote that he was "determined to write a pamphlet and blow the critics out of the water".

Ruskin's father offered to support him financially in this venture and he eventually decided to write a series of books on modern art. The first volume of Modern Painters: their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to the Ancient Masters, appeared in 1843. Ruskin wrote that "There is a moral as well as material truth - a truth of impression as well as of form - of thought as well as of matter." The author of John Ruskin (2007) has explained: "Such truths depended on a clarity of perception that was free of the pictorial conventions of the seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch masters who set the norm for received taste in landscape painting... Ruskin substituted a different way of seeing, that of the geologist and botanist, deploying the accuracy of observation encouraged by the classificatory sciences that did not conflict with natural theology."

In the book, Ruskin boldly proclaimed "the superiority of the modern painters to the old ones" and eulogized about the work of his great hero, J. The art critic, Patrick Conner, has pointed out: "Ruskin was scathing in his analysis of many of the established masters of the seventeenth-century painting, but won respect nevertheless for his acute observation of nature and for his lyrical evocations of Turner's art." After reading the book, Charlotte Bronte wrote: "I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold - this book seems to give me eyes." Ruskin also received support from William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Gaskell, who claimed that Ruskin was "no ordinary man". However, Ruskin's challenge to an aesthetic orthodoxy derived from Sir Joshua Reynolds drew strong disapproval from John Eagles in Blackwood's Magazine (October 1843) and from George Darley in The Athenaeum (February 1844).

In 1845 Ruskin spent time in Italy studying the work of the fourteenth and fifteenth-century artists of Pisa, Florence and Venice. It was these artists, together with Fra Angelico and Jacopo Tintoretto, who were the heroes of the second volume of Modern Painters (1846). Ruskin attempted to show that truthful perception of nature led to an experience of beauty that was also an apprehension of God. Ruskin divided beauty into two categories, "vital" and "typical’. According to Robert Hewison: "Vital beauty, in accordance with natural theology, expresses God's purpose in the harmonious creation of the world and its creatures, including man. Typical beauty, in accordance with evangelical typology, expresses the immanence of God in the natural world through the presence of ‘types’ to which man responds as beautiful. These types are qualities rather than things: infinity, unity, repose, purity, and symmetry. They are associated with divine qualities and can be found in nature and in art, but though abstract themselves, they have a real presence that it is the artist's duty truthfully to represent. Through his mother's training and the sermons he heard every Sunday, Ruskin had absorbed the evangelical practice of treating objects as both real and symbolic at the same time, a key critical practice that remained a feature of his writings throughout his life." Virginia Woolf later argued: "The style in which page after page of Modern Painters is written takes our breath away. We find ourselves marvelling at the words, as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure, but it seems scarcely fitting to ask what meaning they have for us."

Ruskin met Effie Gray in October, 1847. He fell in love with the nineteen year-old and on his return to London, he wrote to George Gray asking to marry his daughter. Ruskin's parents raised no objections to the marriage, but preparations for the wedding in the following year were marred by Gray's near bankruptcy as a result of railway speculation. The wedding took place at Bowerswell House on 10th April 1848.

Effie later wrote to her father explaining that her marriage had not been consummated. "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April." Robert Hewison has argued: "This has been interpreted as meaning that Ruskin was equally innocent, especially in the matter of female pubic hair, but this seems unlikely, as he had seen erotic images belonging to fellow undergraduates at Oxford. There is also speculation that Effie's menstrual cycle interfered with consummation, which is plausible but not provable."

Ruskin admitted that he loved Effie passionately when he met her for the first time in 1840. After they were married he wistfully told her that "the sight of you, in your girlish beauty, which I might have had." As Suzanne Fagence Cooper, the author of The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais (2012) has pointed out: "John Ruskin loved young girls, innocents on the verge of womanhood. He became enchanted with twelve-year-old Effie when she visited Herne Hill in the late summer of 1840. The next time he saw her, John Ruskin felt she was 'very graceful but had lost something of her good looks'. After he had won her hand in 1847 and she was still only nineteen... Effie was too old to be truly desirable."

After returning from their honeymoon they lived at Denmark Hill and at a rented house at 31 Park Street, Mayfair. During this period John Ruskin was working on his book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Published in May 1849, the book was illustrated with fourteen plates drawn and etched by him. Ruskin attempted to draw the attention of the public to the merits of pre-Renaissance Italian architecture, and thereby broaden the scope of the Gothic Revival in Britain.

Effie Ruskin was unhappy with the state of her marriage and in February 1849, she returned to her parents in Perth and did not see her husband for nine months. In September Ruskin somewhat reluctantly travelled north to collect her. Three weeks later they set out for Venice. On their return to London their social and intellectual circle began to grow. This included Charles Eastlake, president of the Royal Academy and director of the National Gallery, and Frederick Denison Maurice, the leader of the Christian Socialist movement. Another friend was the poet, Coventry Patmore, who introduced him to members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

In 1851 Ruskin published the first volume of The Stones of Venice. According to the art historian, Patrick Conner: "These books exerted a fundamental influence on Victorian attitudes to architecture... Ruskin... exemplified his conception that a work of art reflects the personality of its creator - and in the case of architecture, a collective personality or age-spirit, whose growth, health and decay could be traced even in the smallest details of architectural decoration."

On the 7th May, 1851, The Times accused three members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Charles Allston Collins of “addicting themselves to a monkish style”, having a “morbid infatuation” and indulging in “monkish follies”. Finally, the works are dismissed as un-English, “with no real claim to figure in any decent collection of English painting.” Six days later John Ruskin had a letter published in the newspaper, where he came to the defence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In another letter published on 30th May, Ruskin claimed that PRB “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years”.

Ruskin now published a pamphlet entitled, Pre-Raphaelitism (1851). He argued that the advice he had given in the first volume of Modern Painters had “at last been carried out, to the very letter, by a group of young men who... have been assailed with the most scurrilous abuse... from the public press.” Aoife Leahy has argued: "Ruskin’s defences had now taken a new and decidedly evangelical tone. He had formed friendships with the Pre-Raphaelite artists on the basis of his letters to The Times and, just as significantly, he had been personally harassed by members of the public for his views."

John Ruskin became a close friend of John Everett Millais and agreed that Effie Ruskin should pose as the freed Jacobite prisoner's wife, in the painting, The Order of Release, 1746 (1853). Later that year Ruskin invited Millais and William Holman Hunt to go on holiday with them to Scotland. Hunt refused but Millais accepted the offer. In July they stayed in a rented cottage near Stirling. During their stay, Millais began painting portraits of Effie and Ruskin.

In November, Ruskin went on to lecture in Edinburgh whereas Millais returned to London. He had fallen in love with Effie and they continued to see each other over the next few months. On 25th April 1854 Ruskin accompanied his wife to King's Cross railway station to see her off on a visit to her parents in Scotland. That evening Ruskin was served with a legal citation at Denmark Hill, claiming the nullity of the marriage.

A medical examination confirmed Effie's virginity, but in a legal deposition that was not introduced in court, John Ruskin stated: "I can prove my virility at once." Robert Hewison has pointed out: "This was never put to the test, but it seems likely that Ruskin was referring to masturbation." He also told a male friend that he had been capable of consummating his marriage, but that he had not loved Effie sufficiently to want to do so." Following an undefended hearing in the ecclesiastical commissary court of Surrey on 15th July, the marriage was annulled on the grounds that "the said John Ruskin was incapable of consummating the same by reason of incurable impotency".

Ruskin wrote a letter to John Everett Millais stating that he wanted to remain friends. Millais replied: "I can scarcely see how you conceive it possible that I can desire to continue on terms of intimacy with you". Millais married Effie on 3rd July, 1855 and over the next few years she gave birth to eight children.

Ruskin was greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Carlyle. He agreed with his criticisms of the industrial revolution and in The Stones of Venice: Volume II (1853) Ruskin argued that the working man had been reduced to the condition of a machine: "We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that it divided; but the men; - divided into mere segments of men - broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, - sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is - we should think that there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, - that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way: not by teaching nor preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach at them, if we do nothing more than preach, is to mock at it. It can only be met by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour." William Morris later recalled: "To some of us when we first read it, now many years ago, it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel".

Ruskin gave a series of lectures on J. Turner, Gothic Architecture and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Edinburgh in 1853. The Edinburgh Guardian reported: "Mr Ruskin has light sand-coloured hair; his face is more red than pale; the mouth well cut, with a good deal of decision in its curve, though somewhat wanting in sustained dignity and strength; an aquiline nose; his forehead by no means broad or massive, but the brows full and well bound together; the eye we could not see… Mr Ruskin's elocution is peculiar; he has a difficulty in sounding the letter ‘r’; but it is not this we now refer to, it is the peculiar tone in the rising and falling of his voice at measured intervals, in a way scarcely ever heard except in the public lection of the service appointed to be read in churches. These are the two things with which, perhaps, you are most surprised, - his dress and his manner of speaking, - both of which (the white waistcoat notwithstanding) are eminently clerical."

Despite his dispute with John Everett Millais, Ruskin continued to support the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1854 Ruskin wrote to The Times, praising the latest work of William Holman Hunt. This included The Light of the World (5th May) and The Awakening Conscience (25th May). Ruskin also pointed out the abilities of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He also bought and commissioned drawings from Rossetti and his mistress, Elizabeth Siddal. Ruskin also encouraged his American friend Charles Eliot Norton, to buy Rossetti's paintings.

The art critic, Patrick Conner, has argued that Ruskin's writings inspired artists such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: "Ruskin... proved an inspiration to William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, whose enthusiasm carried Pre-Raphaelite principles into many branches of the decorative arts. They inherited from Ruskin a hostility to classical and Renaissance culture which extended to the arts and design of their own time. Ruskin and his followers believed that the nineteenth century was still afflicted by a demand for mass-production... They opposed themselves to mechanized production, meaningless ornament and anonymous architecture of cast iron and plate glass."

Ruskin became interested in socialism. Between 1854 and 1858 he taught at the Working Men's College that had been founded by Frederick Denison Maurice, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes in London. In his lectures Ruskin denounced greed as the main principle guiding English life. In books such as Unto the Last (1862) Essays on Political Economy (1862) and Time and Tide (1867), Ruskin argued against competition and self-interest and advocated a form of Christian Socialism.

In January 1858 Ruskin met John La Touche, a wealthy Irish banker. He became a regular visitor to La Touche's home in London and got to know his wife Maria and daughter, Rose La Touche. In his autobiography, Præterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life (1885), Ruskin wrote about his first meeting with Rose: "On presently the drawing room door opened, and Rosie came in, quietly taking stock of me with her blue eyes as she walked across the room; gave me her hand, as a good dog gives its paw, and then stood a little back. Nine years old, on 3rd January, 1858, thus now rising towards ten; neither tall nor short for her age; a little stiff in her way of standing. The eyes rather deep blue at that time, and fuller and softer than afterwards. Lips perfectly lovely in profile;--a little too wide, and hard in edge, seen in front; the rest of the features what a fair, well-bred Irish girl's usually are; the hair, perhaps, more graceful in short curl around the forehead, and softer than one sees often, in the close-bound tresses above the neck."

Ruskin gave Rose drawing lessons. Ruskin wrote letters to Rose and he kept her replies "wrapped in gold leaf, tucked inside his waistcoat, close to his heart." According to Ruskin's biographer, Robert Hewison: "By the autumn of 1861 Ruskin felt deeply drawn towards Rose, but that October she fell ill for the first time from the psychosomatic disorder (possibly the as yet unrecognized condition anorexia nervosa)... Ruskin's preference for daughter over mother may have caused some tension... He did not see Rose between the spring of 1862 and December 1865, though Mrs La Touche did not break off contact. Rose had further bouts of illness in 1862 and 1863. Like other men of his class and culture... Ruskin enjoyed the company of young girls... It was their purity that attracted him; any sexual feelings were sublimated in the playful relationship of master and pupil that characterized his letters to several female correspondents."

Ruskin's father died on 3rd March 1864. His inheritance was £157,000, pictures worth at least £10,000, and property in the form of houses and land. Ruskin believed it was wrong to be a socialist and rich and he donated a great deal of his money to causes such as the St George's Guild in Paddington, the Whitelands College in Chelsea and the John Ruskin School in Camberwell.

In January, 1866, Ruskin, aged forty-six, proposed marriage to nineteen year old, Rose La Touche. She did not reject Ruskin but asked him to wait for three years. John La Touche and his wife were opposed to the marriage and Ruskin was only able to communicate with Rosa by using intermediaries, such as George MacDonald, Georgiana Cowper and Joan Agnew.

On 7th January, 1870, Ruskin met Rose accidentally at the Royal Academy. Rose, who was now 23 years old, began to see Ruskin on a regular basis. John and Maria La Touche became increasingly concerned about the possibility that her daughter might marry Ruskin. In October, 1870, Marie wrote to Effie Millais seeking evidence of Ruskin's impotence in order to stop the marriage. Effie confirmed this and stated that Ruskin was "utterly incapable of making a woman happy". She added that "he is quite unnatural... and his conduct to me was impure in the highest degree." She ended her letter by saying, "My nervous system was so shaken that I never will recover, but I hope your daughter will be saved."

John Everett Millais became concerned about the impact that this correspondence was having on his wife. He wrote to Rose's parents begging them to leave his wife alone. He insisted that "the facts are known to the world, solemnly sworn in God's house" and asked why this "indelicate enquiry necessary". Millais then went on to argue that Ruskin's "conduct was simply infamous, and to this day my wife suffers from the suppressed misery she endured with him." Millais feared that a consummated marriage with Rose would render the previous grounds for annulment void, and would make his marriage to Effie bigamous.

In July 1871 Rose La Touche broke off her relationship with Ruskin. Shocked by the news, he suffered a mental breakdown while staying Matlock Bath in Derbyshire. Rosa's health was also deteriorating. In an effort to help her recover, they gave permission for Ruskin to visit her at their estate in Harristown, County Kildare. In January 1875, she returned to London, but extremely ill, and Ruskin saw her for the last time on 15th February, before she was taken to Dublin in April. Rose died on 25th May, aged twenty-seven. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, the author of The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais (2012), has pointed out that "she died of anorexia, or brain fever, or a broken heart, depending on which account you believe". Ruskin later wrote: "Rose, in heart, was with me always, and all I did was for her sake."

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. He wrote: "Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?" Ruskin blamed the capitalist system for these problems. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts. Ruskin intended the work to be a "continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy". It was Ruskin's socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Ruskin suffered a complete mental breakdown in February 1878. He later wrote to a friend, Charles Eliot Norton: "Mere overwork or worry, might have soon ended me, but it would not have driven me crazy. I went crazy about St Ursula and the other saints." It has been noted that "Ruskin's delusions during his first attack of what has been characterized as either manic depression or paranoid schizophrenia." Ruskin retreated to his home at Brantwood, across the lake from the village of Coniston.

Despite several bouts of mental illness, Ruskin was able to complete The Art of England in 1884. This was followed by The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1885). He also began work on his autobiography, Præterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life. His biographer, Robert Hewison, has commented: "Praeterita is a delightful work, a rewriting of Ruskin's life that makes it unreliable as a source of biographical fact, yet an accurate portrait of the author's mind. That it remained unfinished shows that the contradictions of that mind never achieved their desired synthesis, though this version is the best that could be achieved, and makes it a significant work of literature, most especially in his Wordsworthian evocation of the power of nature on the growth of a young mind. The conscious manipulation of memory had been intended to be therapeutic, but there were memories and hurts that could not be suppressed, and as Ruskin struggled to bring them out he found himself fighting a double battle: to retain his sanity, and to control the composition of the work."

At the end of July 1885, just as the first two sections of Præterita describing his family background and early childhood appeared, Ruskin had a fourth, longer, and more severe attack of madness. He attempted to finish his autobiography but had only reached 1858, the year when he met Rose La Touche, when he was forced to abandon the project after suffering another serious breakdown. He gradually retreated into silence, saying little, and writing few letters.

John Ruskin died of influenza on 20th January, 1900.

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that it divided; but the men: - Divided into mere segments of men - broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. It can only be met by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

Political economy (the economy of a State, or its citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things. The farmer who cuts his hay at the right time; the shipwright who drives his bolts well home in sound wood; the builder who lays good bricks in well-tempered mortar; the housewife who takes care of her furniture in the parlour, and guards against all waste in her kitchen; and the singer who rightly disciplines, and never overstrains her voice, are all political economists in the true and final sense: adding continually to the riches and well-being of the nation to which they belong.

But mercantile economy, the economy of 'merces' or of 'pay,' signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claims upon, or power over, the labour of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty and debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.

If, in the exchange, one man is able to give what cost him little labour for what has cost the other much, he 'acquires' a certain quantity of the produce of the other's labour. And precisely what he acquires, the other loses. In mercantile language, the person who thus acquires is commonly said to have 'made a profit'; and I believe that many of our merchants are seriously under the impression that it is possible for everybody, somehow, to make a profit in this manner. Whereas, by the unfortunate constitution of the world we live in, the laws both of matter and motion have quite rigorously forbidden universal acquisition of this kind. Profit, by exchange. Whenever material gain follows exchange, for every plus there is a precisely equal minus.

