John Ruskin was a Victorian writer in the most literal sense. Born three months before the future queen in 1819, he predeceased her in 1900 by just over a year. 2019 therefore marks a double bicentenary, but there are no prizes for guessing which has attracted more notice. In contrast to the respect accorded to him in his lifetime, amounting in some cases to veneration, Ruskin is little read now, and most of his work is out of print. Admittedly, the undertaking resembles one of his beloved Alpine ascents: the Library Edition of his collected works, published between 1903 and 1912, fills thirty-nine stout volumes. Until silenced in 1889 by a final bout of mental illness, which had been preceded by several breakdowns, he was a compulsive writer. “If I had been Robinson Crusoe,” he engagingly confessed, “I should have written books for Friday!” Much of his private writing, in the form of diaries and letters, was destroyed after his death by his executors, and not all that survives has been published. In these circumstances, the appearance of Richard Lansdown’s new, extensive (but very expensive) anthology of Ruskin’s prose is to be warmly welcomed. It comes with a chronology, useful biographical notes on the artists and architects Ruskin discusses, helpful annotation which makes links between the selected texts and others not included, and an introduction which does its best to present Ruskin on his own terms while arguing for his continuing social and political relevance. (His literary influence is fainter, although Seamus Perry, in the London Review of Books of September 12, 2019, has claimed Geoffrey Hill as a spiritual heir.)
Lansdown admits that there is no ideal way of organizing his material. Previous collections have tended to choose from the same few texts, but he is more ambitious. His threefold division of excerpts—“The Aesthete,” “The Prophet,” and “The Activist”—while convenient, is slightly artificial, because Ruskin’s art criticism is also a call for spiritual regeneration and a rebuke to social injustice. A straightforward chronological arrangement has its own limitations, but it would have given a clearer picture of the development of Ruskin’s thought. His concerns have much in common with Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843) and Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), and his style recalls both Carlyle’s Old Testament–prophet rhetoric and Dickens’s surreal humor. His work exhibits remarkable variety of tone, so it is good that Lansdown has chosen to give space to less familiar works. He omits The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and Unto This Last (1862) and prints only three short extracts from Praeterita, Ruskin’s incomplete, imaginatively powerful, but factually unreliable autobiography, written between 1885 and 1889, which, like Unto This Last, is still obtainable. This makes room for excerpts from Ruskin’s notes on Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1850s; Time and Tide by Wear and Tyne (1867), a little-known series of open letters on work and leisure; and late, neglected works such as Love’s Meinie (1873—a meinie is a retinue of attendants) and St Mark’s Rest (1877). Fors Clavigera (1871–78, 1880–84), ninety-six weekly open letters to working people, in many ways his most ambitious and original work, is well represented (a fuller selection, by Dinah Birch, was published in 2000).
“The object of a University,” he told students when he was himself a professor, “is to form your conceptions;—not to acquaint you with arts, nor sciences.”
Ruskin’s background was unusual. He was an only child. His father, John James, was a wealthy wine merchant; his mother was an evangelical Protestant, and the Bible, much of which he knew by heart, remained a lifelong influence on his thought and style. Spoiled and indulged, caught between a possessive father and a repressive mother, he grew into a self-centered adult. “I will associate with no man,” he wrote to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “who does not more or less accept my own estimate of myself.” He inherited the mental instability of his paternal grandfather, who had committed suicide and left the family saddled with debts. In 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession, he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read classics. He was a keen geologist, already well traveled, and well read in Romantic literature. His father’s money purchased for him the privileged status of gentleman-commoner, but he remained a loner and outsider, regarded as eccentric. The classical university curriculum was not to his taste, although he was to make extensive and original use of classical myth in later life, and there are some extremely acute pages on Greek tragedy, included by Lansdown, in Volume V of Modern Painters. (Ruskin’s literary-critical remarks, for instance on Dante or Scott, tend to be overlooked but are frequently worth pondering.) Science, which was not formally taught at Oxford, was more attractive, and together with his friend Henry Acland he was later to establish the university’s Natural History Museum. Illness prevented his taking an honors degree, but he showed enough ability to be given an “honorary double fourth” in 1842. He was indifferent to conventional scholarship. “The object of a University,” he told students when he was himself a professor, “is to form your conceptions;—not to acquaint you with arts, nor sciences.”
