This article is about the art critic. For the painting by Millais, see John Ruskin (painting). For the Canadian media personality, see Nardwuar the Human Serviette.
Ruskin in 1863
|Born||(1819-02-08)8 February 1819|
54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London
|Died||20 January 1900(1900-01-20) (aged 80)|
Brantwood, Coniston, England
|Occupation||Writer, art critic, draughtsman, watercolourist, social thinker|
|Alma mater||Christ Church, Oxford|
King's College, London
|Notable works||Modern Painters 5 vols. (1843–60), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice 3 vols. (1851–53), Unto This Last (1860, 1862), Fors Clavigera (1871–84), Praeterita 3 vols. (1885–89).|
|Spouse||Effie Gray (1848–54, annulled)|
John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy.
His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. He penned essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation.
The elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing on art gave way in time to plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.
He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation has steadily improved since the 1960s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognised as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft.
Ruskin first came to widespread attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defence of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is "truth to nature". From the 1850s he championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly "letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain", published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organisation that endures today.
Early life (1819–1846)
Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. His father, John James Ruskin, (1785–1864), was a sherry and wine importer, 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. His wife, Margaret Cox, née Cock (1781–1871), was the daughter of an aunt on the English side of the family and a publican in Croydon. She had joined the Ruskin household when she became companion to John James's mother, Catherine.
John James had hoped to practice law, and was articled as a clerk in London. 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. John James and Margaret were engaged in 1809, but opposition to the union from John Thomas, and the issuance of the debt, delayed their wedding which was finally conducted without celebration in 1818. John James died on 3 March 1864 and is buried in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist, Shirley, Croydon.
Childhood and education
Ruskin was born at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London (demolished 1969), south of St Pancras railway station. His childhood was characterised by the contrasting influences of his father and mother, both 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. Margaret Ruskin, an Evangelical Christian, more cautious and restrained than her husband, taught young John to read the King James Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Its language, imagery and stories had a profound and lasting effect on his writing.
Ruskin's childhood was spent from 1823 at 28 Herne Hill (demolished c. 1912), near the village of Camberwell in South London. It was not the friendless and toyless experience he later claimed in his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). He was educated at home by his parents and private tutors, and from 1834 to 1835 attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive Evangelical, Thomas Dale (1797–1870). Ruskin heard Dale lecture in 1836 at King's College, London, where Dale was the first Professor of English Literature. Ruskin went on to enroll and complete his studies at King's College, where he prepared for Oxford under Dale's tutelage.
Ruskin was greatly influenced by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. Travel helped establish his taste and augmented his education. His father visited business clients in Britain's country houses, exposing him to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. Tours took them to the Lake District (his first long poem, Iteriad, was an account of his 1830 tour) and to relations in Perth, Scotland. As early as 1825, the family visited France and Belgium. Their continental tours became increasingly ambitious in scope, so that in 1833 they visited Strasbourg, Schaffhausen, Milan, Genoa and Turin, places to which Ruskin frequently returned. He developed his lifelong love of the Alps, and in 1835 he first visited Venice, that 'Paradise of cities' that formed both the symbolism and subject of much of his later work.
The tours provided Ruskin with the opportunity to observe and to record his impressions of nature. He composed elegant if largely conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship's Offering. 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 a copy of Samuel Rogers's poem, Italy (1830), which was given to him as a 13th birthday present. In particular, he admired deeply the accompanying illustrations by J. M. W. Turner, and much of his art in the 1830s was in imitation of Turner, and 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 James Duffield Harding. Gradually, he abandoned his picturesque style in favour of naturalism.
First publications of Ruskin
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). 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.
From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin's The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in Loudon's Architectural Magazine, under the pen name "Kata Physin" (Greek for "According to Nature"). It was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centred on a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials, and 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.