Unhappily for the progress of the science of Political Economy, the plus quantities, or - if I may be allowed to coin an awkward plural - the pluses, make a very positive and venerable appearance in the world, so that everyone is eager to learn the science which produces results so magnificent; whereas the minuses have, on the other hand, a tendency to retire into back streets, and other places of shade, - or even to get themselves wholly and finally put out of sight in graves: which renders the algebra of this science peculiar, and difficulty legible; a large number of its negative signs being written by the account-keeper in a kind of red ink, which starvation thins, and makes strangely pale, or even quite invisible ink, for the present.

Trade Unions of England - Trade Armies of Christendom, what's the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile?

The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: "no wealth without industry." Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?

On presently the drawing room door opened, and Rosie came in, quietly taking stock of me with her blue eyes as she walked across the room; gave me her hand, as a good dog gives its paw, and then stood a little back. Lips perfectly lovely in profile;--a little too wide, and hard in edge, seen in front; the rest of the features what a fair, well-bred Irish girl's usually are; the hair, perhaps, more graceful in short curl around the forehead, and softer than one sees often, in the close-bound tresses above the neck.

The style in which page after page of Modern Painters is written takes our breath away. We find ourselves marvelling at the words, as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure, but it seems scarcely fitting to ask what meaning they have for us. After a time, falling into a passion with this indolent pleasure-loving temper in his readers, Ruskin checked his fountains, and curbed his speech to the very spirited, free and almost colloquial English in which Fors Clavigera and Praeterita are written. In these changes, and in the restless play of his mind upon one subject after another, there is something, we scarcely know how to define it, of the wealthy and cultivated amateur, full of fire and generosity and brilliance, who would give all he possesses of wealth and brilliance to be taken seriously, but who is fated to remain for ever an outsider.

Changes in the structure of society are not brought about solely by massive engines of doctrine. The first flash of insight which persuades human beings to change their basic assumptions is usually contained in a few phrases. Poets may not be "the unacknowledged legislators of the world"; but Ruskin, like Rousseau, changed the world by a vision which has the intensity and innocence of poetry.


Cultural criticism of John Ruskin

Turner died in 1851. Ruskin’s marriage was dissolved, on grounds of nonconsummation, in 1854, leaving the former Effie Gray free to marry the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Ruskin withdrew somewhat from society. He traveled extensively in Europe and, from 1856 to 1858, took on a considerable body of administrative work as the chief artistic executor of Turner’s estate. He contributed both financially and physically to the construction of a major Gothic Revival building: Benjamin Woodward’s Oxford University Museum. In 1856 he published the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, with their penetrating inquiry into the reasons for the predominance of landscape painting in 19th-century art and their invention of the important critical term “pathetic fallacy.” His annual Academy Notes (a series of pamphlets issued by an English publisher from 1855 to 1859) sustained his reputation as a persuasive commentator on contemporary painting. But by 1858 Ruskin was beginning to move on from the specialist criticism of art and architecture to a wider concern with the cultural condition of his age. His growing friendship with the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle contributed to this process. Like Carlyle, Ruskin began to adopt the “prophetic” stance, familiar from the Bible, of a voice crying from the wilderness and seeking to call a lapsed people back into the paths of righteousness.

This marginal role as a disenchanted outsider both legitimized and, to an extent, required a ferocity and oddness that would be conspicuous features of Ruskin’s later career. In 1858 Ruskin lectured on “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy” (published in The Two Paths, 1859), a text in which both the radical-conservative temper and the symbolic method of his later cultural criticism are clearly established. Beginning as an art critic, Ruskin contrasts the exquisite sculptured iron grilles of medieval Verona with the mass-produced metal security railings with which modern citizens protect their houses. The artistic contrast is, of course, also a social contrast, and Ruskin goes rapidly beyond this to a symbolic assertion of the “iron” values involved in his definition of the just society. By wearing the fetters of a benignly neofeudalist social order, men and women, Ruskin believed, might lead lives of greater aesthetic fulfillment, in an environment less degraded by industrial pollution.

These values are persistently restated in Ruskin’s writings of the 1860s, sometimes in surprising ways. Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris (1862 and 1872 as books, though published in magazines in 1860 and 1862–63) are attacks on the classical economics of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Neither book makes any significant technical contribution to the study of economics (though Ruskin thought otherwise) both memorably express Ruskin’s moral outrage at the extent to which the materialist and utilitarian ethical assumptions implicit in this new technique for understanding human behaviour had come to be accepted as normative. Sesame and Lilies (1865) would become notorious in the late 20th century as a stock example of Victorian male chauvinism. In fact, Ruskin was using the conventional construction of the feminine, as pacific, altruistic, and uncompetitive, to articulate yet another symbolic assertion of his anticapitalist social model. The Crown of Wild Olive (1866, enlarged in 1873) collects some of the best specimens of Ruskin’s Carlylean manner, notably the lecture “Traffic” of 1864, which memorably draws its audience’s attention to the hypocrisy manifested by their choice of Gothic architecture for their churches but Neoclassical designs for their homes.

The dogmatic Protestantism of Ruskin’s childhood had been partially abandoned in 1858, after an “unconversion” experience in Turin. Ten years later, in a moving lecture on “The Mystery of Life and Its Arts,” Ruskin reflected on his returning sense of the spiritual and transcendent. In The Queen of the Air (1869) he attempted to express his old concept of a divine power in Nature in new terms calculated for an age in which assent to the Christian faith was no longer automatic or universal. Through an account of the Greek myth of Athena, Ruskin sought to suggest an enduring human need for—and implicit recognition of—the supernatural authority on which the moral stresses of his artistic, political, and cultural views depend.

His father’s death in 1864 had left Ruskin a wealthy man. He used his wealth, in part, to promote idealistic social causes, notably the Guild of St. George, a pastoral community first planned in 1871 and formally constituted seven years later. From 1866 to 1875 he was unhappily in love with a woman 30 years his junior, Rose La Touche, whose physical and mental deterioration caused him acute distress. During these years he began, himself, to show signs of serious psychological illness. In 1871 he bought Brantwood, a house in the English Lake District (now a museum of his work) and lived there for the rest of his life.

Ruskin’s appointment as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1870 was a welcome encouragement at a troubled stage of his career, and in the following year he launched Fors Clavigera, a one-man monthly magazine in which, from 1871 to 1878 and 1880 to 1884 he developed his idiosyncratic cultural theories. Like his successive series of Oxford lectures (1870–79 and 1883–84), Fors is an unpredictable mixture of striking insights, powerful rhetoric, self-indulgence, bigotry, and occasional incoherence. As a by-product of the Fors project, however, Ruskin wrote his last major work: his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). Unfinished, shamelessly partial (it omits, for example, all mention of his marriage), and chronologically untrustworthy, it provides a subtle and memorable history of the growth of Ruskin’s distinctive sensibility.


Accomplishments

  • Ruskin was an incredibly prolific writer, publishing more than 50 books on a huge range of topics from art criticism to fiction and political treatises to travel guides. It was through these writings (which included lecture transcripts and letters as well as more conventional essays) that he communicated his innovative ideas and over the course of his career, he simplified his writing style to make them as accessible to as many people as possible.
  • As art critic, Ruskin championed the idea of "truth to nature" which encouraged painters to closely observe the landscape and in doing so capture the natural world as truthfully as possible, not romanticizing what they saw. This idea was hugely influential on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists who rejected contemporary notions of artistic beauty and instead sought to produce a pre-Renaissance style of painting. Ruskin's emphasis on the natural (along with his dislike of mass production) also had an impact on the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
  • Ruskin was an avid promoter of Gothic architecture and his writing influenced a widespread return from Neoclassicism to the earlier Gothic style. His work inspired architects including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius and his ideas are said to have been influential in the foundation of the Garden City Movement.
  • Ruskin's religious upbringing continued to have an impact on his ideas and he believed that nature and beauty were inextricably bound up with concepts of the divine. He consequently argued that the best way to portray faith, was not through epic religious scenes, but through the understanding and faithful depiction of nature and the human body. This was taken to heart by the Pre-Raphaelite who attempted to harmoniously incorporate religious devotion into their work. This led to censure when developing this idea, they depicted religious figures as normal members of the working classes, with dirty clothes and fingernails instead of idealizing them.

John Ruskin - History

John Ruskin

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(With Mary Richardson) 'A tour to the Lakes in Cumberland', typewritten transcript of MS. of 1830 diary, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Eng. Misc. c.234.

Modern Painters . 1st edition, London: Smith, Elder, 1843.

Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton . Ed. C.E. Norton, 2 vols. Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Ruskin in Italy, Letters to his parents, 1845 . Ed. Harold I. Shapiro, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1972.

The Ruskin Family Letters (1801-1843) . Ed. Van Akin Burd, 2 vols. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973.

The Winnington Letters of John Ruskin . Ed. Van Akin Burd, London: Allen & Unwin, 1969.

Ruskin's Letters from Venice (1851-1852) . Ed. John L. Bradley, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1955.

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The Gulf of Years, Letters from John Ruskin to Kathleen Olander . Ed. R. Unwin. London: Allen & Unwin, 1953.

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The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin. Ed. Helen Gill Viljoen. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1971.

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Giddey, E., Samuel Rogers et son poème 'Italy' . Geneva, Droz, 1959.

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_____. 'Road Digging and Aestheticism, Oxford 1875', Studio International . 188 no. 972 (December 1974): 226-29.

Hipple, W.J., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth Century British Aesthetic Theory . Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 1957.

Hobson, J.A., John Ruskin, Social Reformer . London: Nisbet, 1898.

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Joyce, J., Scientific Dialogues . London 1808-9.

Kissane, J., 'Victorian Mythology', Victorian Studies 6. (September 1962): 5-28.

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La Sizeranne, R. de. Ruskin and the Religion of Beauty . Trans. Countess of Galloway, London: George Allen, 1899.

La Touche, Rose. Clouds and Light, London 1870. [220/221]

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_____. Effie in Venice . London: John Murray, 1965.

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Malthus, T. R. Essay on the Principle of Population . Revised edition, London: Johnson, 1803.

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A new novel about Ruskin

Unto This Last is a huge (almost 700 pages) first novel by Rebecca Lipkin. She has certainly dug deep into the life and times of one of the most important minds of the Western world. Her research and her attention to detail are exquisite. Writing in the style of a 19 th century novelist, she is able to use the freedom of creative writing to flesh out the bones of the story of John Ruskin and his obsession with Rose La Touche.

Rebecca Lipkin. The Book Guild Ltd.

“I always felt that the novel should be written in the style of the period in which it is set, and as I have used many extracts from Ruskin and Rose’s own letters and poems, among other original sources, it seemed right that the narrative voice was also of its time, albeit somewhat modernised for a contemporary audience. I tried to remain neutral throughout, as I wanted the reader to come to their own conclusions about the characters and their actions.”

Rebecca Lipkin, interview. The Writing Desk/Tony Riches.

Clearly written with a deep respect for her subjects, this story nevertheless raises serious questions about how we view problematic behaviour in those we admire. The book is lavish and engaging, and it is obviously a labour of love for Rebecca Lipkin, who was the youngest ever member of the Ruskin Society. But therein lies the problem – this novel is written with the partisan views that only a Ruskin devotee would bring.

John Ruskin, View of Bologna, c.1845-6, Tate, London, England, UK.

Dealing with scandal

Even when describing Ruskin’s more outrageous or scandalous activities, Lipkin offers him a gentleness and generosity he perhaps does not deserve. Those who cross him, or dare to even disagree with him, get short shrift from the loving Lipkin pen. And this is a problem. Because while we can admire the man’s work, most people find his private life reprehensible.

John Ruskin, Portrait of Lily Armstrong, 1866, private collection. Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker.
Lily attended a school set up by Ruskin, and was described as one of his ‘pets’.

Rose La Touche

The novel concentrates on the years covering the relationship between Rose La Touche, young daughter of Irish landed gentry, and John Ruskin, who is engaged as her tutor. She is nine and he is 39. We follow the two through Ruskin’s obsessive pursuit of the young girl, a story which stretches over 17 years.

Thomas Richmond, Effie Grey (Lady Millais), 1851, National Portrait Gallery, London, England, UK.

Effie Grey

Very little has been written about Rose La Touche. However, John Ruskin’s ill-fated earlier marriage to Effie Grey is covered in great detail in essays, biographies, novels and films. Lipkin refutes the popular portrayal of Ruskin becoming entranced by the young Effie but later being repulsed by her ‘womanly’ body (complete with pubic hair and menstrual blood) when they marry. However Lipkin does report John Ruskin stating that sex ‘spoils’ a woman and that procreation is ‘bestial’.

Don’t forget, French artist Gustave Courbet‘s 1866 painting, The Origin of the World, provokes outrage even to this day because it portrays a woman’s vagina in its full realistic glory. The Effie Gray story ends in a notorious divorce case which labelled Ruskin as impotent. Effie Gray is usually portrayed as the innocent mind broken by a cruel man, but Lipkin is keen to denounce Effie Grey as a gold-digger and a manipulator.

John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, 1853-53, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, UK.
Millais fell in love with Ruskin’s wife, Effie Grey, while painting this portrait in Scotland

Friendship, love story or abuse?

John Ruskin met Rose La Touche in 1858. He was 30 years her senior. He describes her as coquettish, flirtatious and saucy. Imagine yourself at 9, being bombarded with obsessive attention by a famous man who was chosen to ‘educate’ you. Would that feel like love to your child self? Perhaps. You might be flattered, proud to hold the unwavering gaze of one of the most important men in the land. The friendship becomes complicated and mental torture ensues. A perfect description of child grooming – tragic and incredibly sad.

John Ruskin, Portrait of Rose La Touche, 1861, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, Lancashire, England, UK. Wikipedia.

Ruskin’s pets

So in the face of this textbook evidence of child abuse, how is the novel promoted by publishers and bookstores as a ‘love story’? Even calling this complicated and quite gruelling relationship a ‘friendship’ gives it an openness and equality it often does not possess. Praise has been heaped upon the novel, but shouldn’t we feel uncomfortable with the idea of love being defined as an old man grooming young girls to be (as Ruskin himself calls them) ‘pets’?

Letters Ruskin sent to girls throughout his life are revealing in his use of baby-talk and pet names. We hold our hands up to a bit of pop-psychology guesswork here, but is the hand holding that pen, writing infantilised notes to little girls, the young John Ruskin, forever frozen in a state of arrested development, looking for the young friend he never had? Children not sexually active, emotionally and physically immature, who can populate his fantasy of a carefree, innocent friendship? Is Ruskin a man-child, so starved of fun that he pursues it in the face of reason, sense and morality?

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women, 1899, Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA.

Gauguin, Picasso, Schiele

Let’s be honest, in the art world, we have to re-examine and call out unacceptable behaviour again and again. Paul Gauguin procured three child brides in Tahiti, Picasso said there were only two kinds of women – doormats and goddesses. Egon Schiele somehow evaded criminal charges for kidnap and rape.

As art writers we know the minefield we carefully tread when we investigate troubled genius. We must do the complicated algorithm of working out what the man (sigh, it’s usually a man) offers the world as an artist, writer or poet, whilst refusing to condone abusive behaviour as a natural consequence of the great mind. We can and must separate the rampant ego from the gilded legacy.

The death of Rose La Touche

Unto This Last is not, and can never be, a love story. Rose is a victim, not of sexual abuse, but of abuse nevertheless. Ruskin is in a position of power, and he wields that so selfishly and clumsily that he (along with her parents) destroys Rose La Touche completely. When she is 18 he begs her to marry him. Torn between the needs of Ruskin, her parents and her God, she turns him down. Then tortured by indecision, she asks him to wait three years for a decision. Unable to either accept or reject Ruskin, she falls into a deep decline, dying at just 27 years old in 1875.

Portrait of Rose La Touche, Rebecca Lipkin, Unto This Last book cover, The Book Guild Ltd, 2020. Detail.

Poor, pale, pure, pious Rose. Whose urge to purge and starve herself is described in terms of ethereal beauty. Whose fervent desire to follow the word of God turns her into an Evangelical sacrifice. Emaciated and tortured, Rose dies alone and broken, banished to a nursing home in Dublin by her parents, and Ruskin gets his wish to keep his Rose ever the untouchable child-Madonna.

The Victorian ideal

Rose is very much a Victorian ideal in the novel. Visiting the poor sick peasants with her basket of blackberries, playing with her beloved dog, tumbling on the lush lawn of her grand home. Her gruesome trials just seem to make her more angelic, more appealing. We never really know how she felt, or what she wanted. When she shows independent thoughts or desires, she is brutally treated by her parents or sneered at by Ruskin. Interestingly, during her years of undiagnosed illnesses she was able to specify exactly when and how she would recover. I would have loved to see more of the interior world of Rose La Touche, and rather less of John Ruskin!

John Ruskin, Study of an oak leaf, undated, Yale Center for British Art, Connecticut, USA. Ruskin said if you can paint a leaf, you can paint the world.

And before anyone points out that children were not exactly treated well by anyone in Victorian England, I hasten to agree. In any society, the people in power set the parameters of acceptable behaviour. Wealthy Victorians may have tried to persuade the world that slavery, child labour, the suppression of homosexuality and empire-building were both necessary and right. But socialists and campaigners challenged that at every opportunity.