In 1840 Ruskin had first met the man whose tireless champion he was to become, the painter J. M. W. Turner. Freed by his father’s wealth from the need to earn a living (and ultimately inheriting a fortune which would make him a multimillionaire in today’s money), he began to acquire Turners in profusion and devoted himself to drawing, painting, and writing. In 1843 the first volume of Modern Painters burst upon an astonished world, and Ruskin’s reputation as an art critic was launched. Year in, year out, he toured Switzerland and Italy, researching the four later volumes of Modern Painters (1846, 1856, 1860), the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851, 1853), and other works.
Modern Painters constituted an extended defense of Turner against the champions of conventional classicism. These people thought of Turner, ironically, as Ruskin was later to think of Whistler in a celebrated court case: they denied that he could paint at all. Ruskin, however, contended that Turner’s great virtue was his fidelity to the way the natural world actually looked. Taking a canvas attributed to Poussin, Ruskin made fun of its absurdities: bushes painted the same size and with an equal number of leaves, a rock supposedly in the shade but painted red all over (“the only thing like colour in the picture”), and a stretch of road, theoretically in sunlight but painted “a very cool green grey.” He then gave a gorgeous description of the same landscape as he had actually seen it in Italy: “I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration.” After piling up the visual details—a sky “deep palpitating azure,” each leaf “first a torch and then an emerald,” rock “flushed with scarlet lichen,” and much more—Ruskin asks “Tell me who is likest this, Poussin or Turner?,” adding for good measure that, in fact, the scene was more vivid even than Turner’s palette could have made it. In a similar vein, he defended the Pre-Raphaelites for determining to “draw what they see . . . irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making.”
Ruskin’s background was unusual. Spoiled and indulged, caught between a possessive father and a repressive mother, he grew into a self-centered adult.
The later, more theoretical volumes of Modern Painters discuss color, mass, and proportion, together with the aesthetic sense, which Ruskin prefers to call theoretic, in order to avoid any suggestions of sensual decadence. Despite his incongruous admiration for Swinburne’s poetry, he was no friend to fin-de-siècle dandyism and kept his distance from Pater, who in turn refrained from ad hominem engagement while providing, in The Renaissance and elsewhere, a covert running critique of Ruskin’s ideas. As the critic Bernard Richards has pointed out, there was nonetheless a Paterian side to Ruskin, in his emphasis on the supreme value of the impression made by a work of art on the consciousness of the spectator. Yet “the impressions of beauty,” Ruskin insists, “are moral.” Nature reveals God’s handiwork, and art in any form is a religious vocation. As this suggests, he was a late Romantic, pondering the relation of the mind to the external world, interested in the “science of Aspects,” the unity of physical sight and spiritual discernment. If, in such rhetorical tours de force as the passage just quoted, he strives to do in language what Turner did in paint, he can also be minutely forensic. Few writers on art have been as brilliant as Ruskin at the deceptively simple task of describing a picture. His analysis of Turner’s Heysham in The Elements of Drawing (1857) shows a gift, worthy of Sherlock Holmes, for deduction from details. His scientific interests were conditioned by a detestation of anything clinical or reductive—Darwin made him uncomfortable—but after reading his ten-page account of the swallow, from Love’s Meinie, we may well wonder if we have ever actually seen a bird. The art historian Malcolm Andrews, in an excellent lecture, “Ruskin at 200,” which may be viewed online, after noting that the average estimated time anyone spends looking at a picture in a gallery is between seventeen and thirty seconds, praised Ruskin’s practice of “slow art appreciation.” Ruskin’s prose needs slow reading, too, which is one reason why he has fallen out of favor.
