200 years of John Ruskin
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was in his lifetime among the most famous of living Englishmen: art critic, artist, naturalist, social reformer, philanthropist and much else besides. And yet in the course of the twentieth century he slid into cultural oblivion. When I first came across his books some fifty years ago, it was hard to find anyone who’d even heard of him. But how things change! This year being his bicentenary, the online magazine BBC Culture, featured an article on the exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place. ‘Was Ruskin,’ the headline asked, ‘the most important man of the last 200 years?’
I was naturally pleased that my hero was at last being recognised, but even I was a tiny bit surprised. Darwin, Marx, Freud, Gandhi, Einstein – more important than them? Well, maybe not, but there is an important difference. Though none of them is going to disappear any time soon, all of them are to some extent in decline, some more than others. Ruskin is not in decline, and for good reasons.
In the 1910s, when a new and newly disillusioned generation turned against its immediate forebears, they rejected Ruskin among them. After the First World War, writes Robert Hewison in Ruskin and his Contemporaries, ‘people wanted a new start, and the factors that bolstered what was remembered as Victorian complacency – imperial power, industrial strength, religious conformity, social deference, patriarchy – were being questioned, and in any case were visibly in decline. Despite the fact that he had spent most of his life disputing the ruling ideas of his society – its utilitarianism, its philistinism, its materialism and its abuse of the natural world – Ruskin became just one more eminent Victorian to be consigned to the attic.’
By the end of the last century, however, a new generation had begun to look at the Victorians with fresh eyes, and Ruskin’s criticisms of modern life began to look extraordinarily relevant. Soon after the 2008 financial crash, Andrew Hill, author of the new book Ruskinland and then a columnist on the Financial Times, began to recommend Ruskin to his readers, not for his art but for his economics. Ruskin’s Unto this Last: Four Essays on Political Economy challenges the assumption that prosperity is driven simply by desire for profit. In the late twentieth century, the ‘economic man’ of the classical economists was resurrected in the ‘Greed is good’ ethos of the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street.
Even more striking as an instance of his modernity was Ruskin’s lecture of 1884, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, which argued – with meteorological evidence supplied – that industrial activity was fatally damaging the climate of the earth. He was also an advocate of ethical consumption. He proposed the teaching of art and science at university at a time when the Oxbridge syllabus consisted largely of the classics. He campaigned for women and working-class men to have the right to education. He recommended the foundation of such institutions as the National Trust, the Art Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. He insisted that the value of art – like the value of fresh air and pure water – could not and should not be estimated in financial terms.
Ruskin’s ideas about art and architecture are sometimes less eye-catchingly modern, but they are profound and radically independent. He began as something of a proto-modernist, championing the later experimental work of Turner -- surely more fashionable now than it has ever been – and went on to inspire the Arts and Crafts Movement and some of the early Modernist architects. But as visitors to the two big centenary exhibitions will have noticed –Ruskin, Turner and the Storm-Cloud at the York Art Gallery, as well as The Power of Seeing – it is his central doctrine of ‘Truth to Nature’ that speaks most radically to young artists. Ruskin teaches the artist to see what is actually there in the world and not what convention or fantasy dictate. He was an immensely skilled and sensitive painter and draughtsman himself, though he never regarded himself as an artist – only as a teacher, whose pictures were made to show what things are like.
The recovery of this urgent thinker and vivid writer has been a long time coming. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, responsible for no less than three of this cascade of publications, tells the story in The Ruskin Revival 1969-2019, beginning with a small international gathering of scholars and enthusiasts at Ruskin’s Lake District home and ending with the bicentenary. Cooper’s narrative could hardly be more buoyant. Almost everything is going well for Ruskinians. The exhibitions have attracted huge numbers of visitors, many of them very far from being the usual gallery suspects. The Whitehouse Collection, the greatest collection of Ruskin’s pictures, books, manuscripts and memorabilia has been saved for the nation by Lancaster University. Among the contributors to the Lancaster fund was the charity Ruskin founded, The Guild of St George, which has been expanding rapidly over the last few years; it encourages everything Ruskinian from sustainable land management to outreach programmes in the museum world. The Big Draw, founded by the Guild in 2000, is now the largest art charity in the world. Ruskin is studied in universities from Japan to Australia, Russia to Italy, and there are Ruskinian groups developing in several countries, notably (as Cooper notes) the United States. It helps that Ruskinian tend to be loyal to their inspiration and unselfish in their advocacy, rarely looking for financial returns or registration in the halls of fame.