In Michaelmas 1836, Ruskin matriculated at the University of Oxford, taking up residence at Christ Church in January of the following year. Enrolled as a gentleman-commoner, he enjoyed equal status with his aristocratic peers. His study of classical "Greats" might, his parents hoped, lead him to take Holy Orders and become a bishop, perhaps even the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ruskin was generally uninspired by Oxford and suffered bouts of illness. Perhaps the keenest advantage of his time in residence was found in the few, close friendships he made. His tutor, the Rev Walter Lucas Brown, was always encouraging, as was a young senior tutor, Henry Liddell (later the father of Alice Liddell) and a private tutor, the Rev Osborne Gordon. He became close to the geologist and natural theologian, William Buckland. Among Ruskin's fellow undergraduates, the most important friends were Charles Thomas Newton and Henry Acland.
His biggest success came in 1839 when at the third attempt he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry (Arthur Hugh Clough came second). He met William Wordsworth, who was receiving an honorary degree, at the ceremony. But Ruskin never achieved independence at Oxford. His mother lodged on High Street and his father joined them at weekends. His health was poor and he was devastated to hear his first love, Adèle Domecq, second daughter of his father's business partner, was engaged to a French nobleman. In the midst of exam revision, in April 1840, he coughed blood, raising fears of consumption, and leading to a long break from Oxford.
Before he returned, he answered a challenge set down 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 fairy tale, The King of the Golden River (published in December 1850 (but imprinted 1851) with illustrations by Richard Doyle). 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. At Oxford, he sat for a pass degree in 1842, and was awarded with an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree in recognition of his achievements.
Modern Painters I (1843)
Much of the period, from late 1840 to autumn 1842, Ruskin spent abroad with his parents, principally 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, 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 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.
Before Ruskin began Modern Painters, John James Ruskin had begun collecting watercolours, including works by Samuel Prout and, from 1839, 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 but authoritative title, "A Graduate of Oxford," was Ruskin's response to Turner's critics. An electronic edition is available online. 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 Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude, and Salvator Rosa, unlike Turner, favoured pictorial convention, and not "truth to nature". He explained that he meant "moral as well as material truth". The job of the artist is to observe the reality of nature and not to invent it in a studio—to render what he has seen and understood imaginatively on canvas, 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 reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man's work, notably Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. 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 the nearly 20,000 sketches Turner gave to the British nation.
1845 tour and Modern Painters II (1846)
Ruskin toured the continent again with his parents 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 object of his love, Rose La Touche). He drew inspiration from what he saw at the Campo Santo in Pisa, and in Florence. He was particularly impressed by the works of Fra Angelico and Giotto in San Marco, and Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco but was alarmed by the combined effects of decay and modernisation on Venice: "Venice is lost to me," he wrote. It crystallised his lifelong conviction that to restore was to destroy, and that the only true course was preservation and conservation.
Drawing on his travels, he wrote the second volume of Modern Painters (published April 1846). The volume concentrated more on Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists 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". In defining categories of beauty and imagination, Ruskin argued all great artists must perceive beauty and, with their imagination, communicate it creatively through symbols. Generally, critics gave this second volume a warmer reception although many found the attack on the aesthetic orthodoxy associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds difficult to take. 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.
Middle life (1847–1869)
Marriage to Effie Gray
During 1847 Ruskin became closer to Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends. It was for Effie 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. It was the site of the suicide of John Thomas Ruskin (Ruskin's grandfather). Largely owing to this association, Ruskin's parents did not attend. The European Revolutions of 1848 meant that the newlyweds' earliest travelling together was limited, but they were able to visit Normandy, where Ruskin admired the Gothic architecture.
Their early life together was spent at 31 Park Street, Mayfair (later addresses included nearby 6 Charles Street, and 30 Herne Hill) secured for them by Ruskin's father. Effie was too ill 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 the social conscience that became increasingly sensitive.
The marriage, not consummated, later dissolved under discord and eventual annulment.
Ruskin's developing interest in architecture, and particularly in the Gothic revival, led to the first work to bear his name, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). 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. Ruskin argued that restoration is destruction; ancient buildings should be preserved, but no attempt should be made to erase the accumulated history encoded in their decay.
In August 1850 Ruskin and Effie were at Wenlock Abbey where Ruskin sketched some of the arcading in the Norman Chapter House, which was used in The Stones of Venice.