Like Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice had a polemical purpose, in this case the defense not of an individual artist but of a style. Ruskin argued for the superiority of Gothic to all other forms of architecture (the Oxford Natural History Museum conforms closely to his ideal of a Gothic building). A. W. N. Pugin, who later co-designed London’s Palace of Westminster (more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament), had already made this case in Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Christian Architecture (1841), but Pugin had become a Roman Catholic, and Ruskin, somewhat inconsistently, wished to associate pure Gothic with Protestantism. This required a historiographical theory: he maintained that the Renaissance had brought about the destruction of good architecture in Venice, a sort of aesthetic and moral Fall, and that England was in danger of suffering the same fate unless the nobility of Gothic were again acknowledged, in which case “the London of the nineteenth century may yet become as Venice without her despotism, and as Florence without her dispeace [i.e. wars].” The famous chapter in volume II of Stones, “The Nature of Gothic,” sets out the characteristics of the style and also its craftsmen: “savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, redundance.” These seem incompatible, but what mattered to Ruskin was the overall aim of combining austere purity of fundamental form with freedom of ornamentation. The workers on a Gothic building, he maintained, could express their individuality, but “the Renaissance poison-tree,” by replacing “tenderness of feeling” with “dexterity of touch,” made them into automata, “animated tool[s],” their souls evaporating like the smoke of factory chimneys. A factory worker has no independence of thought or action, whereas Ruskin saw the possibility of human error as essential to true creativity, pointing out that there was no uniformity in nature (an intriguing link with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s respect for the “thisness” of each created thing).
Ruskin’s wife, Euphemia (“Effie”), whom he had married in 1848, accompanied him to Venice on two occasions, but the union was a disaster from the start. Ruskin was bored by social niceties, his father looked down upon Effie’s family, and, most disastrously, his attitude to sexual matters was one of horror and disgust. After six years, the marriage was annulled, and Effie subsequently married the painter John Everett Millais, with whom she had fallen in love while he was painting Ruskin’s portrait. The legal judgment which annulled the marriage attributed the collapse to Ruskin’s impotence. There were dark undercurrents in his psychological make-up; he found babies repulsive but idolized young girls. His worship (the word is not too strong) of Rose La Touche, who was born the year he married Effie, and whom he met in 1858 when she was nine, was a source of agony and ecstasy in equal measure. There was no impropriety, and when Rose was eighteen he proposed marriage, but received an inconclusive answer. The relationship, encouraged by Ruskin’s well-meaning but unwise friends, was opposed by the La Touche family with Effie Millais’ support, and was constantly in turmoil because of Ruskin’s and Rose’s unstable personalities. Religious mania, together with anorexia, contributed to her death in 1875, aged only twenty-seven. From this blow Ruskin’s health and sanity never wholly recovered. In the circumstances, his uninterrupted literary output is astonishing. It includes Unto This Last, with its famous maxim “There is no wealth but life”; several volumes of lectures based on his time as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford (1869–79, 1883–85); Fors Clavigera; and Praeterita. Sadly, the later works are increasingly affected by derangement triggered by the obsession with Rose.
The chosen architecture of a society, Ruskin believed, is the expression of its soul: bad buildings indicated moral and spiritual corruption. They also led to a disastrous gap between the interests of capital and labor. He denounced the idolatry of the “Britannia of the Marketplace,” the “Goddess of Getting-On” whose faith was summed up by the prayer “Give us this day our daily money.” He invented a brilliant modern version of the parable of the good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan, on leaving, gives the innkeeper two pence as in the Bible, but says, “When I come again, thou shalt give me fourpence.” As I previously suggested, Ruskin’s perception of the worker’s need for self-fulfilment is shared with Carlyle and Dickens—although, again like them, he was no democrat. A vote given to a working man, he said, would not be “worth a rat’s squeak.” Nor did he put any faith in Parliament itself, feeling that Plato’s republic provided a better model of government.