Yet most of Ruskin’s books are out of print. Part of the difficulty must be the sheer bulk of his writings – The Works of John Ruskin running to 39 volumes, about 9 million words, 2½ metres of shelf-space. It is also true that Ruskin’s greatest quality, the extreme beauty and eloquence of his prose, makes him difficult for modern readers, especially those who think that to read is to eviscerate a text in quest of its meaning.
Now anyone wanting to begin reading him can turn to a new and substantial selection from his writings, Richard Lansdown’s John Ruskin in the Oxford Authors series. It was imaginative to include not only the most famous lectures and essays – ‘The Nature of Gothic’, ‘Traffic’, ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’ – but such out of the way compositions as his protest against railways in the Lake District and his statement on the purposes of the Guild of St George, to say nothing several fine lectures he never gathered into books. But there are no selections from two of his most important works, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and Unto this Last, on the grounds that it is hard to make extracts from them. But it would have been easy to include – from the first – ‘The Lamp of Memory’, the foundational text of the architectural conservation movement, passionately admired by William Morris, Frank Lloyd Wright and Carlo Scarpa, and from the second, perhaps the opening essay, or even a series of paragraphs charged with memorable aphorisms. These omissions do damage to the balance of the book, especially since they leave out the sources of Ruskin’s developed conception of value and worth. It doesn’t help, moreover, that OUP are charging so wildly expensive a price. No doubt there will be a paperback in time, but at present £90 will deter the very readers the volume should be seeking.
Sadly, the bicentenary has failed to generate many new editions of Ruskin’s writings. For children and lively adults, however, there is a wonderfully fresh edition of Ruskin’s fairy tale, The King of the Golden River. Written when Ruskin was 22, it is a parable on the meaning of wealth which anticipates Unto this Last by two decades. The gold of the title turns out to be the sun shining on water, which is to say, the sources of life. ‘There is no wealth but life’ is how Ruskin puts it in Unto this Last. The dazzling illustrations – I nearly wrote ‘illuminations’ – by Sir Quentin Blake on, at once so true to Ruskin, and so modern, give palpable expression to this theme of wealth, the relevance of which to our world post-2008, he underlines in a genial but troubled foreword.
Otherwise, Ruskin’s writing in this exceptional year is represented in two guidebooks to pictorial cycles he helped to canonize. From Italy comes Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin, which, structured around his commentary on the sixty or so canvases in the Scuola di San Rocco, also includes some analysis of every Tintoretto painting in Venice. The Preface by the editor, the Italian scholar Emma Sdegno, could not be improved upon. Ruskin’s talent for guiding his reader round a gallery is insufficiently recognised; he was a close, reliable and preternaturally observant reader of individual paintings. This shows equally well in a little-known book, Giotto and his Works in Padua, his account of the fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel. Robert Hewison, among the most prolific of Ruskin commentators, contributes an afterword to this new pocketbook edition, with colour reproductions replacing the original monochrome engravings.
Hewison’s stimulating, readable new book, Ruskin and his Contemporaries, is really a compendium of Hewison’s lectures and essays, written over nearly fifty years. They touch on Ruskin’s relations important individuals of his time – among them, his father, his life-long hero J.M.W. Turner, his antagonist in matters of taste, Henry Cole of the V & A, his protégés Oscar Wilde and Octavia Hill, and another great antagonist, Charles Darwin. There are also essays on (inter alia) the importance of sight in Ruskin’s thought, the city of Venice, the Guild of St George, the Victorian craze for spiritualism and, central to all Hewison’s work, the creation of cultural value. The choice of contemporaries is not programmatic; Hewison does not claim to have produced an exhaustive study of Ruskin’s polymathic mind and work. He has assembled a number of reflections on various aspects of Ruskin’s world, the very incompleteness of which is suggestive of the Master’s incomparable range.
