Let’s hear it for John Ruskin

John RUSKIN (1819-1900)

If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying

from Sesame and Lilies

This rare photo of Ruskin was taken by an anonymous photographer.


There were several John Ruskins; he was a complicated man.  A rich child, spoilt and crammed with education, prodigious and kept too sheltered from the world.  A bold young critic who championed both Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites but who, in old age, lost touch with modern art.  An enthusiastic traveller who ended a recluse.  A much-read and lauded teacher of how to live, whose own emotional life was a tragedy.  One of the wisest writers of the Victorian age, yet who can astound with his naivety; at times so right, at times so wrong.

All travelling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity

from Modern Painters

He was born to a stern and religious family of Sherry importers (Domecq), and was schooled at home.  When he went to university, as he naturally would, he lived not in halls with other students but in comfortable lodgings with his mother.  By then he had already contributed poems and essays to serious magazines.  From childhood he had showed a great talent for drawing, a formidable talent he retained all his life; he was notable, in fact, as a critic who could practise what he preached.

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together

from The Two Paths

His first book on art, Modern Painters (1834), established him at the forefront of art criticism.  The second in his five-volume series (Modern Painters II, 1846) followed a tour of Italy and launched his long campaign against the careless destruction of fine old buildings and for the re-evaluation and recognition of medieval and Gothic work.  Part of this campaign was his The Seven Lamps of Architecture(1849) and the massive The Stones of Venice (1851-3) – and surely the best ‘taster’ to Ruskin for one who has not read him is the essay extracted from The Stones on ‘The Nature of the Gothic’: like much of Ruskin’s writing it sounds, but turns out not to be, a subject too dry to hold one’s interest.  Volumes  III and IV ofModern Painters did not appear till 1856.  That same year saw his commentary on Turner’s marine paintings:The Harbours of England.  (Turner had appointed him his executor.)

The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most

from his The Stones of Venice

Ruskin painted by the man about to take his wife – John Everett Millais.

By then Ruskin had been famously married and divorced (for non-consummation).  His delightful King of the Golden River, a fantasy for children, had been a gift for his wife and, though written in 1841, was not published until 1851.  She divorced him in 1854.  (More details about this and Ruskin’s involvement with the art world will be found in my Pocket Guide to Victorian Artists and Models.)  The 1850s saw Ruskin deeply involved in art and architecture; some of the lectures he gave nation-wide were collected inLectures on Architecture and Painting (1854) and The Two Paths (1859).  His final Modern Painters appeared in 1860, and in that book he strayed further than in previous volumes to attack greed and philistinism and to preach a finer way of life.  These themes came to the fore in the then controversial Unto This Last (appearing in 1860 in Cornhill magazine and in 1862 as a book), and inEssays on Political Economy (1862 & 3), re-issued as Munera Pulveris in 1872.

Nothing that is great is easy

from The Two Paths

He was now one of the most listened-to voices in the movement against utilitarianism and mass production. He championed both the artist and the skilled working man (seldom, alas, the working woman), and among various books of the 1860s his Sesame and Lilies (1865 and 71) and The Crown of Wild Olives (1866 & 73) stand out.  They, especially, show him at his most inspiring and his worst.  The very worst was his winsome set of pseudo-dialogues with young ladies entitled The Ethics of the Dust (1866) in which he appears to lose all contact with the adult world as we know it.  Another curious but much larger work, Fors Clavigera (letters ‘To the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain’), came out, again in two forms, in 1871 and 78.

Wealth is simply one of the greatest powers which can be entrusted to human hands

from his Political Economy of Art

The subjects of Ruskin’s books, with their odd and sometimes Latin titles, suggest a dry über-intellectual approach and style far removed from the common reader but they are, in fact, as they certainly were in his time, invigorating, intelligible and persuasive.  He was read and listened to by vast audiences (which is why second-hand copies of his books are so easy to come by today) and his name was well-known throughout the land.  When he lectured he packed the halls.  Lectures from the 1870s fill several volumes and some, includingThe Eagle’s Nest (1872) and Love’s Meinie (1873-81) are sound, but as the decade progressed his writings became increasingly off-beam.  His private life (which, sadly for Ruskin, was never kept private enough) became even more erratic; his celibacy was disturbed by a long infatuation with the young (and also disturbed) Rose La Touche.  (She died, insane, in 1875.)  1878 saw his disastrous involvement in the Whistler libel trial (details again in my Victorian Artists and Models) and marked the end of his eminence as an art critic.  The 1880s were a terrible period.  He worked on his autobiography, Praeterita (Things Past), but failed to complete it, and spent the last decade of his life in near solitude at his house on Coniston Water.

Whatever bit of a wise man’s work is honestly and benevolently done, that bit is his book, or his piece of art

from Sesame and Lilies

So should one read Ruskin?  Does he have relevance today?  Certainly.  No one with an interest in Victorian literature or art should miss the chance to engage with a man who, at his best, was one of the most beguiling, provocative, incisive and authoritative voices of the age, a master of Victorian prose.  He is the perfect companion for a leisurely sunny afternoon in the garden sipping English tea or, perhaps even better, sipping coffee at a quiet table beside a Venetian canal.

Races, like individuals, can only reach their true strength, dignity, or joy, in seeking each the welfare, and exulting each in the glory of the other.

from Modern Painters


About Russell James

Author of some 2 dozen books in a 30-year career. Crime and historical fiction. Non-fiction too (including 4 biographical encyclopedias).
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