John McLelland, Ruskin and household at Coniston Water, 1895, National Portrait Gallery, London, England, UK.

Presentism

And while we’re at it, let us deal with the old chestnut of ‘it was different back then’. Nope, it really wasn’t. Ruskin’s obsession with young girls was considered strange and repulsive by many around him. Some ignored it, some tried to dissuade him, some tried to cover it up. Historicists claim that it is unfair to judge historical figures by today’s standards. They accuse detractors of something called ‘presentism’ – the imposition of the values and beliefs of the modern reader onto a past era. My response to this is something Ruskin himself might have said: Poppycock!

The accusation of presentism is being thrown around a lot at the moment – especially when discussing racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Do not be fooled! These voices who claim ‘the world was different back then’ function to selectively preserve the dominant status quo, to legitimise narrow views of the past, and to marginalise the lives of women and minorities. When someone (usually a white patriarch) says it is unfair to judge a 19 th century figure as predatory, or sexist or misogynist they are in fact revealing that they neither believe in nor care about women’s thoughts and women’s lived experiences back then. Past generations did not live in a state of moral ignorance. We compound the problem when we claim innocence for abusive perpetrators, or try to rehabilitate them through an overly sympathetic soft focus lens.

James Northcote, Portrait of John Ruskin (aged 3), 1822, National Portrait Gallery, London, England, UK.

Ruskin’s childhood

What we know about parenting and childhood means we can sympathise with Ruskin’s dreadful early life. Attachment theory is a well-established field of study. We know that childhood provides a template for all future relationships. From when he was born in 1819, Ruskin’s parents tended to his education obsessively, but their love was conditional. He wasn’t allowed either toys or playmates and had not a single friend. His fundamentalist mother forced him into an unnatural and lonely dependence which scarred him for life.

James Northcote, Portrait of Margaret Ruskin, 1825, Brantwood Trust, Coniston, England, UK. Art UK.

‘I had nothing to love,‘ he noted tragically, ‘when affection did come, it came with violence utterly rampant and unmanageable, at least by me, who never before had anything to manage.’ Without a template for love, he was unable offer fraternal, parental, matrimonial or sexual love to anyone.”

John Dixon Hunt, A Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin, Viking Press, 1982.

And this trauma is perhaps what John Ruskin recognised in Rose La Touche. He was bound to his parents like a young child, completely unable to sever the ties. His mother even followed him to University! Rose was bound to parents who expected their daughter to become educated and intelligent yet to obey their every whim. Both John and Rose suffered irrevocable damage at the hands of their caretakers.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Legend of St Ursula, 1495, Galleria dell ‘Accademia, Venice, Italy.
During serious mental collapse, Ruskin became convinced that St.Ursula in Carpaccio’s work was Rose La Touche.

Predator

More than one biographer has branded John Ruskin a paedophile. (Tim Hilton, Wolfgang Kemp, Catherine Robeson to name just three). Lipkin does not take this line. And I am inclined to agree – the psychiatric profile of sexual predator does not fit Ruskin. But he is a predator nevertheless. His obsession with pre-pubescent girls is well documented – even by himself. He endows schools so he can visit the girls (even having special quarters set aside for his visits). He compulsively seeks out the form of the girlish body to study and admire. Under the guise of helping her develop her drawing skills he pleads with the illustrator Kate Greenaway to send him drawings of naked young girls, as evidenced in the gruesome note copied below this Kate Greenaway Pied Piper illustration:

Kate Greenaway, illustration for Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1888, Frederick Warne and Co. The Victorian Web.

“As to those drawings of sylphs: since we’ve got so far as taking off hats, I trust we may in time get to taking off just a little more…Will you (it’s all for your own good!) make her stand up and then draw her for me without a cap – and, without her shoes, (because of the heels) and without her mittens, and without her frock and frills? And let me see exactly how tall she is – and – how – round. It will be so good of and for you. And to and for me.”

Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-Ups, Little, Brown, London, 1998.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sun Rising Through Vapour, c.1807, National Gallery, London, England, UK.

Kathleen Olander

Lipkin ends her story after the death of Rose. But that was not the end for Ruskin. Although now a shadow of his former self, Ruskin simply cannot resist his impulses and after Rose La Touche comes Kathleen Olander. Visiting the National Gallery in 1887, Ruskin sees a student copying Turner’s Sun Rising through Vapour. Kathleen was eighteen years old, Ruskin was fifty years her senior. He sent her a letter about a gold chain he wanted to buy her:

“the finest and purest chain of Venice…i’m going to have it seven times round…rather tight for a necklace, to show what a perfectly chained and submissive child you are.”

John Ruskin, letter to Kathleen Olander. Lakestay.

Thankfully this fledgling relationship was heavily condemned by Kathleen’s parents, and it went no further as Ruskin spiralled into mental ill-health. He died in 1900.

Charles Fairfax Murray, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1875, Tate, London, England, UK

Ruskin’s ideas and work

Rebecca Lipkin gives us a very clear vision of Ruskin’s world. England was facing a radical wave of change, and Ruskin was at the forefront of ideas that we take for granted today. His thoughts on environmentalism and nature connection were prescient, although much too early for his contemporaries, who were confounded by him.

Ruskin’s first major work, Modern Painters (1843-1860), sent shock-waves through art history, changing visual sensibility for an entire generation. His work Unto This Last(1860) marks his transition from critic of art to critic of society. Different works spoke to a dizzying range of audiences, his followers ranging through Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796, Tate, London, England, UK.
Ruskin rated Turner above all other painters and was his greatest advocate.

Well before anyone else was questioning the rapacious growth of industry, Ruskin said:

“Above all, a nation cannot exist as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence.”

John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies. Lecture II.—Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens, 1865. Bartleby.

And whilst being an old-fashioned patriarch, he was also often a lone voice in calling for the education of girls:

“Let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity.”

John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies. Lecture II.—Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens, 1865. Bartleby.

Genius or not?

So far, so complicated! Callous, bombastic and selfish, Ruskin was certainly a monster. However, he was also one of the most remarkable men of Victorian England, his fierce intellect applied to the worlds of art, architecture, culture, and politics with insight and sometimes even pure genius.

John Ruskin, Study of Dawn, 1868, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, UK.

Genius is rarely tidy, and rarely easy, and Lipkin acknowledges this. But I wish she had been able to cast a more critical eye on the man, without that distorting veil of romance and friendship she pulls over his abhorrent behaviours towards children.

This isn’t just a Ruskin problem of course. Writer and critic Roxane Gay states: “We cannot worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius”. (Marie Claire, February 2018). So what do we do? Hide the truth? Censor the artist? Would either satisfy the public? We must reflect upon those found wanting, and judge them accordingly. We must contextualise work in light of what we find out. Educate ourselves and others. And honour the lives of so many women and children, lost, intimidated, traumatised and manipulated in the name of great men and their legacies.

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.”

John Ruskin, St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, 1885. Bartleby.

Although Mr Ruskin’s words and art were astonishing, his deeds in this novel are not those of a great man.

To explore the world of Ruskin more, see these resources: the Ruskin Library, at Lancaster University, The Brantwood Trust, and the Ruskin Museum.


Contents

Genealogy Edit

Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. [1] His father, John James Ruskin (1785–1864), was a sherry and wine importer, [1] founding partner and de facto business manager of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq (see Allied Domecq). John James was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a mother from Glenluce and a father originally from Hertfordshire. [1] [2] His wife, Margaret Cock (1781–1871), was the daughter of a publican in Croydon. [1] She had joined the Ruskin household when she became companion to John James's mother, Catherine. [1]

John James had hoped to practise law, and was articled as a clerk in London. [1] His father, John Thomas Ruskin, described as a grocer (but apparently an ambitious wholesale merchant), was an incompetent businessman. To save the family from bankruptcy, John James, whose prudence and success were in stark contrast to his father, took on all debts, settling the last of them in 1832. [1] John James and Margaret were engaged in 1809, but opposition to the union from John Thomas, and the problem of his debts, delayed the couple's wedding. They finally married, without celebration, in 1818. [3] John James died on 3 March 1864 and is buried in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist, Shirley, Croydon.

Childhood and education Edit

Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London (demolished 1969), south of St Pancras railway station. [4] His childhood was shaped by the contrasting influences of his father and mother, both of whom were fiercely ambitious for him. John James Ruskin helped to develop his son's Romanticism. They shared a passion for the works of Byron, Shakespeare and especially Walter Scott. They visited Scott's home, Abbotsford, in 1838, but Ruskin was disappointed by its appearance. [5] Margaret Ruskin, an evangelical Christian, more cautious and restrained than her husband, taught young John to read the Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Its language, imagery and parables had a profound and lasting effect on his writing. [6] He later wrote:

She read alternate verses with me, watching at first, every intonation of my voice, and correcting the false ones, till she made me understand the verse, if within my reach, rightly and energetically.

Ruskin's childhood was spent from 1823 at 28 Herne Hill (demolished c. 1912 ), near the village of Camberwell in South London. [7] He had few friends of his own age, but it was not the friendless and toyless experience he later said it was in his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). [4] He was educated at home by his parents and private tutors, including Congregationalist preacher Edward Andrews, [8] whose daughters, Mrs Eliza Orme and Emily Augusta Patmore were later credited with introduing Ruskin to the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood. [9]

From 1834 to 1835 he attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive evangelical Thomas Dale (1797–1870). [10] Ruskin heard Dale lecture in 1836 at King's College, London, where Dale was the first Professor of English Literature. [4] Ruskin went on to enroll and complete his studies at King's College, where he prepared for Oxford under Dale's tutelage. [11] [12]

Travel Edit

Ruskin was greatly influenced by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. It helped to establish his taste and augmented his education. He sometimes accompanied his father on visits to business clients at their country houses, which exposed him to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. Family tours took them to the Lake District (his first long poem, Iteriad, was an account of his tour in 1830) [13] and to relatives in Perth, Scotland. As early as 1825, the family visited France and Belgium. Their continental tours became increasingly ambitious in scope: in 1833 they visited Strasbourg, Schaffhausen, Milan, Genoa and Turin, places to which Ruskin frequently returned. He developed a lifelong love of the Alps, and in 1835 visited Venice for the first time, [14] that 'Paradise of cities' that provided the subject and symbolism of much of his later work. [15]

These tours gave Ruskin the opportunity to observe and record his impressions of nature. He composed elegant, though mainly conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship's Offering. [16] His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings, remarkable for a boy of his age. He was profoundly affected by Samuel Rogers's poem, Italy (1830), a copy of which was given to him as a 13th birthday present in particular, he deeply admired the accompanying illustrations by J. M. W. Turner. Much of Ruskin's own art in the 1830s was in imitation of Turner, and of Samuel Prout, whose Sketches Made in Flanders and Germany (1833) he also admired. His artistic skills were refined under the tutelage of Charles Runciman, Copley Fielding and J. D. Harding.

First publications Edit

Ruskin's journeys also provided inspiration for writing. His first publication was the poem "On Skiddaw and Derwent Water" (originally entitled "Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland: Derwentwater" and published in the Spiritual Times) (August 1829). [17] In 1834, three short articles for Loudon's Magazine of Natural History were published. They show early signs of his skill as a close "scientific" observer of nature, especially its geology. [18]

From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin's The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in Loudon's Architectural Magazine, under the pen name "Kata Phusin" (Greek for "According to Nature"). [19] It was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings centred on a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials. It anticipated key themes in his later writings. In 1839, Ruskin's "Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science" was published in Transactions of the Meteorological Society. [20]

Oxford Edit

In Michaelmas 1836, Ruskin matriculated at the University of Oxford, taking up residence at Christ Church in January of the following year. [21] Enrolled as a gentleman-commoner, he enjoyed equal status with his aristocratic peers. Ruskin was generally uninspired by Oxford and suffered bouts of illness. Perhaps the greatest advantage of his time there was in the few, close friendships he made. His tutor, the Rev Walter Lucas Brown, always encouraged him, as did a young senior tutor, Henry Liddell (later the father of Alice Liddell) and a private tutor, the Rev Osborne Gordon. [22] He became close to the geologist and natural theologian, William Buckland. Among his fellow-undergraduates, Ruskin's most important friends were Charles Thomas Newton and Henry Acland.

His most noteworthy success came in 1839 when, at the third attempt, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry (Arthur Hugh Clough came second). [23] He met William Wordsworth, who was receiving an honorary degree, at the ceremony.

Ruskin's health was poor and he never became independent from his family during his time at Oxford. His mother took lodgings on High Street, where his father joined them at weekends. He was devastated to hear that his first love, Adèle Domecq, the second daughter of his father's business partner, had become engaged to a French nobleman. In April 1840, whilst revising for his examinations, he began to cough blood, which led to fears of consumption and a long break from Oxford travelling with his parents. [24]

Before he returned to Oxford, Ruskin responded to a challenge that had been put to him by Effie Gray, whom he later married: the twelve-year-old Effie had asked him to write a fairy story. During a six-week break at Leamington Spa to undergo Dr Jephson's (1798–1878) celebrated salt-water cure, Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction, the fable The King of the Golden River (not published until December 1850 (but imprinted 1851), with illustrations by Richard Doyle). [25] A work of Christian sacrificial morality and charity, it is set in the Alpine landscape Ruskin loved and knew so well. It remains the most translated of all his works. [26] Back at Oxford, in 1842 Ruskin sat for a pass degree, and was awarded an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree in recognition of his achievements.

Modern Painters I (1843) Edit

For much of the period from late 1840 to autumn 1842, Ruskin was abroad with his parents, mainly in Italy. His studies of Italian art were chiefly guided by George Richmond, to whom the Ruskins were introduced by Joseph Severn, a friend of Keats (whose son, Arthur Severn, later married Ruskin's cousin, Joan). He was galvanised into writing a defence of J. M. W. Turner when he read an attack on several of Turner's pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy. It recalled an attack by the critic Rev John Eagles in Blackwood's Magazine in 1836, which had prompted Ruskin to write a long essay. John James had sent the piece to Turner, who did not wish it to be published. It finally appeared in 1903. [27]

Before Ruskin began Modern Painters, John James Ruskin had begun collecting watercolours, including works by Samuel Prout and Turner. Both painters were among occasional guests of the Ruskins at Herne Hill, and 163 Denmark Hill (demolished 1947) to which the family moved in 1842.

What became the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), published by Smith, Elder & Co. under the anonymous authority of "A Graduate of Oxford", was Ruskin's answer to Turner's critics. [28] Ruskin controversially argued that modern landscape painters—and in particular Turner—were superior to the so-called "Old Masters" of the post-Renaissance period. Ruskin maintained that, unlike Turner, Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude, and Salvator Rosa favoured pictorial convention, and not "truth to nature". He explained that he meant "moral as well as material truth". [29] The job of the artist is to observe the reality of nature and not to invent it in a studio—to render imaginatively on canvas what he has seen and understood, free of any rules of composition. For Ruskin, modern landscapists demonstrated superior understanding of the "truths" of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation, a profound appreciation of which Ruskin demonstrated in his own prose. He described works he had seen at the National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery with extraordinary verbal felicity.

Although critics were slow to react and the reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man's work, including Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. [30] Suddenly Ruskin had found his métier, and in one leap helped redefine the genre of art criticism, mixing a discourse of polemic with aesthetics, scientific observation and ethics. It cemented Ruskin's relationship with Turner. After the artist died in 1851, Ruskin catalogued nearly 20,000 sketches that Turner gave to the British nation.

1845 tour and Modern Painters II (1846) Edit

Ruskin toured the continent with his parents again in 1844, visiting Chamonix and Paris, studying the geology of the Alps and the paintings of Titian, Veronese and Perugino among others at the Louvre. In 1845, at the age of 26, he undertook to travel without his parents for the first time. It provided him with an opportunity to study medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and especially Italy. In Lucca he saw the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia, which Ruskin considered the exemplar of Christian sculpture (he later associated it with the then object of his love, Rose La Touche). He drew inspiration from what he saw at the Campo Santo in Pisa, and in Florence. In Venice, he was particularly impressed by the works of Fra Angelico and Giotto in St Mark's Cathedral, and Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco, but he was alarmed by the combined effects of decay and modernisation on the city: "Venice is lost to me", he wrote. [31] It finally convinced him that architectural restoration was destruction, and that the only true and faithful action was preservation and conservation.

Drawing on his travels, he wrote the second volume of Modern Painters (published April 1846). [32] The volume concentrated on Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists rather than on Turner. It was a more theoretical work than its predecessor. Ruskin explicitly linked the aesthetic and the divine, arguing that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably bound together: "the Beautiful as a gift of God". [33] In defining categories of beauty and imagination, Ruskin argued that all great artists must perceive beauty and, with their imagination, communicate it creatively by means of symbolic representation. Generally, critics gave this second volume a warmer reception, although many found the attack on the aesthetic orthodoxy associated with Joshua Reynolds difficult to accept. [34] In the summer, Ruskin was abroad again with his father, who still hoped his son might become a poet, even poet laureate, just one among many factors increasing the tension between them.