The Stones of Venice
In November 1849, Effie and John Ruskin visited Venice, staying at the Hotel Danieli. 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 they would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops. One of these troops, Lieutenant Charles Paulizza, made friends with Effie, apparently with no objection from Ruskin. 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). Developing from a technical history of Venetian architecture, from the Romanesque to the Renaissance, into a broad cultural history, Stones also reflected Ruskin's view of contemporary England. It acted as a warning about the moral and spiritual health of society. Ruskin argued that Venice had slowly deteriorated. 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. 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, not 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.
— John Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn 10.201.
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.
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", depicting nature in fine detail, had been influenced by Ruskin.
Ruskin came into contact with Millais after the artists approached him through their mutual friend Coventry Patmore. 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 PRB to The Times in May 1851. 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 seeking 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," a charge Ruskin later disputed. Ruskin wrote, "I can prove my virility at once." 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 continued 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). 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"). 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). They were highly influential, capable of making and breaking reputations. The satirical magazine, Punch, for example, 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."
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. 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. 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.
Ruskin's theories also inspired some architects to adapt the Gothic style. Such buildings created what has been called a distinctive "Ruskinian Gothic". Through his friendship with Sir Henry Acland, from 1854 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 completely to satisfy Ruskin. 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.
Ruskin and education
The Museum was part of a wider plan to improve science provision at Oxford, something the University initially resisted. The mid-1850s saw Ruskin's first direct involvement in education, 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. Although he did not share the founders' politics, he strongly supported the idea that through education workers could achieve a crucially important sense of (self-)fulfilment. One result of this involvement was Ruskin's Elements of Drawing (1857). He had taught several women drawing by letter, and his book was both a response and a challenge to contemporary drawing manuals. It 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.
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, Ruskin approved of the mixture of sports, handicrafts, music and dancing embraced by its principal, Miss Bell. The association led to Ruskin's sub-Socratic work, The Ethics of the Dust (published December 1865, imprinted 1866), an imagined conversation with Winnington girls in which he cast himself as the "Old Lecturer". On the surface a discourse on crystallography, it represents 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. (It was also replicated in the 19th century at the Cork High School for Girls.)
Modern Painters III and IV
Both volumes III and IV of Modern Painters were published in 1856. In MP III Ruskin argued that all great art is "the expression of the spirits of great men". 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 its moral and spiritual influence on those living nearby. The contrasting final chapters, "The Mountain Glory" and "The Mountain Gloom" provide an early example of Ruskin’s social analysis, highlighting the poverty of the peasants living in the lower Alps.
In addition to his more formal teaching classes, Ruskin became an increasingly popular public lecturer in the 1850s. His first were in Edinburgh, in November 1853, on architecture and painting. 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. He spoke about how to acquire, and how to use art, 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 intervention outraged his father and the "Manchester School" of economists, as represented by a hostile review in the Manchester Examiner and Times. As the Ruskin scholar, Helen Gill Viljoen, notes Ruskin was increasingly critical of his father, especially in letters written by Ruskin directly to him, many of them still unpublished.
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.The Two Paths (1859), five lectures given in London, Manchester, Bradford and Tunbridge Ruskin argued that a 'vital law' underpins art and architecture, drawing on the labour theory of value. (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, to Germany and Switzerland.
Ruskin had been in Venice when he heard about Turner's death in 1851. Named an executor to Turner's will, it was an honour that Ruskin respectfully declined, but later took up. In 1856 Ruskin's book in celebration of the sea, The Harbours of England, revolving around Turner's drawings, was published. In January 1857, Ruskin's Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House, 1856 was published. He persuaded the National Gallery to allow him to work on the Turner Bequest of nearly 20,000 individual art-works left to the nation by the artist. This involved Ruskin in an enormous amount of work, completed in May 1858: cataloguing, framing and conserving. 400 watercolours were displayed in cabinets of Ruskin's design. Recent scholarship has argued that Ruskin did not, as previously thought, collude in the destruction of Turner's erotic drawings, but his work on the Bequest did modify his attitude towards Turner. (See below, Controversies: Turner’s Erotic Drawings)
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. But in reality he had doubted his Evangelical Christian faith for some time, threatened by Biblical and geological scholarship that had undermined the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible: "those dreadful hammers!" he wrote to Henry Acland, "I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses." This "loss of faith" precipitated a considerable crisis. His confidence undermined, he believed that much of his writing to date had been founded on a bed of lies and half-truths. He later returned to Christianity.