Rather than campaign for extended suffrage, Ruskin made repeated attempts to address the literate working class directly, in Time and Tide, a series of open letters to Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter from Sunderland in the north-east, and later in Fors Clavigera, whose title (roughly, “Fate bearing the nail”) suggests the implacability of destiny. Dixon, an intelligent and inquiring man, had written to several celebrated authors asking them to donate their works to a local library he was establishing, and asking their views on questions of the day. Of the replies by Ruskin printed by Lansdown, Letter 8, from 1867,is an exposition of the various ways of interpreting the Bible as the word of God, which is a model of conciseness, lucidity, and good sense. The theory of literal inspiration and inerrancy is dismissed as “tenable by no ordinary well-educated person,” while that which regards the Bible as the expression of “the best efforts made by any of the races of men towards the discovery of some relations with the spiritual world,” to be considered with critical respect but as not in itself better than other sacred writings, is said to have been, “for the last half-century, the theory of the soundest scholars and thinkers of Europe.”
The chosen architecture of a society, Ruskin believed, is the expression of its soul: bad buildings indicated moral and spiritual corruption.
This was certainly Ruskin’s own approach to the Bible in his later years. The early orthodox Christianity which he learned from his mother led him, in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, to equate classical art with immoral paganism, and Christian art with virtue. That view broke down after what he called an “unconversion” when he attended a particularly cheerless Protestant service in Turin in 1858. He came to reject the “narrow sectarianism” of Stones, with its anti-Catholic sniping. Thereafter, while continuing to read his Bible (but protesting “Nothing could ever persuade me that God writes vulgar Greek”), he left organized religion behind. His reverence for the human Jesus remained, and his defense of William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (1851–1856) in a letter to the Times contrasts strikingly with his scorn for the unreal Christs of Raphael. His sense of prophetic mission and social responsibility produced works well described by Michael Wheeler, in Ruskin’s God (1999), as “Victorian wisdom literature.” He became more sympathetic to the mystical, as distinct from the dogmatic, side of Catholicism as he grew older. In 1874 he spent some time in the monastery at Assisi. As Wheeler points out, the charter for the St George’s Company (later the Guild of St George), which Ruskin founded in 1871 in a heroically misguided attempt to revive the medieval craft guild system, was a secular version of the Franciscan Rule.
Increasingly, however, he elaborated a weird private religion based partly on mythology and partly on his worship of Rose La Touche. Dinah Birch’s excellent book Ruskin’s Myths (1988) analyzes the Victorian fascination with myth as a joint product of late-Romantic primitivism and the emerging disciplines of comparative religion and anthropology; scientific advance caused a revaluation rather than a rejection of the value of myths. Ruskin was particularly drawn to Greek myths, not for their Arnoldian “sweetness and light” but because, as he put it, “the Greeks never shrink from horror . . . they strive to sound the secrets of sorrow.” At one time he contemplated writing a book on Apollo (for Turner, it will be recalled, “the Sun is God”). He also took an unusual interest in Egyptian myth. As for Rose, in Ruskin’s imagination she became the Virgin Mary, Carpaccio’s St Ursula, Dante’s Beatrice, and the goddess Proserpina all rolled into one. He made much of the coincidence that the word “Proserpina” contained her name, and their shared interest in flower symbolism prompted him to write a book on the subject called Proserpina (1885). This and others of Ruskin’s later works are implicitly addressed to and about Rose, and contained coded messages for her. (After her death he believed she remained in communication with him.) The only one we can be sure she read is The Queen of the Air (1869), her copy of which survives, with annotations deploring Ruskin’s “heathenish” views—for Rose, ironically, was as sturdily evangelical as Ruskin’s mother had been.