Marriage to Effie Gray Edit

During 1847, Ruskin became closer to Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends. It was for her that Ruskin had written The King of the Golden River. The couple were engaged in October. They married on 10 April 1848 at her home, Bowerswell, in Perth, once the residence of the Ruskin family. [36] It was the site of the suicide of John Thomas Ruskin (Ruskin's grandfather). Owing to this association and other complications, Ruskin's parents did not attend. The European Revolutions of 1848 meant that the newlyweds' earliest travels together were restricted, but they were able to visit Normandy, where Ruskin admired the Gothic architecture.

Their early life together was spent at 31 Park Street, Mayfair, secured for them by Ruskin's father (later addresses included nearby 6 Charles Street, and 30 Herne Hill). Effie was too unwell to undertake the European tour of 1849, so Ruskin visited the Alps with his parents, gathering material for the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters. He was struck by the contrast between the Alpine beauty and the poverty of Alpine peasants, stirring his increasingly sensitive social conscience.

The marriage was unhappy, with Ruskin reportedly being cruel to Effie and distrustful of her. The marriage was never consummated and was annulled in 1854. [37]

Architecture Edit

Ruskin's developing interest in architecture, and particularly in the Gothic, led to the first work to bear his name, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). [38] It contained 14 plates etched by the author. The title refers to seven moral categories that Ruskin considered vital to and inseparable from all architecture: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. All would provide recurring themes in his work.

Seven Lamps promoted the virtues of a secular and Protestant form of Gothic. It was a challenge to the Catholic influence of A. W. N. Pugin

The Stones of Venice Edit

In November 1849, Effie and John Ruskin visited Venice, staying at the Hotel Danieli. [39] Their different personalities are thrown into sharp relief by their contrasting priorities. For Effie, Venice provided an opportunity to socialise, while Ruskin was engaged in solitary studies. In particular, he made a point of drawing the Ca' d'Oro and the Doge's Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, because he feared that they would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops. One of these troops, Lieutenant Charles Paulizza, became friendly with Effie, apparently with Ruskin's consent. Her brother, among others, later claimed that Ruskin was deliberately encouraging the friendship to compromise her, as an excuse to separate.

Meanwhile, Ruskin was making the extensive sketches and notes that he used for his three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851–53). [40] [41] Developing from a technical history of Venetian architecture from the Romanesque to the Renaissance, into a broad cultural history, Stones reflected Ruskin's view of contemporary England. It served as a warning about the moral and spiritual health of society. Ruskin argued that Venice had slowly degenerated. Its cultural achievements had been compromised, and its society corrupted, by the decline of true Christian faith. Instead of revering the divine, Renaissance artists honoured themselves, arrogantly celebrating human sensuousness.

The chapter, "The Nature of Gothic" appeared in the second volume of Stones. [42] Praising Gothic ornament, Ruskin argued that it was an expression of the artisan's joy in free, creative work. The worker must be allowed to think and to express his own personality and ideas, ideally using his own hands, rather than machinery.

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

This was both an aesthetic attack on, and a social critique of, the division of labour in particular, and industrial capitalism in general. This chapter had a profound impact, and was reprinted both by the Christian socialist founders of the Working Men's College and later by the Arts and Crafts pioneer and socialist William Morris. [43]

Pre-Raphaelites Edit

John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The Pre-Raphaelite commitment to 'naturalism' – "paint[ing] from nature only", [45] depicting nature in fine detail, had been influenced by Ruskin.

Ruskin came into contact with Millais after the artists made an approach to Ruskin through their mutual friend Coventry Patmore. [46] Initially, Ruskin had not been impressed by Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50), a painting that was considered blasphemous at the time, but Ruskin wrote letters defending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to The Times in May 1851. [47] Providing Millais with artistic patronage and encouragement, in the summer of 1853 the artist (and his brother) travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie where, at Glenfinlas, he painted the closely observed landscape background of gneiss rock to which, as had always been intended, he later added Ruskin's portrait.

Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Suffering increasingly from physical illness and acute mental anxiety, Effie was arguing fiercely with her husband and his intense and overly protective parents, and sought solace with her own parents in Scotland. The Ruskin marriage was already fatally undermined as she and Millais fell in love, and Effie left Ruskin, causing a public scandal.

In April 1854, Effie filed her suit of nullity, on grounds of "non-consummation" owing to his "incurable impotency", [48] [49] a charge Ruskin later disputed. [50] Ruskin wrote, "I can prove my virility at once." [51] The annulment was granted in July. Ruskin did not even mention it in his diary. Effie married Millais the following year. The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of enduring speculation and debate.

Ruskin continued to support Hunt and Rossetti. He also provided an annuity of £150 in 1855–57 to Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti's wife, to encourage her art (and paid for the services of Henry Acland for her medical care). [52] Other artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites also received both critical and financial support from Ruskin, including John Brett, John William Inchbold, and Edward Burne-Jones, who became a good friend (he called him "Brother Ned"). [53] His father's disapproval of such friends was a further cause of considerable tension between them.

During this period Ruskin wrote regular reviews of the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy under the title Academy Notes (1855–59, 1875). [54] They were highly influential, capable of making or breaking reputations. The satirical magazine Punch published the lines (24 May 1856), "I paints and paints,/hears no complaints/And sells before I'm dry,/Till savage Ruskin/He sticks his tusk in/Then nobody will buy." [55]

Ruskin was an art-philanthropist: in March 1861 he gave 48 Turner drawings to the Ashmolean in Oxford, and a further 25 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in May. [56] Ruskin's own work was very distinctive, and he occasionally exhibited his watercolours: in the United States in 1857–58 and 1879, for example and in England, at the Fine Art Society in 1878, and at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour (of which he was an honorary member) in 1879. He created many careful studies of natural forms, based on his detailed botanical, geological and architectural observations. [57] Examples of his work include a painted, floral pilaster decoration in the central room of Wallington Hall in Northumberland, home of his friend Pauline Trevelyan. The stained glass window in the Little Church of St Francis Funtley, Fareham, Hampshire is reputed to have been designed by him. Originally placed in the St. Peter's Church Duntisbourne Abbots near Cirencester, the window depicts the Ascension and the Nativity. [58]

Ruskin's theories also inspired some architects to adapt the Gothic style. Such buildings created what has been called a distinctive "Ruskinian Gothic". [59] Through his friendship with Henry Acland, Ruskin supported attempts to establish what became the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (designed by Benjamin Woodward)—which is the closest thing to a model of this style, but still failed to satisfy Ruskin completely. The many twists and turns in the Museum's development, not least its increasing cost, and the University authorities' less than enthusiastic attitude towards it, proved increasingly frustrating for Ruskin. [60]

Ruskin and education Edit

The Museum was part of a wider plan to improve science provision at Oxford, something the University initially resisted. Ruskin's first formal teaching role came about in the mid-1850s, [61] when he taught drawing classes (assisted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at the Working Men's College, established by the Christian socialists, Frederick James Furnivall and Frederick Denison Maurice. [62] Although Ruskin did not share the founders' politics, he strongly supported the idea that through education workers could achieve a crucially important sense of (self-)fulfilment. [63] One result of this involvement was Ruskin's Elements of Drawing (1857). [64] He had taught several women drawing, by means of correspondence, and his book represented both a response and a challenge to contemporary drawing manuals. [65] The WMC was also a useful recruiting ground for assistants, on some of whom Ruskin would later come to rely, such as his future publisher, George Allen. [66]

From 1859 until 1868, Ruskin was involved with the progressive school for girls at Winnington Hall in Cheshire. A frequent visitor, letter-writer, and donor of pictures and geological specimens to the school, Ruskin approved of the mixture of sports, handicrafts, music and dancing encouraged by its principal, Miss Bell. [67] The association led to Ruskin's sub-Socratic work, The Ethics of the Dust (1866), an imagined conversation with Winnington's girls in which he cast himself as the "Old Lecturer". [68] On the surface a discourse on crystallography, it is a metaphorical exploration of social and political ideals. In the 1880s, Ruskin became involved with another educational institution, Whitelands College, a training college for teachers, where he instituted a May Queen festival that endures today. [69] (It was also replicated in the 19th century at the Cork High School for Girls.) Ruskin also bestowed books and gemstones upon Somerville College, one of Oxford's first two women's colleges, which he visited regularly, and was similarly generous to other educational institutions for women. [70] [71]

Modern Painters III and IV Edit

Both volumes III and IV of Modern Painters were published in 1856. [72] In MP III Ruskin argued that all great art is "the expression of the spirits of great men". [73] Only the morally and spiritually healthy are capable of admiring the noble and the beautiful, and transforming them into great art by imaginatively penetrating their essence. MP IV presents the geology of the Alps in terms of landscape painting, and their moral and spiritual influence on those living nearby. The contrasting final chapters, "The Mountain Glory" and "The Mountain Gloom" [74] provide an early example of Ruskin's social analysis, highlighting the poverty of the peasants living in the lower Alps. [75] [76]

Public lecturer Edit

In addition to leading more formal teaching classes, from the 1850s Ruskin became an increasingly popular public lecturer. His first public lectures were given in Edinburgh, in November 1853, on architecture and painting. His lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester in 1857, were collected as The Political Economy of Art and later under Keats's phrase, A Joy For Ever. [77] In these lectures, Ruskin spoke about how to acquire art, and how to use it, arguing that England had forgotten that true wealth is virtue, and that art is an index of a nation's well-being. Individuals have a responsibility to consume wisely, stimulating beneficent demand. The increasingly critical tone and political nature of Ruskin's interventions outraged his father and the "Manchester School" of economists, as represented by a hostile review in the Manchester Examiner and Times. [78] As the Ruskin scholar Helen Gill Viljoen noted, Ruskin was increasingly critical of his father, especially in letters written by Ruskin directly to him, many of them still unpublished. [79]

Ruskin gave the inaugural address at the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, an institution from which the modern-day Anglia Ruskin University has grown. [80] In The Two Paths (1859), five lectures given in London, Manchester, Bradford and Tunbridge Wells, [81] Ruskin argued that a 'vital law' underpins art and architecture, drawing on the labour theory of value. [82] (For other addresses and letters, Cook and Wedderburn, vol. 16, pp. 427–87.) The year 1859 also marked his last tour of Europe with his ageing parents, during which they visited Germany and Switzerland.

Turner Bequest Edit

Ruskin had been in Venice when he heard about Turner's death in 1851. Being named an executor to Turner's will was an honour that Ruskin respectfully declined, but later took up. Ruskin's book in celebration of the sea, The Harbours of England, revolving around Turner's drawings, was published in 1856. [83] In January 1857, Ruskin's Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House, 1856 was published. [84] He persuaded the National Gallery to allow him to work on the Turner Bequest of nearly 20,000 individual artworks left to the nation by the artist. This involved Ruskin in an enormous amount of work, completed in May 1858, and involved cataloguing, framing and conserving. [85] Four hundred watercolours were displayed in cabinets of Ruskin's own design. [52] Recent scholarship has argued that Ruskin did not, as previously thought, collude in the destruction of Turner's erotic drawings, [86] but his work on the Bequest did modify his attitude towards Turner. [87] (See below, Controversies: Turner's Erotic Drawings.)

Religious "unconversion" Edit

In 1858, Ruskin was again travelling in Europe. The tour took him from Switzerland to Turin, where he saw Paolo Veronese's Presentation of the Queen of Sheba. He would later claim (in April 1877) that the discovery of this painting, contrasting starkly with a particularly dull sermon, led to his "unconversion" from Evangelical Christianity. [88] He had, however, doubted his Evangelical Christian faith for some time, shaken by Biblical and geological scholarship that had undermined the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible: [89] "those dreadful hammers!" he wrote to Henry Acland, "I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses." [90] This "loss of faith" precipitated a considerable personal crisis. His confidence undermined, he believed that much of his writing to date had been founded on a bed of lies and half-truths. [91] He later returned to Christianity. [92]

Social critic and reformer: Unto This Last Edit

John Ruskin, Modern Painters V (1860): Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn, 7.422–423.

Although in 1877 Ruskin said that in 1860, "I gave up my art work and wrote Unto This Last . the central work of my life" the break was not so dramatic or final. [93] Following his crisis of faith, and influenced in part by his friend Thomas Carlyle (whom he had first met in 1850), Ruskin shifted his emphasis in the late 1850s from art towards social issues. Nevertheless, he continued to lecture on and write about a wide range of subjects including art and, among many other matters, geology (in June 1863 he lectured on the Alps), art practice and judgement (The Cestus of Aglaia), botany and mythology (Proserpina and The Queen of the Air). He continued to draw and paint in watercolours, and to travel extensively across Europe with servants and friends. In 1868, his tour took him to Abbeville, and in the following year he was in Verona (studying tombs for the Arundel Society) and Venice (where he was joined by William Holman Hunt). Yet increasingly Ruskin concentrated his energies on fiercely attacking industrial capitalism, and the utilitarian theories of political economy underpinning it. He repudiated his sometimes grandiloquent style, writing now in plainer, simpler language, to communicate his message straightforwardly. [94]

John Ruskin, Unto This Last: Cook and Wedderburn, 17.105

Ruskin's social view broadened from concerns about the dignity of labour to consider issues of citizenship and notions of the ideal community. Just as he had questioned aesthetic orthodoxy in his earliest writings, he now dissected the orthodox political economy espoused by John Stuart Mill, based on theories of laissez-faire and competition drawn from the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. In his four essays Unto This Last, Ruskin rejected the division of labour as dehumanising (separating the labourer from the product of his work), and argued that the false "science" of political economy failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together. He articulated an extended metaphor of household and family, drawing on Plato and Xenophon to demonstrate the communal and sometimes sacrificial nature of true economics. [95] For Ruskin, all economies and societies are ideally founded on a politics of social justice. His ideas influenced the concept of the "social economy", characterised by networks of charitable, co-operative and other non-governmental organisations.

The essays were originally published in consecutive monthly instalments of the new Cornhill Magazine between August and November 1860 (and published in a single volume in 1862). [96] However, the Cornhill's editor, William Makepeace Thackeray, was forced to abandon the series by the outcry of the magazine's largely conservative readership and the fears of a nervous publisher (Smith, Elder & Co.). The reaction of the national press was hostile, and Ruskin was, he claimed, "reprobated in a violent manner". [97] Ruskin's father also strongly disapproved. [98] Others were enthusiastic, including Ruskin's friend Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, "I have read your paper with exhilaration. such a thing flung suddenly into half a million dull British heads. will do a great deal of good." [99]

Ruskin's political ideas, and Unto This Last in particular, later proved highly influential. The essays were praised and paraphrased in Gujarati by Mohandas Gandhi, a wide range of autodidacts cited their positive impact, the economist John A. Hobson and many of the founders of the British Labour party credited them as an influence. [100]

Ruskin believed in a hierarchical social structure. He wrote "I was, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school." [101] He believed in man's duty to God, and while he sought to improve the conditions of the poor, he opposed attempts to level social differences and sought to resolve social inequalities by abandoning capitalism in favour of a co-operative structure of society based on obedience and benevolent philanthropy, rooted in the agricultural economy.

If there be any one point insisted on throughout my works more frequently than another, that one point is the impossibility of Equality. My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons or person to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors, according to their own better knowledge and wiser will.

Ruskin's explorations of nature and aesthetics in the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters focused on Giorgione, Veronese, Titian and Turner. Ruskin asserted that the components of the greatest artworks are held together, like human communities, in a quasi-organic unity. Competitive struggle is destructive. Uniting Modern Painters V and Unto This Last is Ruskin's "Law of Help": [102]

Government and cooperation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.

Ruskin's next work on political economy, redefining some of the basic terms of the discipline, also ended prematurely, when Fraser's Magazine, under the editorship of James Anthony Froude, cut short his Essays on Political Economy (1862–63) (later collected as Munera Pulveris (1872)). [103] Ruskin further explored political themes in Time and Tide (1867), [104] his letters to Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear who had a well-established interest in literary and artistic matters. In these letters, Ruskin promoted honesty in work and exchange, just relations in employment and the need for co-operation.

Ruskin's sense of politics was not confined to theory. On his father's death in 1864, he inherited a considerable fortune of between £120,000 and £157,000 (the exact figure is disputed). [105] This considerable fortune, inherited from the father he described on his tombstone as "an entirely honest merchant", [106] gave him the means to engage in personal philanthropy and practical schemes of social amelioration. One of his first actions was to support the housing work of Octavia Hill (originally one of his art pupils): he bought property in Marylebone to aid her philanthropic housing scheme. [107] But Ruskin's endeavours extended to the establishment of a shop selling pure tea in any quantity desired at 29 Paddington Street, Paddington (giving employment to two former Ruskin family servants) and crossing-sweepings to keep the area around the British Museum clean and tidy. Modest as these practical schemes were, they represented a symbolic challenge to the existing state of society. Yet his greatest practical experiments would come in his later years.