Robert Brownell’s A Torch at Midnight, by contrast, focuses its 550 pages on a single book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the volume that to Ruskin’s regret made the Gothic Revival the default style of his era. Brownell has made it his business to challenge those aspects of Ruskin biography and criticism that have unjustly harmed his reputation. Five years ago, he published a brilliantly researched assault on the story, as it’s been told, of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, annulled after six years on grounds of non-consummation. His Marriage of Inconvenience, blew apart the legend of Ruskin as a primly heartless misogynist oppressing a warm and vivacious wife. This time the target is Ruskin’s reputation for conservative religious and political attitudes, apparently contradicted by his reputation for radicalism. Brownell argues that Ruskin’s true message is masked behind professions of conformity, designed to quiet his ultra-Tory father and the overbearing force of Victorian convention. His Ruskin is not only a socialist but a pagan into the bargain. Brilliant as the argument is and carried through with meticulous detail, I am not wholly convinced and am happier with a Ruskin unafraid to contradict himself. At the same time, Brownell’s book is refreshing account which points to Ruskin’s radical independence.
But the book for readers coming newly to Ruskin is Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters. Cooper takes the reader on a journey through Ruskin’s life and work. She often addresses us from her car, travelling to some Ruskinian site and brooding on the lessons she has been learning. At the heart of her quest is one of Ruskin’s most striking aphorisms: ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way... To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, – all in one.’ This is not a metaphor. Ruskin means that we don’t look closely enough at anything. If we do look closely – look as a good draughtsman does – we see what a thing is, and to see that is also to see what it does, what it means in the world.
This understanding guides Cooper through a very personal book, and the journey lands her in a difficulty. Like many readers she is struck by how relevant Ruskin is to the life we lead today, a great teacher, active (as it were) among us now. And yet he is also a man of his time, happy with nineteenth-century hierarchies. Cooper seems troubled by that, but how could it be otherwise?
Cooper is by training an art historian. With Richard Jones she curated Ruskin, Turner and the Storm-Cloud and together they have edited a selection of essays by different hands which explore Ruskin’s preoccupation with cloud and atmosphere whether in appreciation of Turner or warning of the fragility of the elements we thrive on. Through the extraordinary modern painter, Emma Stibborn, who has followed Ruskin’s footsteps in the Alps, both book and exhibition reveal how the landscapes Ruskin loved are melting away because of global warming.
Andrew Hill is, quite as much as Cooper, concerned with contemporary issues and what Ruskin has to say of them, but in his role as a financial journalist, he starts from a different range of preoccupations. Ruskinland, it should be stressed, is not about economics, though economics affects much of what it deals with. There is for instance, an excellent chapter on the changing face of work, a subject very close to Ruskin’s heart.
Hill’s title encapsulates a message that complements Cooper’s. Ruskinland is a section of the Wyre Forest in Worcestershire which was given to Ruskin for the Guild of St George, the utopian body he had founded as a challenge to the prevailing ethos of industrial capitalism. With its partners in the Wyre Community Land Trust, the Guild still manages Ruskinland as a site of exemplary practices – in land management, sustainability, employment and accessibility. For Hill, it provides a metaphor for the ways in which Ruskin still lives among us – from an art gallery serving the working people of Sheffield to a furniture workshop near Brick Lane (which punningly calls itself ‘Unto this Last’), from Ruskinland in England to the town of Ruskin, Florida, originally another sort of utopian community. Like Cooper, Hill travels a good deal in quest of Ruskin; he encounters many who live according to Ruskinian values but claim to know little about his life or work. Ruskin, he concludes, is in some sense still with us.
I very much hope that Hill will follow up his journey with a book on Ruskinian economics, the subject that everyone mentions in passing, though none of them write about it. None of them, that is to say, except writer Kevin Jackson and graphic artist Hunt Emerson in their set of three comics for children, Bloke’s Progress. These entertainingly expound the Master’s teaching on wealth, seeing and work. Darren Bloke, a lottery winner whose luck turns against him, is visited in extremis by a ghost from the past, who turns out to be the author of Unto this Last, Modern Painters and ‘The Nature of Gothic’: writings that, like most of the comic’s readers, he has never heard of before. Ruskin’s ghost is a cheerful chappie – Jackson and Emerson are almost alone among these writers in noticing how playful Ruskin is. He chuckles pedagogically through the comic, while pointing out the horrors of our time as bleakly as the spirits who call on Scrooge in Dickens’s famous story, much loved by Ruskin.