Social critic and reformer: Unto This Last
Whenever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.
Although Ruskin said in 1877 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. Following his crisis of faith, and influenced in part by his friend, Thomas Carlyle (whom he had first met in 1850), Ruskin's emphasis shifted from art towards social issues from the end the 1850s. Nevertheless, he continued to lecture on and write about a dazzlingly wide range of subjects including art and, among many others, geology (in June 1863 he lectured on the Alps), art practice and judgement (The Cestus of Aglaia), botany and mythology (Proserpina, The Queen of the Air). He continued to draw and paint in watercolours, and to travel widely 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 eloquent style, writing now in plainer, simpler language, to communicate his message straightforwardly.
There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Ruskin's social view broadened from concerns about the dignity of labour to consider wider 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 labourer from his product), and argued that the "science" of political economy failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together. Ruskin articulated an extended metaphor of household and family, drawing on Plato and Xenophon to demonstrate the communal and sometimes sacrificial nature of true economics. For Ruskin, all economies, and all societies are ideally underwritten by a politics of social justice. Ruskin's 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 was published in a single volume in 1862. However, its editor, William Makepeace Thackeray, was forced to abandon the series by the outcry of its largely conservative readership and the fears of a nervous publisher (Smith, Elder & Co.). The press reaction was hostile, and Ruskin was, he claimed, "reprobated in a violent manner". His father also strongly disapproved. 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."
Ruskin's political ideas, and Unto This Last in particular, later proved highly influential, praised and paraphrased in Gujarati by Mohandas Gandhi, a wide range of autodidacts, the economist John A. Hobson and many of the founders of the British Labour party. Ruskin believed in a hierarchical social structure. He wrote "I was, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school." He believed in duties and responsibilities to, and under, God, and whilst 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.
— Cook and Wedderburn 17.34
Ruskin's explorations of nature and aesthetics in the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters focused on Giorgione, Paolo Veronese, Titian and Turner. Ruskin asserted that the components of the greatest art are held together, like human communities, in quasi-organic unity. Competitive struggle is destructive. Uniting Modern Painters V and Unto This Last is Ruskin's "Law of Help":
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.
— Cook and Wedderburn 7.207 and 17.25.
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)). Ruskin explored further political themes in Time and Tide (1867), his letters to Thomas Dixon, the cork-cutter in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear with 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, Ruskin inherited a considerable fortune of between £120,000 and £157,000 (the exact figure is disputed). This considerable inheritance from the father he described on his tombstone as "an entirely honest merchant" 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), by buying property in Marylebone for her philanthropic housing scheme. But Ruskin's endeavours extended to 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
Ruskin lectured widely in the 1860s, giving the Rede lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1867, for example. 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 relations of 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. "I do not care about this Exchange," Ruskin told his audience, "because you don't!" These last three lectures were published in The Crown of Wild Olive (1866).
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 King's 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 books, and was regularly awarded as a Sunday School prize. The book's reception over time, however, has been more mixed, and twentieth-century feminists have taken aim at "Of Queens' Gardens" particularly as an effort to "subvert the new heresy" of women's rights by confining women to the domestic sphere.
Later life (1869–1900)
Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art
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. He delivered his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre
Ruskin’s principal literary and philosophical focus during his fifty-year-long career centered upon the examination of the moral significance of the function of art and the role of the artist in society. He first expressed that focus at the beginning of his career while at Oxford, when he came most directly under the influence of the artist J. M. W. Turner. Turner’s landscape painting at that time remained virtually unknown to the general public and unappreciated by all who were aware of it except for a small circle of admirers and patrons who recognized his genius. Ruskin was among that circle, young as he was, and had already begun collecting Turner drawings following his meeting with the artist during Ruskin’s third year at Oxford. When Turner’s landscape paintings began to receive hostile commentary because of their impressionistic innovations in such respected London literary journals of the day as the Literary Gazette and the Athenaeum, such attacks provoked the young Ruskin to set the public right about the true genius of his hero and the true nature and function of art. That he did in the first volume of Modern Painters, a work over which he labored for nearly three years before his father, acting on his behalf, submitted it for publication. Appearing under the title Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters Proved by Examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual, from the Works of Modern Artists, Especially from Those of J. M. W. Turner, Esq. R. A., it was published anonymously because both Ruskin and his father feared that exposure of the author’s age would detract from the seriousness with which it would be received by the public. Very early in this work, Ruskin reveals his philosophy of art, from which he would never deviate, and which forms the basis of all of his other work and theory. Simply stated, this philosophy avows that a work of art can be judged only according to the values of the artist that are reflected in it.