Lectures in the 1860s Edit

Ruskin lectured widely in the 1860s, giving the Rede lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1867, for example. [108] He spoke at the British Institution on 'Modern Art', the Working Men's Institute, Camberwell on "Work" and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich on 'War'. Ruskin's widely admired lecture, Traffic, on the relation between taste and morality, was delivered in April 1864 at Bradford Town Hall, to which he had been invited because of a local debate about the style of a new Exchange building. [109] "I do not care about this Exchange", Ruskin told his audience, "because you don't!" [110] These last three lectures were published in The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). [111]

The lectures that comprised Sesame and Lilies (published 1865), delivered in December 1864 at the town halls at Rusholme and Manchester, are essentially concerned with education and ideal conduct. "Of Kings' Treasuries" (in support of a library fund) explored issues of reading practice, literature (books of the hour vs. books of all time), cultural value and public education. "Of Queens' Gardens" (supporting a school fund) focused on the role of women, asserting their rights and duties in education, according them responsibility for the household and, by extension, for providing the human compassion that must balance a social order dominated by men. This book proved to be one of Ruskin's most popular, and was regularly awarded as a Sunday School prize. [112] Its reception over time, however, has been more mixed, and twentieth-century feminists have taken aim at "Of Queens' Gardens" in particular, as an attempt to "subvert the new heresy" of women's rights by confining women to the domestic sphere. [113] Although indeed subscribing to the Victorian belief in "separate spheres" for men and women, Ruskin was however unusual in arguing for parity of esteem, a case based on his philosophy that a nation's political economy should be modelled on that of the ideal household.

Oxford's first Slade Professor of Fine Art Edit

Ruskin was unanimously appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in August 1869, largely through the offices of his friend, Henry Acland. [114] He delivered his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre to a larger-than-expected audience. It was here that he said, "The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues." It has been claimed that Cecil Rhodes cherished a long-hand copy of the lecture, believing that it supported his own view of the British Empire. [115]

In 1871, John Ruskin founded his own art school at Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. [116] It was originally accommodated within the Ashmolean Museum but now occupies premises on High Street. Ruskin endowed the drawing mastership with £5000 of his own money. He also established a large collection of drawings, watercolours and other materials (over 800 frames) that he used to illustrate his lectures. The School challenged the orthodox, mechanical methodology of the government art schools (the "South Kensington System"). [117]

Ruskin's lectures were often so popular that they had to be given twice—once for the students, and again for the public. Most of them were eventually published (see Select Bibliography below). He lectured on a wide range of subjects at Oxford, his interpretation of "Art" encompassing almost every conceivable area of study, including wood and metal engraving (Ariadne Florentina), the relation of science to art (The Eagle's Nest) and sculpture (Aratra Pentelici). His lectures ranged through myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature. "The teaching of Art. ", Ruskin wrote, "is the teaching of all things." [118] Ruskin was never careful about offending his employer. When he criticised Michelangelo in a lecture in June 1871 it was seen as an attack on the large collection of that artist's work in the Ashmolean Museum. [119]

Most controversial, from the point of view of the University authorities, spectators and the national press, was the digging scheme on Ferry Hinksey Road at North Hinksey, near Oxford, instigated by Ruskin in 1874, and continuing into 1875, which involved undergraduates in a road-mending scheme. [120] The scheme was motivated in part by a desire to teach the virtues of wholesome manual labour. Some of the diggers, who included Oscar Wilde, Alfred Milner and Ruskin's future secretary and biographer W. G. Collingwood, were profoundly influenced by the experience: notably Arnold Toynbee, Leonard Montefiore and Alexander Robertson MacEwen. It helped to foster a public service ethic that was later given expression in the university settlements, [121] and was keenly celebrated by the founders of Ruskin Hall, Oxford. [122]

In 1879, Ruskin resigned from Oxford, but resumed his Professorship in 1883, only to resign again in 1884. [123] He gave his reason as opposition to vivisection, [124] but he had increasingly been in conflict with the University authorities, who refused to expand his Drawing School. [117] He was also suffering from increasingly poor health.

Fors Clavigera and the Whistler libel case Edit

In January 1871, the month before Ruskin started to lecture the wealthy undergraduates at Oxford University, he began his series of 96 (monthly) "letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain" under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–84). (The letters were published irregularly after the 87th instalment in March 1878.) These letters were personal, dealt with every subject in his oeuvre, and were written in a variety of styles, reflecting his mood and circumstances. From 1873, Ruskin had full control over all his publications, having established George Allen as his sole publisher (see Allen & Unwin).

In the July 1877 letter of Fors Clavigera, Ruskin launched a scathing attack on paintings by James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. He found particular fault with Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, and accused Whistler of "ask[ing] two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". [125] [126] Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. Whistler won the case, which went to trial in Ruskin's absence in 1878 (he was ill), but the jury awarded damages of only one farthing to the artist. Court costs were split between the two parties. Ruskin's were paid by public subscription, but Whistler was bankrupt within six months. The episode tarnished Ruskin's reputation, however, and may have accelerated his mental decline. [127] It did nothing to mitigate Ruskin's exaggerated sense of failure in persuading his readers to share in his own keenly felt priorities. [128]

Guild of St George Edit

Ruskin founded his utopian society, the Guild of St George, in 1871 (although originally it was called St George's Fund, and then St George's Company, before becoming the Guild in 1878). Its aims and objectives were articulated in Fors Clavigera. [129] A communitarian protest against nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, it had a hierarchical structure, with Ruskin as its Master, and dedicated members called "Companions". [130] Ruskin wished to show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed by traditional means, in harmony with the environment, and with the minimum of mechanical assistance. [131] He also sought to educate and enrich the lives of industrial workers by inspiring them with beautiful objects. As such, with a tithe (or personal donation) of £7,000, Ruskin acquired land and a collection of art treasures. [132]

Ruskin purchased land initially in Totley, near Sheffield, but the agricultural scheme established there by local communists met with only modest success after many difficulties. [133] Donations of land from wealthy and dedicated Companions eventually placed land and property in the Guild's care: in the Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire, called Ruskin Land today [134] Barmouth, in Gwynedd, north-west Wales Cloughton, in North Yorkshire Westmill in Hertfordshire [135] and Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire. [136] [137]

In principle, Ruskin worked out a scheme for different grades of "Companion", wrote codes of practice, described styles of dress and even designed the Guild's own coins. [138] Ruskin wished to see St George's Schools established, and published various volumes to aid its teaching (his Bibliotheca Pastorum or Shepherd's Library), but the schools themselves were never established. [139] (In the 1880s, in a venture loosely related to the Bibliotheca, he supported Francesca Alexander's publication of some of her tales of peasant life.) In reality, the Guild, which still exists today as a charitable education trust, has only ever operated on a small scale. [140]

Ruskin also wished to see traditional rural handicrafts revived. St. George's Mill was established at Laxey, Isle of Man, producing cloth goods. The Guild also encouraged independent but allied efforts in spinning and weaving at Langdale, in other parts of the Lake District and elsewhere, producing linen and other goods exhibited by the Home Arts and Industries Association and similar organisations. [141]

The Guild's most conspicuous and enduring achievement was the creation of a remarkable collection of art, minerals, books, medieval manuscripts, architectural casts, coins and other precious and beautiful objects. Housed in a cottage museum high on a hill in the Sheffield district of Walkley, it opened in 1875, and was curated by Henry and Emily Swan. [142] Ruskin had written in Modern Painters III (1856) that, "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way." [143] Through the Museum, Ruskin aimed to bring to the eyes of the working man many of the sights and experiences otherwise reserved for those who could afford to travel across Europe. The original Museum has been digitally recreated online. [144] In 1890, the Museum relocated to Meersbrook Park. The collection is now on display at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery. [145]

Rose La Touche Edit

Ruskin had been introduced to the wealthy Irish La Touche family by Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford. Maria La Touche, a minor Irish poet and novelist, asked Ruskin to teach her daughters drawing and painting in 1858. Rose La Touche was ten. His first meeting came at a time when Ruskin's own religious faith was under strain. This always caused difficulties for the staunchly Protestant La Touche family who at various times prevented the two from meeting. [146] A chance meeting at the Royal Academy in 1869 was one of the few occasions they came into personal contact. After a long illness, she died on 25 May 1875, at the age of 27. These events plunged Ruskin into despair and led to increasingly severe bouts of mental illness involving a number of breakdowns and delirious visions. The first of these had occurred in 1871 at Matlock, Derbyshire, a town and a county that he knew from his boyhood travels, whose flora, fauna, and minerals helped to form and reinforce his appreciation and understanding of nature.

Ruskin turned to spiritualism. He attended seances at Broadlands. Ruskin's increasing need to believe in a meaningful universe and a life after death, both for himself and his loved ones, helped to revive his Christian faith in the 1870s.

Travel guides Edit

Ruskin continued to travel, studying the landscapes, buildings and art of Europe. In May 1870 and June 1872 he admired Carpaccio's St Ursula in Venice, a vision of which, associated with Rose La Touche would haunt him, described in the pages of Fors. [147] In 1874, on his tour of Italy, Ruskin visited Sicily, the furthest he ever travelled.

Ruskin embraced the emerging literary forms, the travel guide (and gallery guide), writing new works, and adapting old ones "to give", he said, "what guidance I may to travellers. " [148] The Stones of Venice was revised, edited and issued in a new "Travellers' Edition" in 1879. Ruskin directed his readers, the would-be traveller, to look with his cultural gaze at the landscapes, buildings and art of France and Italy: Mornings in Florence (1875–77), The Bible of Amiens (1880–85) (a close study of its sculpture and a wider history), St Mark's Rest (1877–84) and A Guide to the Principal Pictures in . Venice (1877).

Final writings Edit

In the 1880s, Ruskin returned to some literature and themes that had been among his favourites since childhood. He wrote about Scott, Byron and Wordsworth in Fiction, Fair and Foul (1880) [149] in which, as Seth Reno argues, he describes the devastating effects on the landscape caused by industrialization, a vision Reno sees as a realization of the Anthropocene. [150] He returned to meteorological observations in his lectures, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth-Century (1884), [151] describing the apparent effects of industrialisation on weather patterns. Ruskin's Storm-Cloud has been seen as foreshadowing environmentalism and related concerns in the 20th and 21st centuries. [152] Ruskin's prophetic writings were also tied to his emotions, and his more general (ethical) dissatisfaction with the modern world with which he now felt almost completely out of sympathy.

His last great work was his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89) [153] (meaning, 'Of Past Things'), a highly personalised, selective, eloquent but incomplete account of aspects of his life, the preface of which was written in his childhood nursery at Herne Hill.

The period from the late 1880s was one of steady and inexorable decline. Gradually it became too difficult for him to travel to Europe. He suffered a complete mental collapse on his final tour, which included Beauvais, Sallanches and Venice, in 1888. The emergence and dominance of the Aesthetic movement and Impressionism distanced Ruskin from the modern art world, his ideas on the social utility of art contrasting with the doctrine of "l'art pour l'art" or "art for art's sake" that was beginning to dominate. His later writings were increasingly seen as irrelevant, especially as he seemed to be more interested in book illustrators such as Kate Greenaway than in modern art. He also attacked aspects of Darwinian theory with increasing violence, although he knew and respected Darwin personally.

Brantwood and final years Edit

In August 1871, Ruskin purchased, from W. J. Linton, the then somewhat dilapidated Brantwood house, on the shores of Coniston Water, in the English Lake District, paying £1500 for it. Brantwood was Ruskin's main home from 1872 until his death. His estate provided a site for more of his practical schemes and experiments: he had an ice house built, and the gardens comprehensively rearranged. He oversaw the construction of a larger harbour (from where he rowed his boat, the Jumping Jenny), and he altered the house (adding a dining room, a turret to his bedroom to give him a panoramic view of the lake, and he later extended the property to accommodate his relatives). He built a reservoir, and redirected the waterfall down the hills, adding a slate seat that faced the tumbling stream and craggy rocks rather than the lake, so that he could closely observe the fauna and flora of the hillside. [154]

Although Ruskin's 80th birthday was widely celebrated in 1899 (various Ruskin societies presenting him with an elaborately illuminated congratulatory address), Ruskin was scarcely aware of it. [155] He died at Brantwood from influenza on 20 January 1900 at the age of 80. He was buried five days later in the churchyard at Coniston, according to his wishes. [156] As he had grown weaker, suffering prolonged bouts of mental illness, he had been looked after by his second cousin, Joan(na) Severn (formerly "companion" to Ruskin's mother) and she and her family inherited his estate. Joanna's Care was the eloquent final chapter of Ruskin's memoir, which he dedicated to her as a fitting tribute. [157]

Joan Severn, together with Ruskin's secretary, W. G. Collingwood, and his eminent American friend Charles Eliot Norton, were executors to his will. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn edited the monumental 39-volume Library Edition of Ruskin's Works, the last volume of which, an index, attempts to demonstrate the complex interconnectedness of Ruskin's thought. They all acted together to guard, and even control, Ruskin's public and personal reputation. [158]

The centenary of Ruskin's birth was keenly celebrated in 1919, but his reputation was already in decline and sank further in the fifty years that followed. [159] The contents of Ruskin's home were dispersed in a series of sales at auction, and Brantwood itself was bought in 1932 by the educationist and Ruskin enthusiast, collector and memorialist, John Howard Whitehouse. [160]

Brantwood was opened in 1934 as a memorial to Ruskin and remains open to the public today. [161] The Guild of St George continues to thrive as an educational charity, and has an international membership. [162] The Ruskin Society organises events throughout the year. [163] A series of public celebrations of Ruskin's multiple legacies took place in 2000, on the centenary of his death, and events are planned throughout 2019, to mark the bicentenary of his birth. [164]

Note on Ruskin's personal appearance Edit

In middle age, and at his prime as a lecturer, Ruskin was described as slim, perhaps a little short, [165] with an aquiline nose and brilliant, piercing blue eyes. Often sporting a double-breasted waistcoat, a high collar and, when necessary, a frock coat, he also wore his trademark blue neckcloth. [166] From 1878 he cultivated an increasingly long beard, and took on the appearance of an "Old Testament" prophet.

Ruskin in the eyes of a student Edit

The following description of Ruskin as a lecturer was written by an eyewitness, who was a student at the time (1884):

[Ruskin’s] election to the second term of the Slade professorship took place in 1884, and he was announced to lecture at the Science Schools, by the park. I went off, never dreaming of difficulty about getting into any professorial lecture but all the accesses were blocked, and finally I squeezed in between the Vice-Chancellor and his attendants as they forced a passage. All the young women in Oxford and all the girls’ schools had got in before us and filled the semi-circular auditorium. Every inch was crowded, and still no lecturer and it was not apparent how he could arrive. Presently there was a commotion in the doorway, and over the heads and shoulders of tightly packed young men, a loose bundle was handed in and down the steps, till on the floor a small figure was deposited, which stood up and shook itself out, amused and good humoured, climbed on to the dais, spread out papers and began to read in a pleasant though fluting voice. Long hair, brown with grey through it a soft brown beard, also streaked with grey some loose kind of black garment (possibly to be described as a frock coat) with a master’s gown over it loose baggy trousers, a thin gold chain round his neck with glass suspended, a lump of soft tie of some finely spun blue silk and eyes much bluer than the tie: that was Ruskin as he came back to Oxford.

An incident where the Arts and Crafts guru William Morris had aroused the ire of Dr Bright, Master of University College, Oxford, served to demonstrate Ruskin's charisma:

William Morris had come to lecture on "Art and plutocracy" in the hall of University College. The title did not suggest an exhortation to join a Socialist alliance, but that was what we got. When he ended, the Master of University, Dr Bright, stood up and instead of returning thanks, protested that the hall had been lent for a lecture on art and would certainly not have been made available for preaching Socialism. He stammered a little at all times, and now, finding the ungracious words literally stick in his throat, sat down, leaving the remonstrance incomplete but clearly indicated. The situation was most unpleasant. Morris at any time was choleric and his face flamed red over his white shirt front: he probably thought he had conceded enough by assuming against his usage a conventional garb. There was a hubbub, and then from the audience Ruskin rose and instantly there was quiet. With a few courteous well chosen sentences he made everybody feel that we were an assembly of gentlemen, that Morris was not only an artist but a gentleman and an Oxford man, and had said or done nothing which gentlemen in Oxford should resent and the whole storm subsided before that gentle authority.

International Edit

Ruskin's influence reached across the world. Tolstoy described him as "one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times" and quoted extensively from him, rendering his ideas into Russian. [168] Proust not only admired Ruskin but helped translate his works into French. [169] Gandhi wrote of the "magic spell" cast on him by Unto This Last and paraphrased the work in Gujarati, calling it Sarvodaya, "The Advancement of All". [ citation needed ] In Japan, Ryuzo Mikimoto actively collaborated in Ruskin's translation. He commissioned sculptures and sundry commemorative items, and incorporated Ruskinian rose motifs in the jewellery produced by his cultured pearl empire. He established the Ruskin Society of Tokyo and his children built a dedicated library to house his Ruskin collection. [170] [171]

A number of utopian socialist Ruskin Colonies attempted to put his political ideals into practice. These communities included Ruskin, Florida, Ruskin, British Columbia and the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a colony in Dickson County, Tennessee in existence from 1894 to 1899.

Ruskin's work has been translated into numerous languages including, in addition to those already mentioned (Russian, French, Japanese): German, Italian, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Czech, Chinese, Welsh, several Indian languages like Kannada (ಕನ್ನಡ), Esperanto and Gikuyu.

Art, architecture and literature Edit

Theorists and practitioners in a broad range of disciplines acknowledged their debt to Ruskin. Architects including Le Corbusier, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius incorporated his ideas in their work. [172] Writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound felt Ruskin's influence. [173] The American poet Marianne Moore was an enthusiastic Ruskin reader. Art historians and critics, among them Herbert Read, Roger Fry and Wilhelm Worringer, knew Ruskin's work well. [174] Admirers ranged from the British-born American watercolourist and engraver John William Hill to the sculptor-designer, printmaker and utopianist Eric Gill. Aside from E. T. Cook, Ruskin's editor and biographer, other leading British journalists influenced by Ruskin include J. A. Spender, and the war correspondent H. W. Nevinson.