That leaves us with the miscellanies. From an academic point of view none of these books is better than Valerie Purton’s John Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Education, a collection of conference papers by several of the most distinguished of today’s Ruskin scholars. It reprints a fine essay by Sara Atwood on the difference between knowledge and education – something, it seems, we must learn all over again – and there are excellent reflections on a Ruskinian syllabus, music, dress and (a theme that is beginning quite rightly to obsess us) apocalypse.
The essays collected by John Blewitt in William Morris and John Ruskin: A New Road on which the World should Travel draw out the connections between Ruskin and another polymath. Morris was the most important of Ruskin’s contemporary followers. The Master was not a practical man, though questions of practice often preoccupied him more than theoretical ones. Morris at several stages in his career tried putting Ruskinian ideas into practice, though very much in his own way. It was Morris, for example, who picked up the idea for his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings from Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps.
For most of his life, James Dearden was the Curator of the Whitehouse Collection, now at Lancaster University. In the process he acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of every aspect of this complex writer and artist. A John Ruskin Collection is his third miscellany of mainly biographical and historical articles. Dearden is an independent scholar, a lover of anecdote and a sleuth, and for those of us who devote our lives to Ruskin studies, his work is indispensable.
As entertaining as Dearden, though nothing like as erudite, is A Ruskin Alphabet, a guide to the Master in dictionary form by the poet Michael Glover, who is rather less reverential than the rest of this Ruskinian company. ‘No follower of mine,’ Ruskin said, ‘will ever be a Ruskinian.’ Followers of the great man – ‘the most important of the last two hundred years’? – need to be reminded of that from time to time.
Clive Wilmer is poet, teacher and Emeritus Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He has just completed ten years as Master of the Guild of St George. He edited the Penguin Classics edition of Unto this Last and Other Writings by John Ruskin.
PLEASE NOTE: this review was commissioned by The Art Newspaper and first appeared in their print edition November 2019. Reproduced with permission.
The books reviewed:
Robert Hewison, Ruskin and his Contemporaries, Pallas Athene, 408 pp, £17.99 (pb)
Andrew Hill, Ruskinland, Pallas Athene, 305 pp, £19.99 (hb)
Suzanne Fagence Cooper, The Ruskin Revival 1969-2019, Pallas Athene, 198 pp, £19.99 (pb)
Suzanne Fagence Cooper, To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, Quercus,
230 pp, £12.99 (hb)
Richard Lansdown (ed), 21st-Century Oxford Authors: John Ruskin, Oxford, 464 pp, £90 (hb)
John Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, illustrated by Quentin Blake, 63 pp, £14.95 (hb)
Emma Sdegno (ed), Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin, Marsilio (Venice), 176 pp, £19.95 (pb)
John Ruskin, Giotto and His Works in Padua, ed. Robert Hewison, David Zwirner (New York), 182 pp, £8.95 (pb)
Robert Brownell A Torch at Midnight: A Study of John Ruskin’s ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, Pallas Athene, 510 pp, £19.99 (pb)
Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns (eds), Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud, York Art Gallery and Abbot Hall Art Gallery with Paul Holberton, 120 pp, £20 (pb)
Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson, Bloke's Progress: An Introduction to the World of John Ruskin, Knockabout, 120 pp, £12.99 (pb)
Valerie Purton (ed), John Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Education, Anthem Press, 192 pp, £70 (hb)
John Blewitt, William Morris and John Ruskin: A New Road on which the World Should Travel, University of Exeter Press, 191 pp, £30 (pb)
James Dearden, A John Ruskin Collection, Pallas Athene, 258 pp, £19.99, (pb)
Michael Glover, John Ruskin: An Idiosyncratic Dictionary, Lund Humphries, 160pp. £17.50 (hb)