Ruskin became famous as a lecturer, at Oxford and elsewhere. Contemporary reports show that the published versions do not always give a full idea of his unpredictable behavior and utterances, which left his audiences as much perplexed as enlightened. Yet here, as in Fors Clavigera, Ruskin’s voice jumps off the page, in marked contrast to his early formal style, reflecting the movement of his mind, which was associative, intuitive, and lateral. One of the most dazzling items in Lansdown’s book, which he describes as “almost perfectly unquantifiable,” is a second extract from Love’s Meinie, the lecture on the chough, a member of the crow family corvidae. In a phrase Hopkins could have used, Ruskin calls attention to “the reticulation and in weaving [sic] of the idea,” tracked through multiple classical references, which connects the bird’s beak and plume with military aggression, gossip, and darkness. He finds this very apt for his own century, characterized by “the chattering, and the croaking, and the blackness—externally; the mockery and the feeding on carrion, in the spirit.” Ranging through Homer and Dante, Hesiod, Ovid, and the Psalms, Ruskin arrives at the raven as symbol of death, especially death brought about by anger. This prompts him to insist that anger is no fit subject for art, and to contrast Ghirlandaio’s Massacre of the Innocents (1486–90) with Duccio’s Maestà (1311), the former an unworthy use of the painter’s talents, the latter a visual prayer for peace, the spirit of the dove rather than the raven. The lecture concludes with a denunciation of the current Royal Academy exhibition with its “maudlin sentiment, carrion tragedy, insolent portraiture, absent religion, and puzzled, joyless, or meanly curious spectators.”
To call this illogical raving is simply to fail to understand how Ruskin thinks. Matthew Arnold, with that imperturbability of his which is sometimes more disturbing than Ruskin’s madness, exhibited such a failure when he convicted Ruskin of provinciality, and played him off against Sainte-Beuve. In his own way, Ruskin was as much of a propagandist on behalf of culture as Arnold; Sesame and Lilies (1865) denounces English philistinism with as much vigor as Culture and Anarchy (1869). We might even say that Ruskin was a more advanced educational thinker than the school inspector Arnold; he told parents that their daughters should be as well educated as their sons, and that governesses were entitled to the same respect as schoolteachers or dons: “You do not treat the Dean of Christ Church or the Master of Trinity as your inferiors.” Ruskin acted on his own principles. From 1859 he wrote regular letters to the pupils at a girls’ school in Cheshire which he helped out financially, and his conversations with them inspired The Ethics of the Dust (1865), a work in dialogue form “on the elements of crystallisation,” from which Lansdown prints a chapter about mineralogy. The girls were expected to be intellectually curious.
Ruskin was largely self-taught, and he knew that formal systems, curricula, and examinations do not in themselves guarantee an education. Without dismissing logical thought or academic rigor, he never underestimated the power of the irrational to illuminate; he was among the first writers to record his dreams in detail (serpents figured with alarming frequency), and he had a good grasp of dream symbolism. Yet he also had enough self-awareness to be frightened by his own mental processes. In 1881 he wrote to Mrs. La Touche, Rose’s mother, “I can’t understand how so extremely rational a person as I can lose their wits, and still more how they don’t know they have lost them at the time.” Ruskin identified with Blake in his insanity, and the parallel is instructive. Both reacted against what they took to be a death-wish in the England of their day—an idolatry of impersonal machinery leading to psychological imprisonment—by developing a personal interpretation of biblical and mythological teaching; and both judged the art of the past without regard for conventional opinion or academy values, looking for what it could teach of the things that are not of this world, of beauty, light, and joy. If this led to eccentricity in Blake’s case, and to something more pitiful and disastrous in that of Ruskin, still their quest was surely honorable and not without positive results.
One consequence of Ruskin’s mental disturbance was a growing obsession with the weather. One of the few things still generally known about him is that he coined the phrase “the pathetic fallacy” in Modern Painters, and his conviction that storm-clouds portended apocalyptic disaster is a textbook example of this. Like every student of art, he had watched the sky closely in its changing aspects; in The Queen of the Air he had explored its role in Greek myth, but in “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884) he declared that the skies over England had darkened and grown more turbulent since he was a young man, and that this was a harbinger of destruction, a plague as punishment for national sin: “Blanched Sun,—blighted grass,—blinded man.” The only remedy was for each person to recognize the value of hope, reverence, and love. Carlyle, in “Signs of the Times” (1829), had already diagnosed the sickness of “the Age of Machinery” in pre-Victorian England, and proposed a similar solution. In Past and Present, moreover, Carlyle had contrasted the wise rule of Abbot Samson, bringing order and harmony to his twelfth-century monastery, with the Mammon-worship of modern England which brutalized the worker and had forgotten the need for a benevolent aristocracy. Similar sentiments underlay Ruskin’s St George’s Company, and in his Fors letters he repeatedly examines how his proposed new order would work. Lansdown draws on Letter 37 (1874), which sets out a plan of land-ownership and education; schools will inculcate obedience to authority, every home will have a library of classic works (but no newspapers), “wind, water and animal force” will replace machines, and life will be marked by simplicity and idealism. The laws of the Company “will be—with some relaxation and modification, so as to fit them for English people,—those of Florence in the fourteenth century.” Sadly, few of these grand schemes were translated into reality. Ruskin never accepted that the Fall of England, which he had prophesied in Modern Painters, could not be averted by a Utopian historical fantasy.