Cook and Wedderburn, 24.357.

Craft and conservation Edit

William Morris and C. R. Ashbee (of the Guild of Handicraft) were keen disciples, and through them Ruskin's legacy can be traced in the arts and crafts movement. Ruskin's ideas on the preservation of open spaces and the conservation of historic buildings and places inspired his friends Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley to help found the National Trust. [175]

Society, education and sport Edit

Pioneers of town planning such as Thomas Coglan Horsfall and Patrick Geddes called Ruskin an inspiration and invoked his ideas in justification of their own social interventions likewise the founders of the garden city movement, Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin. [176]

Edward Carpenter's community in Millthorpe, Derbyshire was partly inspired by Ruskin, and John Kenworthy's colony at Purleigh, Essex, which was briefly a refuge for the Doukhobors, combined Ruskin's ideas and Tolstoy's.

The most prolific collector of Ruskiniana was John Howard Whitehouse, who saved Ruskin's home, Brantwood, and opened it as a permanent Ruskin memorial. Inspired by Ruskin's educational ideals, Whitehouse established Bembridge School, on the Isle of Wight, and ran it along Ruskinian lines. Educationists from William Jolly to Michael Ernest Sadler wrote about and appreciated Ruskin's ideas. [177] Ruskin College, an educational establishment in Oxford originally intended for working men, was named after him by its American founders, Walter Vrooman and Charles A. Beard.

Ruskin's innovative publishing experiment, conducted by his one-time Working Men's College pupil George Allen, whose business was eventually merged to become Allen & Unwin, anticipated the establishment of the Net Book Agreement.

Ruskin's Drawing Collection, a collection of 1470 works of art he gathered as learning aids for the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (which he founded at Oxford), is at the Ashmolean Museum. The Museum has promoted Ruskin's art teaching, utilising the collection for in-person and online drawing courses. [178]

Pierre de Coubertin, the innovator of the modern Olympic Games, cited Ruskin's principles of beautification, asserting that the games should be "Ruskinised" to create an aesthetic identity that transcended mere championship competitions. [179]

Politics and economics Edit

Ruskin was an inspiration for many Christian socialists, and his ideas informed the work of economists such as William Smart and J. A. Hobson, and the positivist Frederic Harrison. [180] Ruskin was discussed in university extension classes, and in reading circles and societies formed in his name. He helped to inspire the settlement movement in Britain and the United States. Resident workers at Toynbee Hall such as the future civil servants Hubert Llewellyn Smith and William Beveridge (author of the Report . on Social Insurance and Allied Services), and the future Prime Minister Clement Attlee acknowledged their debt to Ruskin as they helped to found the British welfare state. More of the British Labour Party's earliest MPs acknowledged Ruskin's influence than mentioned Karl Marx or the Bible. [181] More recently, Ruskin's works have also influenced Phillip Blond and the Red Tory movement. [182]

Ruskin in the 21st century Edit

In 2019, Ruskin200 was inaugurated as a year-long celebration marking the bicentenary of Ruskin's birth. [183]

Admirers and scholars of Ruskin can visit the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, Ruskin's home, Brantwood, and the Ruskin Museum, both in Coniston in the English Lake District. All three mount regular exhibitions open to the public all the year round. [184] [185] [186] Barony House in Edinburgh is home to a descendant of John Ruskin. She has designed and hand painted various friezes in honour of her ancestor and it is open to the public. [187] [188] Ruskin's Guild of St George continues his work today, in education, the arts, crafts, and the rural economy.

Many streets, buildings, organisations and institutions bear his name: The Priory Ruskin Academy in Grantham, Lincolnshire John Ruskin College, South Croydon and Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford and Cambridge, which traces its origins to the Cambridge School of Art, at the foundation of which Ruskin spoke in 1858. Also, the Ruskin Literary and Debating Society, (founded in 1900 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada), the oldest surviving club of its type, and still promoting the development of literary knowledge and public speaking today and the Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles, which still exists. In addition, there is the Ruskin Pottery, Ruskin House, Croydon and Ruskin Hall at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ruskin, Florida, United States—site of one of the short-lived American Ruskin Colleges—is named after John Ruskin. There is a mural of Ruskin titled "Head, Heart and Hands" on a building across from the Ruskin Post Office. [189]

Since 2000, scholarly research has focused on aspects of Ruskin's legacy, including his impact on the sciences John Lubbock and Oliver Lodge admired him. Two major academic projects have looked at Ruskin and cultural tourism (investigating, for example, Ruskin's links with Thomas Cook) [190] the other focuses on Ruskin and the theatre. [191] The sociologist and media theorist David Gauntlett argues that Ruskin's notions of craft can be felt today in online communities such as YouTube and throughout Web 2.0. [192] Similarly, architectural theorist Lars Spuybroek has argued that Ruskin's understanding of the Gothic as a combination of two types of variation, rough savageness and smooth changefulness, opens up a new way of thinking leading to digital and so-called parametric design. [193]

Notable Ruskin enthusiasts include the writers Geoffrey Hill and Charles Tomlinson, and the politicians Patrick Cormack, Frank Judd, [194] Frank Field [195] and Tony Benn. [196] In 2006, Chris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury, Raficq Abdulla, Jonathon Porritt and Nicholas Wright were among those to contribute to the symposium, There is no wealth but life: Ruskin in the 21st Century. [197] Jonathan Glancey at The Guardian and Andrew Hill at the Financial Times have both written about Ruskin, [198] as has the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. [199] In 2015, inspired by Ruskin's philosophy of education, Marc Turtletaub founded Meristem in Fair Oaks, California. The centre educates adolescents with developmental differences using Ruskin's "land and craft" ideals, transitioning them so they will succeed as adults in an evolving post-industrial society. [200]

Ruskin wrote over 250 works, initially art criticism and history, but expanding to cover topics ranging over science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, the environmental effects of pollution, mythology, travel, political economy and social reform. After his death Ruskin's works were collected in the 39-volume "Library Edition", completed in 1912 by his friends Edward Tyas Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. [201] The range and quantity of Ruskin's writing, and its complex, allusive and associative method of expression, cause certain difficulties. In 1898, John A. Hobson observed that in attempting to summarise Ruskin's thought, and by extracting passages from across his work, "the spell of his eloquence is broken". [202] Clive Wilmer has written, further, that, "The anthologising of short purple passages, removed from their intended contexts [. is] something which Ruskin himself detested and which has bedevilled his reputation from the start." [203] Nevertheless, some aspects of Ruskin's theory and criticism require further consideration.

Art and design criticism Edit

Ruskin's early work defended the reputation of J. M. W. Turner. [204] He believed that all great art should communicate an understanding and appreciation of nature. Accordingly, inherited artistic conventions should be rejected. Only by means of direct observation can an artist, through form and colour, represent nature in art. He advised artists in Modern Painters I to: "go to Nature in all singleness of heart. rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing." [205] By the 1850s. Ruskin was celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites, whose members, he said, had formed "a new and noble school" of art that would provide a basis for a thoroughgoing reform of the art world. [206] For Ruskin, art should communicate truth above all things. However, this could not be revealed by mere display of skill, and must be an expression of the artist's whole moral outlook. Ruskin rejected the work of Whistler because he considered it to epitomise a reductive mechanisation of art. [ citation needed ]

Ruskin's strong rejection of Classical tradition in The Stones of Venice typifies the inextricable mix of aesthetics and morality in his thought: "Pagan in its origin, proud and unholy in its revival, paralysed in its old age. an architecture invented, as it seems, to make plagiarists of its architects, slaves of its workmen, and sybarites of its inhabitants an architecture in which intellect is idle, invention impossible, but in which all luxury is gratified and all insolence fortified." [207] Rejection of mechanisation and standardisation informed Ruskin's theories of architecture, and his emphasis on the importance of the Medieval Gothic style. He praised the Gothic for what he saw as its reverence for nature and natural forms the free, unfettered expression of artisans constructing and decorating buildings and for the organic relationship he perceived between worker and guild, worker and community, worker and natural environment, and between worker and God. Attempts in the 19th century to reproduce Gothic forms (such as pointed arches), attempts he had helped inspire, were not enough to make these buildings expressions of what Ruskin saw as true Gothic feeling, faith, and organicism.

For Ruskin, the Gothic style in architecture embodied the same moral truths he sought to promote in the visual arts. It expressed the 'meaning' of architecture—as a combination of the values of strength, solidity and aspiration—all written, as it were, in stone. For Ruskin, creating true Gothic architecture involved the whole community, and expressed the full range of human emotions, from the sublime effects of soaring spires to the comically ridiculous carved grotesques and gargoyles. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure." [208] Classical architecture, in contrast, expressed a morally vacuous and repressive standardisation. Ruskin associated Classical values with modern developments, in particular with the demoralising consequences of the industrial revolution, resulting in buildings such as The Crystal Palace, which he criticised. [209] Although Ruskin wrote about architecture in many works over the course of his career, his much-anthologised essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) is widely considered to be one of his most important and evocative discussions of his central argument.

Ruskin's theories indirectly encouraged a revival of Gothic styles, but Ruskin himself was often dissatisfied with the results. He objected that forms of mass-produced faux Gothic did not exemplify his principles, but showed disregard for the true meaning of the style. Even the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a building designed with Ruskin's collaboration, met with his disapproval. The O'Shea brothers, freehand stone carvers chosen to revive the creative "freedom of thought" of Gothic craftsmen, disappointed him by their lack of reverence for the task.

Ruskin's distaste for oppressive standardisation led to later works in which he attacked laissez-faire capitalism, which he thought was at its root. His ideas provided inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founders of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Ruskin's views on art, wrote Kenneth Clark, "cannot be made to form a logical system, and perhaps owe to this fact a part of their value." Ruskin's accounts of art are descriptions of a superior type that conjure images vividly in the mind's eye. [210] Clark neatly summarises the key features of Ruskin's writing on art and architecture:

  1. Art is not a matter of taste, but involves the whole man. Whether in making or perceiving a work of art, we bring to bear on it feeling, intellect, morals, knowledge, memory, and every other human capacity, all focused in a flash on a single point. Aesthetic man is a concept as false and dehumanising as economic man.
  2. Even the most superior mind and the most powerful imagination must found itself on facts, which must be recognised for what they are. The imagination will often reshape them in a way which the prosaic mind cannot understand but this recreation will be based on facts, not on formulas or illusions.
  3. These facts must be perceived by the senses, or felt not learnt.
  4. The greatest artists and schools of art have believed it their duty to impart vital truths, not only about the facts of vision, but about religion and the conduct of life.
  5. Beauty of form is revealed in organisms which have developed perfectly according to their laws of growth, and so give, in his own words, 'the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function.'
  6. This fulfilment of function depends on all parts of an organism cohering and co-operating. This was what he called the 'Law of Help,' one of Ruskin's fundamental beliefs, extending from nature and art to society.
  7. Good art is done with enjoyment. The artist must feel that, within certain reasonable limits, he is free, that he is wanted by society, and that the ideas he is asked to express are true and important.
  8. Great art is the expression of epochs where people are united by a common faith and a common purpose, accept their laws, believe in their leaders, and take a serious view of human destiny. [211]

Historic preservation Edit

Ruskin's belief in preservation of ancient buildings had a significant influence on later thinking about the distinction between conservation and restoration. He was a strong proponent of the former, while his contemporary, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, promoted the latter. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, (1849) Ruskin wrote:

Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.

This abhorrence of restoration is in marked contrast to Viollet-le-Duc, who wrote that restoration is a "means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time." [212]

For Ruskin, the "age" of a building was crucially significant as an aspect in its preservation: "For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, not in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity." [213]

Social theory Edit

Ruskin attacked orthodox, 19th-century political economy principally on the grounds that it failed to acknowledge complexities of human desires and motivations (broadly, "social affections"). He began to express such ideas in The Stones of Venice, and increasingly in works of the later 1850s, such as The Political Economy of Art (A Joy for Ever), but he gave them full expression in the influential essays, Unto This Last.

Cook and Wedderburn, 17.V.34 (1860).

At the root of his theory, was Ruskin's dissatisfaction with the role and position of the worker, and especially the artisan or craftsman, in modern industrial capitalist society. Ruskin believed that the economic theories of Adam Smith, expressed in The Wealth of Nations had led, through the division of labour to the alienation of the worker not merely from the process of work itself, but from his fellow workmen and other classes, causing increasing resentment. (See The Stones of Venice above.)

Ruskin argued that one remedy would be to pay work at a fixed rate of wages, because human need is consistent and a given quantity of work justly demands a certain return. The best workmen would remain in employment because of the quality of their work (a focus on quality growing out of his writings on art and architecture). The best workmen could not, in a fixed-wage economy, be undercut by an inferior worker or product.

In the preface to Unto This Last (1862), Ruskin recommended that the state should underwrite standards of service and production to guarantee social justice. This included the recommendation of government youth-training schools promoting employment, health, and 'gentleness and justice' government manufactories and workshops government schools for the employment at fixed wages of the unemployed, with idlers compelled to toil and pensions provided for the elderly and the destitute, as a matter of right, received honourably and not in shame. [214] Many of these ideas were later incorporated into the welfare state. [215]

Turner's erotic drawings Edit

Until 2005, biographies of both J. M. W. Turner and Ruskin had claimed that in 1858 Ruskin burned bundles of erotic paintings and drawings by Turner to protect Turner's posthumous reputation. Ruskin's friend Ralph Nicholson Wornum, who was Keeper of the National Gallery, was said to have colluded in the alleged destruction of Turner's works. In 2005, these works, which form part of the Turner Bequest held at Tate Britain, were re-appraised by Turner Curator Ian Warrell, who concluded that Ruskin and Wornum had not destroyed them. [216] [217]

Sexuality Edit

Ruskin's sexuality has been the subject of a great deal of speculation and critical comment. His one marriage, to Effie Gray, was annulled after six years owing to non-consummation. Effie, in a letter to her parents, claimed that Ruskin found her "person" repugnant:

He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason. that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April [1848].

Ruskin told his lawyer during the annulment proceedings:

It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it. [218]

The cause of Ruskin's "disgust" has led to much conjecture. Mary Lutyens speculated that he rejected Effie because he was horrified by the sight of her pubic hair. Lutyens argued that Ruskin must have known the female form only through Greek statues and paintings of nudes which lacked pubic hair. [219] However, Peter Fuller wrote, "It has been said that he was frightened on the wedding night by the sight of his wife's pubic hair more probably, he was perturbed by her menstrual blood." [220] Ruskin's biographers Tim Hilton and John Batchelor also took the view that menstruation was the more likely explanation, though Batchelor also suggests that body-odour may have been the problem. There is no evidence to support any of these theories. William Ewart Gladstone said to his daughter Mary, "should you ever hear anyone blame Millais or his wife, or Mr. Ruskin [for the breakdown of the marriage], remember that there is no fault there was misfortune, even tragedy. All three were perfectly blameless." [221] The fullest story of the Ruskins' marriage to date has been told by the scholar Robert Brownell. [222]

Ruskin's later relationship with Rose La Touche has led to claims that he was a paedophile, on the grounds that he stated that he fell in love with her when he met her at the age of nine. [223] In fact, he did not approach her as a suitor until on or near her eighteenth birthday. She asked him to wait for her until she was 21. Receiving no answer, he repeated his proposal.