Ruskin’s interest in helping to shape the way in which art and the world of nature would be perceived by his compatriots predated the publication of this seminal work and can be seen, already, in his first serious effort at critical analysis in “The Poetry of Architecture,” which appeared in The Architectural Magazine in 1837 and 1838 under the pseudonym “According to Nature.” There, he expresses his desire to have a positive influence upon the transformation of a materialistic, poorly educated, increasingly industrial, and, therefore, increasingly economically polarized population into a nation that is at once moral and sensible to the beauties of the natural world, as well as the world of individual craftsmanship and personal virtue.
The essay compares the architecture of English and French cottages as they reveal the idiosyncratic nature of the national character of the individuals who inhabit them, with the edge in this comparison definitely falling upon the more meritorious values of the English architects. Finally, the essay examines the ideal that was to become the ultimate goal of Ruskin’s lifelong mission: the formation of taste, his parallel commitment to the ideals of Truth and Beauty, as William Wordsworth and John Keats would have interpreted these ideals, an aim that he imparts with evangelical zeal in the preface to volume 1 of Modern Painters.
The harmonious connection that Ruskin saw between Virtue, Truth, Beauty, and their expression in great art represents the cornerstone upon which all of his prolific, voluminous examinations of art, history, and literature would rest for the remainder of his life. It is clearly reiterated in one of his public Oxford lectures given during the 1870’s, where he once again defines the nexus that exists between the one and the other:You must have the right moral state first, or you cannot have the art. But when the art is once obtained, its reflected action enhances and completes the moral state out of which it arose, and, above all, communicates the exultation to other minds which are already morally capable of the like.
As Ruskin moved on from the brilliant beginnings of his career as moral arbiter and architect of a nation’s taste, his purpose and promise never swerved but increased in recognition until the final decade of his life, when he succumbed to the debilitating pathological depression that prevented him from writing all but the briefest notes to his closest friends and companions. Beginning in the 1860’s, he traded the more cloistered audience of the literary and art journals and the private society of a privileged, intellectually attuned, largely academic circle of friends for that of the public lecture platform. There, he transformed a theory of art and culture into a social and political philosophy rooted in the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ and coupled with an abiding belief in the ability of human society to be transformed into a paradise of working men and women freed from the tyranny of industrial exploitation and avarice.
During these years, he became a journalist through his workers’ newsletter, Fors Clavigera, as well as a lecturer and teacher of art in the Workmen’s College experiment that transformed British higher education by opening it to laborers and the children of the working class. The thrust of this popularization of his ideals and ideas can be seen flourishing today in ecological and environmental circles throughout the world.
First published: 1843-1860
Type of work: Art history and criticism
The greatness of a work of art is measured by its careful observation of the moral and spiritual superiority of the natural or real world over the mechanical.
Modern Painters is the work that gained for Ruskin the recognition of the English world of letters and creativity. Published in 1843, when Ruskin was twenty-four, it represents the young Oxford graduate’s defense of his spiritual and intellectual mentor, J. M. W. Turner, the great English Romantic landscape painter, against the adversarial criticisms of the British intellectual press. Although Turner was an associate of the Royal Academy of Art, he was principally noted for his illustrations of such famous British authors as Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. The work goes far beyond Ruskin’s expressed aim, however, as it expresses in its earliest and most seminal form the author’s philosophy of art and his most profound spiritual and moral philosophies of life. This philosophy is, perhaps, best expressed in his perception that the appreciation and ability to transform such appreciation into full-blown artistic fruition depends upon a physical sensibility that can aesthetically and truthfully evaluate the physical attributes of beauty and truth and transform them, honestly, upon canvas into a higher expression of the spiritual significance of the natural.
Of all the ideas that art seeks to communicate, Ruskin states—ideas...
(The entire section is 2914 words.)