Ruskin was largely self-taught, and he knew that formal systems, curricula, and examinations do not in themselves guarantee an education.
In Tim Hilton’s epic biography, the last twelve years of Ruskin’s life occupy a mere twenty-four pages out of nearly nine hundred. They make distressing reading. Ruskin finally collapsed in Venice in 1888, unable to recognize the city whose every stick and stone he had once known. He had proposed marriage to an eighteen-year-old girl, Kathleen Oleander, whom he had met by chance in the National Gallery where she was copying a Turner. She treated him with great gentleness, but her refusal was the last straw. He was brought back to England and installed at Brantwood, the house by Coniston Water that he had bought in 1872. During lucid periods he attempted to write, or dictated—the last visionary paragraphs of Praeterita were taken down in this way—and received visitors. By degrees, however, the passage of time came to mean little to him, and his silences were longer. His cousin Joan Severn and her husband, Arthur, who had looked after him for many years, now ran the household. They were well-meaning but conventionally minded people, terrified of scandal, who saw to it that crucial papers were destroyed, above all those relating to Rose. Only a few invaluable scraps have survived. They also neglected Ruskin’s wish that Brantwood be maintained as a museum after his death, and many of his effects, including paintings and rare books, were dispersed. Not until 1932, after the Severns had died, was the house officially opened to the public.
“Pictures are my friends,” Ruskin once said—the remark of a lonely man. Following a bout of influenza, he died surrounded by those friends, and according to his wish he was buried in the local churchyard, although Westminster Abbey was considered. His cultural legacy gradually spread. His books, especially Unto this Last, played a major part in the development of Christian Socialism. Oxford commemorates him in the Ruskin School of Fine Art, and in Ruskin College (not an official college of the University), established by two American students in 1899. This has produced a stream of eminent figures in the Labour movement and the trade union world, including Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and continues to offer apprenticeships, adult education, and social studies programs. The Guild of St George survives as a charity for the encouragement of arts and crafts, and to promote conservation of the environment. There have been several notable biographies, first by Ruskin’s former student W. G. Colling-wood, the father of the philosopher (1893), and subsequently by E. T. Cook (1912), co-editor, with Alexander Wedderburn, of the Library Edition; John Dixon Hunt (1982); Tim Hilton (1985, 2000); and John Batchelor (2000). In this bicentenary year, we have had Andrew Hill’s Ruskinland: How Ruskin Shapes Our World and Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters. Some claims for Ruskin are easier to justify than others; to make him an early advocate of the welfare state or member of the Green Party is to avoid grappling with his complex, often self-contradictory personality.
Of the appreciations of Ruskin which appeared immediately after his death, none is more perceptive than the essay by Proust, which was eventually incorporated into the preface to his translation of The Bible of Amiens (1880–85), published in 1904. It does justice, in masterly fashion, to the intricate relationship between aesthetic appreciation and religious feeling in Ruskin. At the end of A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust famously compares the construction of a novel to that of a church. Ruskin, who maintained that a building must be read like a book, wrote books which, at their best, have all the splendors of the Gothic cathedrals he loved. Richard Lansdown’s anthology provides a much-needed guided tour of these awesome monuments.
1John Ruskin: Selected Prose (21st-Century Oxford Authors), edited by Richard Lansdown; Oxford University Press, 464 pages, $124.95.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 3, on page 18
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