Ruskin is not known to have had any sexually intimate relationships. During an episode of mental derangement after Rose died, he wrote a letter in which he insisted that Rose's spirit had instructed him to marry a girl who was visiting him at the time. [224] It is also true that in letters from Ruskin to Kate Greenaway he asked her to draw her "girlies" (as he called her child figures) without clothing:

Will you – (it's all for your own good – !) make her stand up and then draw her for me without a cap – and, without her shoes, – (because of the heels) and without her mittens, and without her – frock and frills? And let me see exactly how tall she is – and – how – round. It will be so good of and for you – And to and for me. [225]

In a letter to his physician John Simon on 15 May 1886, Ruskin wrote:

I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they're not in love with anybody but me.—I've got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells. [226] [227]

Ruskin's biographers disagree about the allegation of "paedophilia". Tim Hilton, in his two-volume biography, asserts that Ruskin "was a paedophile" but leaves the claim unexplained, while John Batchelor argues that the term is inappropriate because Ruskin's behaviour does not "fit the profile". [228] Others point to a definite pattern of "nympholeptic" behaviour with regard to his interactions with girls at a Winnington school. [229] However, there is no evidence that Ruskin ever engaged in any sexual activity with anyone at all. According to one interpretation, what Ruskin valued most in pre-pubescent girls was their innocence the fact that they were not (yet) fully developed sexual beings is what attracted him. [230] An exploration of this topic by James L. Spates declares that "whatever idiosyncratic qualities his erotic expressions may have possessed, when it comes to matters of sexual capability and interest, there is every reason to conclude that John Ruskin was physically and emotionally normal." [231]

Common law of business balance Edit

Ruskin is frequently identified as the originator of the "common law of business balance"—a statement about the relationships of price and quality as they pertain to manufactured goods, and often summarised as: "The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot." This is the core of a longer statement usually attributed to Ruskin, although Ruskin's authorship is disputed among Ruskin scholars. Fred Shapiro maintains that the statement does not appear anywhere in Ruskin's works, [232] and George Landow is likewise sceptical of the claim of Ruskin's authorship. [233] In a posting of the Ruskin Library News, a blog associated with the Ruskin Library (a major collection of Ruskiniana located at Lancaster University), an anonymous library staff member briefly mentions the statement and its widespread use, saying that, "This is one of many quotations ascribed to Ruskin, without there being any trace of them in his writings – although someone, somewhere, thought they sounded like Ruskin." [234] In an issue of the journal Heat Transfer Engineering, Kenneth Bell quotes the statement and mentions that it has been attributed to Ruskin. While Bell believes in the veracity of its content, he adds that the statement does not appear in Ruskin's published works. [235]

Early in the 20th century, this statement appeared—without any authorship attribution—in magazine advertisements, [236] [237] [238] [239] in a business catalogue, [240] in student publications, [241] and, occasionally, in editorial columns. [242] [243] Later in the 20th century, however, magazine advertisements, student publications, business books, technical publications, scholarly journals, and business catalogues often included the statement with attribution to Ruskin. [232] [244] [245] [246] [247] [248] [249] [250] [251]

In the 21st century, and based upon the statement's applicability of the issues of quality and price, the statement continues to be used and attributed to Ruskin—despite the questionable nature of the attribution. [252] [253] [254] [255]

For many years, various Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlours prominently displayed a section of the statement in framed signs. ("There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that man's lawful prey.") [233] [234] [256] [257] [258] [259] The signs listed Ruskin as the author of the statement, but the signs gave no information on where or when Ruskin was supposed to have written, spoken, or published the statement. Due to the statement's widespread use as a promotional slogan, and despite questions of Ruskin's authorship, it is likely that many people who are otherwise unfamiliar with Ruskin now associate him with this statement.


John Ruskin - History


John Ruskin (1819-1900), educator, theorist, environmentalist, artist and prolific writer, is perhaps best known today as the preeminent British art critic of the Victorian era. "I am only trying to teach you to see,"[i] said Ruskin, a dictum from which he never strayed during his long and productive life. Involved in an extraordinary range of artistic and social proclivities, from sketching the geological strata of the Alps to drafting religious sermons, Ruskin observed the world around him in great detail, melding art, nature and religion into a unique recording of the external universe.

Ruskin, an only child, was born into a prosperous English family, his father a sherry importer and collector of modern watercolors, his mother a fervent Evangelical Christian. The Ruskins vacationed frequently, traveling to France, Switzerland and Italy, where the young Ruskin drew landscapes and architecture, often spending entire days with sketchbook in hand. In 1836, Ruskin's father bought him a place into Christ Church, Oxford, as a gentleman, relieving Ruskin from taking the college entrance exams. Ruskin maintained a lifelong relationship with his alma mater, although he scathingly alluded to the school as a "mere cockney watering place for learning to row."[ii] In 1861, Ruskin presented his initial gift to the Oxford University Galleries, donating a number of Turner watercolors from his own personal collection. Ruskin, in 1875, founded a museum of art and a drawing school at Oxford, contributing pictures, drawings and five-thousand pounds for general maintenance. In 1869, the University invited Ruskin to fill the newly created position of Slade Professor of Art. Ruskin commenced the professorship in February of 1870, an appointment renewed in 1873 and 1876, retiring in 1878 due to ill health and mental depression. Reelected to the post in 1883, Ruskin finally ended his position in 1884 over indignation at the University's sanction of vivisection and a general disgust of the institution's policies and politics.

Drawing and painting from an early age, Ruskin received his artistic education from a succession of fashionable drawing masters. Nonetheless, Ruskin always claimed an amateur status, giving precedence to his writings over his art. Ruskin wrote enormous quantities of verse, winning the Newdigate prize for poetry at Oxford in 1939 for his work Salsette and Elephanta. In May of 1843, at the age of twenty-four, Ruskin had the first volume of his Modern Painters published, with volume II following shortly after in 1846. The Seven Lamps of Architecture made it to press in 1849, complete with Ruskin's own etchings as illustration to the text. The author directed his breadth of publications, including The Stones of Venice (1851), Elements of Drawing (1857) and further volumes of Modern Painters, to the well-to-do middle class, echoing his own upbringing in the upper levels of society.

With a passion for geology and nature, Ruskin often engaged in minutely detailed artistic studies of feathers, shells, gems, etc., viewing his drawing as a scientific record of personally examined objects. For Ruskin, who was vigorously opposed to the English cult of art for arts sake, painting and drawing had nothing to do with 'picture-making.' Under Ruskin's theoretical principles, the purpose of art was to either 'state a true thing' or 'adorn a serviceable one,' always existing as the means of knowledge. As a professor and proficient lecturer, Ruskin proffered his views on art, first as drawing teacher at the London Working Men's College and later at Oxford, where he taught classes in drawing, painting and perspective. Ruskin, noting the importance of a practical artistic education, stated, "I think the facts which an elementary knowledge of drawing enables a man to observe and note are often as much importance to him as those which he can describe in words or calculate in numbers."[iii] As a proponent of drawing from what one sees, Ruskin felt dubious about the benefits of teaching art history, a practice he believed enslaved the intelligence. Ruskin publicly clashed with fellow artist and professor William Dyce over the content of the art examinations at Oxford. Dyce wanted less emphasis placed on practical drawing accomplishments and more on the knowledge of art history, a view to which Ruskin obviously objected.

Ruskin gave numerous lectures on artistic practice, including both the use of formal elements and the role of societal values (moral and religious) in art, often using the speeches as an opportunity to espouse his own social views. Ruskin completed a number of drawings to serve as visual aids for his inaugural lecture at Oxford on February 8, 1870, a practice he continued throughout his time as Slade professor. Employing large lecture diagrams prepared by either himself or his assistants, such as Arthur Burgess or George Allen, Ruskin stressed the importance of learning to look, at times even placing a layer of glass over the works to draw on in order to illustrate particular technical points. In contrast to Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, M. Digby Wyatt, opposed graphics of any kind, stating, "It would be impossible for any illustrations I could bring you not to fall far short of the standard to which I think your taste should be raised."[iv]

The use of illustrations to accompany art lectures began at the Royal Academy of London early in the nineteenth century. William Turner, in his lectures as Professor of Perspective from 1811 to 1828, assembled nearly two hundred teaching drawings, ranging from diagrammatic schemas to finished watercolors. In the 1850s, with the advent of the camera, a new form of visual aid was employed, the documentary photograph. Ruskin, who started his lecturing career in 1853 at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, began including photographic reproductions of paintings in his talks in February of 1859, a practice he continued throughout his time at Oxford. A number of technological innovations shortly followed, including the transference of positive transparencies onto glass using albumen by the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia, the commercial availability of slides in the 1860s, Macy's Sciopticon lantern slide (on the market in the 1870s) and the first electric projecting equipment in the 1890s. Throughout this period of ever-evolving visual methods, Ruskin remained constant in his use of hand-made drawings and photographs to augment his lectures.

Ruskin transferred the practice of visual aids to his classes, creating a wide variety of drawings for his students to copy as artistic exercises. Ruskin catalogued the images into three series, Educational, Reference and Rudimentary, with the Educational and Rudimentary series containing exactly three hundred works each, placed in twenty cabinets around the perimeter of the classroom. Of these six hundred pieces, Ruskin said:

None of these paintings or drawings are, as yet, formally presented to, or accepted by, the University. Some do not deserve any permanent position, and I retain for the present the power of removing any of them, either for the substitution of others, or for my own occasional use but if the Collections are found serviceable in the form ultimately proposed for them, and the system of teaching in accordance with which they have been arranged is sanctioned by the approval of the University, and recognized as a part of its educational curriculum, the entire series of examples would remain at the disposal of the University authorities. In the event of my death, I mean them to be so left, in their present form.[v]

The collection of images, used in the teaching of drawing as examples for copying or examples for reference in regards to practical questions, remained at Oxford after Ruskin's death, presently stored at the Ashmolean Museum. Ruskin published catalogues of the Educational series in 1871 and 1874 (2nd ed.) and the Rudimentary series in 1872, assigning a number and case location to each individual work. Sketch of Head of Living Lion and Lion's Profile, from Life are two works created by Ruskin for use in the classroom. Catalogued as Rudimentary 47 and Educational 155, respectively, the two drawings illustrate Ruskin's preference for attention to detail and a close study of nature. These two studies, undertaken by Ruskin in 1870 at the London Zoological Gardens, exhibit two distinct modes of artistic creation. Sketch is comprised of numerous rapidly marked pencil strokes upon paper, with a mixture of light and heavy pressure used to delineate and emphasize particular areas of the face. Ruskin roughly sketched out the mane of the lion, choosing instead to focus attention on the animal's features. He referred to this work as, "A really good sketch of my own which may serve to show that I could have done something if I had not had books to write. It is to be copied by all advanced students as an exercise in fast pencil drawing."[vi] Ruskin placed Sketch within the Second Cabinet, Second Section of the Rudimentary series, alongside a collection of other animal drawings, including studies of seahorses, owls and eagles, all of which served as artistic examples for his students.

Placed in Case VII, Elementary Zoology (Lions-Birds-Serpents), Lion's Profile exhibits another aspect of Ruskin's interest in the form of the lion, as the drawing is catalogued between studies of lions from Egyptian and Greek sculpture, a redrawn copy of Dürer's St. Jerome and his Lion and a sketch of a lion at St. Mark's in Venice. Drawn from the same angle as Sketch, Lion's Profile presents a more complete image of the animal, blending black chalk with watercolor and gauche. Ruskin paid close attention to the direction of hair growth in the mane of the lion, delineating the varying movement through quick lines of black charcoal overlaid with sketchy brushstrokes of watercolor in gray, brown and black. Pink and white paint highlight the inner ear of the lion, echoing the softness of Ruskin's hand around the profiled eye. Ruskin adjusted the original line of the lion's nose, still visible today, covering over the alteration with a stroke of white gauche. This change gave the nose a more streamlined appearance, rounding out the pointed quality of the nose in Sketch.

'Oxford University Gallery - Ruskin Drawing School' appears in stamp on the verso of Lion's Profile on the front lower left corner, Ruskin wrote: 'F. Lower of two.' Due to the line of fading in the paper, it appears as if the text would have been covered over by a type of matting, leaving only the drawing visible. The letter 'F' corresponds to the number of images in the cabinet, Lion's Profile being the sixth work in Case VII, number 155 overall. As the work is currently tagged WA.RS.ED.155.b, the 'b,' indicating a secondary image, relates to the writing of 'Lower of the two,' implying that Lion's profile was originally mounted with 155.a, Lion and Lioness, not with Sketch, as it presently exists.

Ruskin's thirty-nine volumes of work contain nine million words his extant correspondence exceeds twenty thousand letters he produced thousands of sketches, drawings and paintings. Ruskin was a man of words, of thoughts and practical experience, all of which translated into his artistic endeavors. As a professor and lecturer, Ruskin dispersed his knowledge to all who would listen, sharing insight and wisdom with his colleagues and students. A man of the Victorian era, Ruskin's aphorisms still hold true today, for "whether you are drawing a piece of Greek armour, or a hawk's beak, or a lion's paw, you will find that the mere necessity of using the hand compels attention to circumstances which would otherwise have escaped notice, and fastens them in the memory without farther effort."[vii]

[i] Robert Hewison, Ruskin and Oxford: The Art of Education (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996): 32.


John Ruskin Taught Victorian Readers and Travelers the Art of Cultivation

A woodcut of Ruskin made by John Bryden, published in 1898.

C. and M. History Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Near the dawn of the twentieth century, a young Englishwoman named Lucy is visiting an ancient church in Florence, unsure of what she is looking at, or how, exactly, to see it. She doesn’t have her Baedeker, a popular travel guide, and is feeling lost without it. “She walked about disdainfully,” we learn, “unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.”

The woman unsure of her own reaction to a lovely church without consulting “Mr. Ruskin” is Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E. M. Forster’s celebrated 1908 novel, A Room with a View. The reference to “Mr. Ruskin” might be lost on many modern readers, although Forster obviously felt no obligation to explain it when he wrote his story. The man in question, John Ruskin, had died eight years earlier, in 1900, but his memory was still fresh in popular culture. In Ruskin’s heyday, just about every educated Victorian knew who he was.

Born in 1819 to a wealthy merchant and an overbearing mother, Ruskin was an English writer on art, nature, literature, and political economy who dominated cultural thought throughout Britain—and, to some degree, the Western world—in the second half of the nineteenth century. Given his relative obscurity today, it’s hard for contemporary readers to grasp how famous Ruskin once was. Reverently read and reflexively quoted, his pronouncements on everything from painting to poetry to private capital rang among his fans with an almost scriptural authority. His mother had once longed for him to be a bishop, and as an arbiter of his society’s standards, Ruskin, in his own way, came close. “Taste . . . is the only morality. . . . Tell me what you like,” Ruskin asserted, “And I’ll tell you what you are.”

An 1877 study of a sprig of a Myrtle tree by Ruskin.

© Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, USA / Bridgeman Images

Forster was being wry when he mentioned Lucy’s predicament—that she didn’t know what to think until Ruskin had told her what to think. But Forster’s tongue-in-cheek remark also acknowledged the spell Ruskin once cast over people of culture—or, at the very least, people who wanted to be considered culturally sophisticated. The slavish devotion of Ruskin’s disciples irritated D. H. Lawrence, who found it all a bit much. “The deep damnation of self-righteousness . . . lies thick over the Ruskinite,” Lawrence lamented, “like painted feathers on a skinny peacock.”

Maybe Lawrence’s dart came poisoned with a little envy. What author, after all, wouldn’t want the kind of reception Ruskin enjoyed in his prime? Ruskin’s many books, “bound in vellum or limp leather, were to be found lying beside the Idylls of the King on the tables of those who did not normally read, but wished to show some evidence of refinement,” the late art historian Kenneth Clark observed. “For almost fifty years, to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.”

Ruskin was revered not only by the public, but by other writers and noted thinkers, including British prime minister William Gladstone. “From Wordsworth to Proust there was hardly a distinguished man of letters who did not admire him,” Clark wrote. “Austere critics like Leslie Stephen believed him to be one of the unassailable masters of English prose, and, on the death of Tennyson, Gladstone (whom he habitually insulted) wished to make him Poet Laureate.” Gandhi and Tolstoy would claim him as a powerful influence, too. Charlotte Brontë claimed that she did not truly perceive visual art until she read Ruskin’s Modern Painters. Ruskin, she said, “seems to give me eyes.”

Ruskin did not become England’s poet laureate, which was no doubt for the best, since he wrote very little poetry, and most of it was forgettable. Even so, readers tended to think of Ruskin as a kind of poet, since his prose style, rich in metaphor, leaned toward the rhapsodically romantic. Victorians versed in Wordsworth loved this sort of thing, but to the modern ear, Ruskin can often seem overdone. Here’s how Ruskin describes a swallow: “It is an owl that has been trained by the Graces. It is a bat that loves the morning light. It is the aerial reflection of a dolphin. It is the tender domestication of a trout.” There you have it, a swallow compared to a bat, a dolphin, and—in a phrase only dear Ruskin could coin—“the tender domestication of a trout.” It’s as if Ruskin is free-associating metaphors before our eyes, hoping that something, anything, will stick.

Ruskin could get carried away on the page as he so often got carried away in life, and his sense of abandon somehow resonated with Victorians who found, in their socially constrained era, a sense of liberation in reading his sentences. He was, in a number of respects, the quintessential Victorian, his desire for strict moral probity conflicting with serious personal demons. Ruskin dominated his age because he frequently seemed so thoroughly a part of it, but there remains a question about whether his work deserves to endure as more than a period piece.

A drawing by Ruskin’s own hand of tracery in the Campanile of Giotto in Florence, Italy.

What is true, and has been for years, is that few people read Ruskin anymore. ”No other writer, perhaps, has suffered so great a fall in reputation as Ruskin,” Clark noted in 1962. A generation or two later, Ruskin’s profile remains low. An edition of his Collected Works stretched to 39 volumes, but little of it remains widely available in print. The sheer size of his oeuvre is an abiding complication, mixing the good with the bad, all of it defying the kind of easy summary that makes a literary persona truly marketable.

Like the house where he once lived, which was full to the brim with art, books, and curios: “Ruskin’s life and work are crammed with things, so that it is not perhaps too surprising that he has survived piecemeal,” his biographer, John Dixon Hunt, has mentioned. For the newcomer, the best introduction to Ruskin is his Selected Writings, a Penguin Classic arranged and introduced by Clark, which is, sadly, no longer in print. From Ruskin’s enormous output, Clark distilled about 350 pages of prose on art and architecture, nature, society, and economics. His extracts are necessarily fragmentary, but, intentionally or otherwise, Clark’s editorial scheme deftly expresses Ruskin’s kinetic mind, which favored movement and change over a sustained and systematic argument.

Here’s a Ruskin passage that says a lot about how he wrote:

I believe we can nowhere find a better type of a perfectly free creature than the common house fly. Nor free only, but brave and irreverent to a degree which I think no human republican could by any philosophy exalt himself to. There is no courtesy in him he does not care whether it is king or clown whom he teases and in every step of his swift mechanical march, and in every pause of his resolute observation, there is one and the same expression of perfect egotism, perfect independence and self-confidence, and conviction of the world’s having been made for flies.

First and foremost, perhaps, Ruskin’s rumination suggests his powerful attention to detail. That he would focus so perceptively on a little bug that everyone regards as a nettlesome house pest really speaks to the kind of eye his admirers came to love. His gift for seeing the tiny thing that implies the larger truth made him a compelling art critic, able to interpret geniuses of antiquity and his own time in such expansive works as Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice. Secondly, of course, his reflection points to an abidingly political sensibility. In Ruskin’s rendering, the house fly becomes a way to consider the nature of human freedom—the degree to which we should embrace convention and tradition, and the extent to which we should flout it.

The idea no doubt struck Ruskin’s straitlaced Victorian contemporaries as a radical one, dampening his appeal among the ruling establishment. Another quality of this passage is its resistance to quick classification, touching on aesthetics, politics, and the natural world. Clark tucks it into a subject heading on society and economics, but it would just as easily have been right at home in the anthology’s sections on art or nature. Ruskin insisted on seeing one thing as connected to everything else, which is why his discussions of art led him into questions of politics. He thought that good art grew best from good social conditions. Ruskin was skeptical about technological progress, an early prophet of the perils of pollution, and worried about the market principles underlying capitalism.

“The first of all English games is making money,” he complained. “That is an all-absorbing game and we knock each other down oftener in playing at that, than at foot-ball, or any other roughest sport: and it is absolutely without purpose no one who engages heartily in the game ever knows why.” He warned his fellow Englishmen that coal mining and consumption were threatening to destroy the air and land that had made their country great. All “the true greatness she ever had,” he said of England, “she won while her fields were green, and her faces ruddy and that greatness is still possible for Englishmen, even though the ground be not hollow under their feet, nor the sky black over their heads.”

Although Ruskin was generally wary of the changes transforming nineteenth-century commerce, those same changes helped create a class of tourists who became a core audience for his books. “There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe . . . than this,” he once told a lecture audience, “that you will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.” What Ruskin seems to be saying is that a painting or piece of sculpture should be tested against the landscape and culture it’s intended to represent. That idea resonated with nineteenth-century readers, who were increasingly able not only to see the art of places like Venice in museums, but to visit these destinations. Ruskin became a celebrity interpreter of what English families might see abroad, his books a welcome traveling companion.

With growing prosperity, tourism was becoming a mass market, and Ruskin a crucial figure in mediating this newly opened world. “The Grand Tour had been an institution among aristocrats, in which men and women of privilege traveled through Europe as if it were a finishing school, absorbing its art, culture and languages at their leisure, the better to enrich themselves and English society on their return,” scholar Radhika Jones has noted in explaining the mood of the time. “Why should the professional classes, and maybe even working-class men and women, not engage in that pursuit as well?”

The Bridesmaid, an 1851 painting of Effie Ruskin by her future husband, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.


The Strange Life of John Ruskin

John Ruskin – art critic, philanthropist and prominent social thinker – was also, by all accounts, a very odd man. Probably the most infamous aspect of his personal life was the strange annulment of his marriage to Effie Gray and the subsequent rumours that this gave rise to concerning his sexuality. He has variously been described as a prude, asexual, homosexual and even, like his contemporary and fellow Oxford man Lewis Carroll, showing an unhealthy interest in children. None of these allegations, it must be stressed, has ever been made out, which is hardly surprising given that Ruskin was an intensely private man. For this reason it is also very difficult to determine whether there is any truth in the suggestions that Ruskin received messages from a supposed former lover, Rose La Touche, even after her death and that he once encountered the Devil himself at Brantwood. With the forthcoming release of the feature film Effie, based on Ruskin’s bizarre ‘marriage’, now seems as good a time as any to examine the strange life of John Ruskin.

It must be remembered that, whatever else he was, Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He also wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy. Ruskin penned essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. In all of his writing, he emphasized the connections between nature, art and society. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. Educated at the University of Oxford, it was here that he first encountered Effie Gray, whom he later married, when, in answer to her challenge, he wrote his one and only fairy tale – The King of the Golden River. Oxford was not the only university with which he was associated – he gave the inaugural address at the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, an institution from which the modern-day Anglia Ruskin University has grown. Despite the fame he was to achieve during his lifetime (and the arguably even greater recognition he had after his death), Ruskin always had a troubled personal life.

Ruskin’s grandfather committed suicide and he grew estranged from his parents (they didn’t attend his wedding to Effie Gray). Ruskin suffered a string of heartbreaks – his first love, Adèle Domecq, got engaged to a French nobleman while he was at Oxford. His marriage to Effie Gray later dissolved under discord and eventually annulment. It all started when the Ruskins came into contact with John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Effie and Millais fell in love, and she left Ruskin, causing a public scandal. In April 1854, Effie filed her suit of nullity, on grounds of ‘non-consummation’ owing to his ‘incurable impotency’, a charge Ruskin later disputed (in answer Ruskin wrote: “I can prove my virility at once”!). Despite this, the annulment was granted a couple of months later and Ruskin did not mention it again, even in his diary. Effie married Millais the following year. The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of continued speculation and debate.

Effie, in a letter to her parents, once claimed that Ruskin found her “person” repugnant. The cause of Ruskin’s alleged disgust (if that was what it was) has led to much speculation. Ruskin is not known to have had any sexually intimate relationships. Ruskin’s later relationship with Rose La Touche has led to claims that he was a paedophile, on the grounds that he stated that he fell in love with her when he met her at the age of nine. In fact, he did not approach Rose as a suitor until on or near her eighteenth birthday. It is possible that, in common with his contemporary, Lewis Carroll, what Ruskin valued most in pre-pubescent girls was their innocence the fact that they were not (yet) sexual beings is what attracted him – this perhaps fits in with the common view that Ruskin was in fact devoutly asexual. Then there is the fact that for much of his life Ruskin suffered from bouts of mental illness. During one episode of mental derangement after Rose died, Ruskin wrote a letter in which he insisted that Rose’s spirit had instructed him to marry a girl who was visiting him at the time.

In 1871 Ruskin bought the 250 acre estate of Brantwood in the Lake District, a place which had been close to his heart from a very early age and where he remained until his death in 1900. Many famous artistic and literary figures visited Ruskin at Brantwood, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (another prominent Pre-Raphaelite). It was at Brantwood that Ruskin was also, allegedly, visited by none other than the Devil himself. An entry in Ruskin’s diary reveals that he viewed the often wild and wet weather of the Lake District as potentially having a diabolical origin but that he was somehow getting the better of the Adversary. It is difficult to know what to make of such writings given that Ruskin was in an increasingly fragile mental state later in life. However, it must be said that Ruskin, always a prolific writer, continued to produce fine essays, poems and other writings on a wide range of subjects to the end of his days. Did he ‘see’ Rose (or the Devil for that matter) in one of his rare lucid periods? The speculation concerning John Ruskin will, I suspect, go on for some time yet.


John Ruskin led a crusade against Victorian rectitude and attacked capitalism. His mind was wild and unstable, but we need his utopian visions today as we find ourselves evermore distanced from the natural world.

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In 1964, Kenneth Clark set out the problems of loving John Ruskin. One was his fame itself. Like his sometime pupil Oscar Wilde (who, along with other of his Oxford students he persuaded to dig a road in Hinksey in order that they learn the dignity of labour), Ruskin defined the art and culture of his century. “For almost 50 years,” Clark wrote in his book, Ruskin Today, “to read Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.” Gladstone would have made him poet laureate “and was only prevented from doing so by the fact that [Ruskin] was out of his mind”.

Ruskin was a man who believed in angels but championed the most radical British artist of his time. He was a social reformer and utopian who was at heart a conservative reactionary and a puritan. He was a brilliant artist who ought to have been a bishop. He hated trains but invented the blog.

How can it be that a man so celebrated in his time is only fitfully remembered now, 200 years after his birth – and then mostly for a salacious story that he was too intimidated by the sight of his young wife’s pubic hair to perform on his wedding night? He’s a beardy Victorian worthy, preserved in sepia photographs and unread books with inexplicable titles – Unto This Last, Sesame and Lilies, Praeterita – consigned to the top shelves of charity shops.

The problem lies in the fact that Ruskin rejects all those presumptions even in his own lifetime. His watercolours of the natural world – from mosses to Swiss mountains – are astonishing, hyper-real representations of something close to his soul, a metaphysical reality. He declined to join the headlong rush of economic progress and rejected the mores of his class. In the famous portrait of him by John Everett Millais – the Pre-Raphaelite artist who, even as he painted the picture in the Scottish Highlands, was about to seduce Ruskin’s young wife, Effie Gray – he stands on a rock by a waterfall, as if dominating the terrain around him. He looks the picture of Victorian rectitude but he was undermining the century with his crusade.

His first offence was to champion William Turner’s paintings. Almost intuitively, Ruskin understood the power of what Turner was trying to do. As the contemporary eco-philosopher Timothy Morton says, “art is from the future” Ruskin saw that futurity in Turner. His second offence was to attack capitalism. As Clark notes, Tolstoy, Gandhi and Bernard Shaw thought him one of the greatest social reformers of his time. When members at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party were asked which book had most influenced them, they answered Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Bernard Shaw pithily summed up Ruskin’s affront to his own class: he told them, “You are a parcel of thieves.”

Art and revolution: Ruskin’s violent social conscience was as absolute as it was paradoxical and sometimes surreal, given that he relied entirely on inherited wealth. In 1874 he set up a tea room in Marylebone in which he hoped to install his beloved Rose La Touche, just one of the young women with whom he fell in love. At the same time he was sending out monthly newsletters to the working man, exhorting him to take note of the work of Albrecht Dürer and blasting the appalling poverty he saw in mid-19th-century Britain. These extraordinary samizdats were the forerunners of the blog – only with more soundbites and psychodrama. “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE” “Gunpowder and steam hammers are the toys of the insane and paralytic” “Meanwhile, at the other end – no, at the very centre of your great Babylon – a son leaves his father dead, and with his head, instead of a fire, in the fireplace…”

Ruskin was, after all, brought up to be a priest he delivered his first sermon to the family as a young child – it began, “People, be good.” His parents were of Scottish descent and in trade – his father a sherry merchant and his mother the daughter of a publican. But they had money and travelled around Europe in a custom-built coach Ruskin remembered that it had comfortably rounded corners to its interior woodwork.

These trips were the means of Ruskin’s epiphany: when he saw the Alps, his life changed. He knew the importance of art – in its record of nature. He went up to Oxford, but his mother came too – they took tea together every evening. In his late teens he fell in love with Adèle-Clotilde Domecq, daughter of one of his father’s partners, but her Catholicism meant a match was impossible. Ruskin turned for consolation to his love of the works of Turner, whom he met in 1840. The feeling wasn’t mutual the painter actually preferred the company of Ruskin’s father, having been freaked out by John’s description of him as “the great angel of the apocalypse”.

It was the birth of the named, as opposed to anonymous, art critic. But the “strange afflatus” in those blue eyes (he customarily wore a blue silk stock to reinforce the effect) betrayed an incipient instability. “Genius is made more comprehensible by a medical diagnosis,” Clark wrote, noting that Ruskin probably suffered from manic depression.

A semi-arranged marriage to Effie Gray was never going to work. She had no interest in being the domestic wife Ruskin wanted, and she didn’t appear to excite him sexually either – although the notion that he had been aghast at her pubic hair now seems to be a smear. Tim Hilton, author of the best biography of Ruskin, suggests that Effie may have been menstruating on their wedding night he also sees Ruskin’s offer to divorce his wife and sacrifice his own reputation as the act of a gentleman.

Ruskin followed this disaster with his infatuation with Rose La Touche. She was ten when they met he was 38. Their pathetic story ended in her early death, problably from anorexia, and his insanity. Ruskin withdrew into his madness his genius was withdrawn from us. He died on 20 January 1900, as if to end the century himself.

You can still visit the turret of Ruskin’s bedroom, from which he looked out one night over Coniston Water and lost his mind. Brantwood, the house that Ruskin bought in 1871 and extended into a gothic pile, hangs darkly over the still lake. It is a somewhat Wagnerian scenario you can even arrive by a gilded steam gondola.

It was from this eyrie that Ruskin had continued his utopian experiments. He created a hillside garden as a simulacrum of the natural world with which he so empathised, as though it were a reflection of his own body, the human physicality he could never reconcile with his dreams, with the spirit world or the even more intense world of aesthetics. He decried the craze for gothic – which he knew he had partly inspired, but which had resulted in the replication of a million gothicised suburban villas – as a personal betrayal of his vision of The Stones of Venice. His Guild of St George called for England’s renewal in colonies in the countryside. Workers would be paid fair wages and taught music, art and morality, along with “gentleness to all brute animals. It is not to be Communism,” he insisted, “[but] the old Feudal system applied to do good instead of evil.”

All this was directed from Brantwood, his northern palazzo, where he waited for the ominous storm-cloud of the 19th century to drift from the industrial oppression of Manchester and Bradford. He would row out into the middle of the lake and lie on his back looking at the sky, or play his self-invented stone xylophone, another physical evocation of the hard landscape, turning the Lake District into a musical instrument.

None of this kept the madness away. He dabbled with mesmerism. In Venice he felt the ghost of Rose La Touche, like a pre-echo of Don’t Look Now. He engaged mediums and summoned La Touche in seances, and saw her coming to him, in marriage, with Joan of Arc as their priest.

You may also come face to face with Ruskin’s ferocious intelligence at a new exhibition, The Power of Seeing, at London’s Two Temple Place – a selection of Ruskin’s works gathered in the grand mock-medieval interior built for William Waldorf Astor as his estate office.

Curated with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George, which carries Ruskin’s torch into the modern world, The Power of Seeing displays, beautifully and intimately, the artist’s evanescent watercolours and fugitive daguerreotypes (he copied them on vast posters so that his audience “might not be plagued in looking, by the lustre”). They are set alongside works by Turner, as well as diaries, plaster casts and two bizarre giant wooden birds’ feathers – like enormous quill pens – created as props for Ruskin’s public lectures by the taxidermist and animal preserver WF Davis.

The exhibition evokes the overstuffed museum that Ruskin installed at Walkley, outside Sheffield, supervised by one of his acolytes, Henry Swan – spiritualist, vegetarian and boomerang thrower – who “lectured visitors as if he were the speaking voice of Ruskin’s own books”. But then, his own master’s eccentric crusades still reverberate, as he declared himself – in his Scottish burr – to be against cycling, which joined train travel as one of the blasphemies of modern society: “I not only object, but am quite prepared to spend all my best ‘bad language’ in reprobation of the bi-, tri- and four-, five-, six-, or seven-cycles…”

Perhaps most moving is a corner dedicated to Ruskin’s worship of Dürer – Albert, as he called him, confidingly. The German artist’s enigmatic engraving Melencolia I hangs as kind of memento mori of Ruskin’s own melancholy. Yet that same instability turned his lectures into electric performances worthy of Joseph Beuys. Ruskin waved around his giant flowers and leaves like pop-art icons, and would strut across the stage in imitation of one of the birds whose beauty he was extolling, demonstrating its flapping wings with his cape.

These events were sell-out occasions, but whether people attended for their moral education or to witness the extreme behaviour of someone who was clearly mentally unwell, it is not easy to say. Set this furore against the quietness of his nature studies and you feel Ruskin’s beautiful, wanton mind: in a piece of frozen seaweed, a microcosmic vista of lichens and ferns as if lit by the moon or a bit of crumbling brick with moss growing on it, rendered in such detail that it hurtles towards you like an asteroid. It now seems like the last of England, this exquisite art, somehow symbolic of Ruskin’s synoptic, apocalyptic aesthetic.

In her brilliant little book – published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth – To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters (Quercus), art historian Suzanne Fagence Cooper makes plain why he does. Ruskin saw more clearly than most – more clearly than most critics, especially – because he was an artist. He believed that just as anyone can learn mathematics or another language, so they can draw it was only a matter of practice – and of looking.

He was, after all, a man who thought nothing of spending five hours just looking at the sea (he even upbraided Turner for being too conventional the artist’s water wasn’t wet enough) and who religiously made sure he witnessed the sun rise and set every day. Ruskin exhorted pupils to draw a stone: not to start with an outline of it, but to look at the way the light fell and render those patches in impressions of its stoneliness. “Now if you can draw the stone rightly,” he said, “everything within reach of art is also within yours.”

The art historian Robert Hewison observed that Ruskin’s puritanical religion directed him away from the problematic human body into the natural world hence Mike Leigh’s portrayal of the critic in his 2014 biopic Mr Turner as a simpering, sexless thing. But Ruskin is far more than a nature lover. He is a man who could see a mountain in a stone and make us believe it. We need him more than ever as we find ourselves evermore distanced from the world. At the height of his art and his humanity, Ruskin brings us vertiginously, exquisitely closer to what really matters. There is no wealth but life.

“John Ruskin: The Power Of Seeing” runs until 22 April at Two Temple Place


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