Ruskin’s Guild of St George, Yesterday and To-Day.
At the start of 2020 Clive Wilmer was invited to give the keynote lecture at a conference, 'John Ruskin: Prophet of the Anthropocene', at Notre Dame University, Indiana. It was intended to be the first of a series of annual Ruskin birthday lectures at Notre Dame.
With Clive and Notre Dame's permission, we have now posted Clive's lecture on our website. You can download the full, illustrated version from a link further down the page, and the opening of the lecture is reproduced below.
Ruskin’s Guild of St George, Yesterday and To-Day
8th February 2020
In 1869, Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford. It was a quite exceptional honour and he was deeply gratified. As he immediately pointed out in a letter to his Mother, ‘I am the first professor of art appointed at the English Universities.’ What is more, as he says in the same letter, the new role would give him ‘as much power as I can well use’. Ruskin was not immune to the pleasure of being honoured, but usefulness – the ability and opportunity to communicate what he believed in – was the thing he most sought and was inclined to feel he lacked. He was indeed to be delighted by the huge audiences that attended his Oxford lectures but equally disappointed by the failure of his words to make much impact on the wider world. Ruskin was prone to depression and inclined to feel neglected; he also looked for a greater impact than it was possible for one person to achieve. Nearly a decade later, he was to attribute his first mental breakdown, not (as his doctors had said) to overwork, but to his sense that ‘nothing came of my work’ (29.386). Though he was also given to exaggeration, he was surely right to complain. Even today, though we can now see how right he was about so many things, he is not much heeded and rarely acknowledged. We talk a great deal these days about the need for ‘outreach’ and ‘impact’ in cultural and educational matters. Though Ruskin would have deplored the utilitarian foundations of these requirements as they are usually prescribed today, he deeply believed in the organic relationship between culture and society. Oxford was the place where Britain’s future leaders were educated. If he could make his audiences listen, he would influence the future generations, which is what he wanted more than anything to do.
Nevertheless, grateful as Ruskin was for this new appointment, it did put him in something of a quandary. As he conceded in another letter to his mother, he already had ‘too many irons in the fire’ and taking on the Slade Professorship, which in his understanding of it involved more than simply lecturing, more than doubled his workload, already heavy enough. Moreover, though since as early as 1844 he had been arguing for the recognition of art as an academic discipline, he had in his own work moved away from pure art criticism to a kind of social criticism in which art played a vital but secondary role. It has been often noted that, early in 1860, having handed the final volume of Modern Painters to his publisher, he almost immediately began writing his ‘Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy’, published two years later as Unto this Last. He had persisted in this new direction with Munera Pulveris (1864) and Time and Tide (1866) and, in his many lectures of the period, the criticism of art is mingled with – even invaded by – social criticism. The truth is that Ruskin was not sure how useful his art work could be in a society whose chief value was competition. How could beauty arise from a populace that was denied access to the primal source of beauty, a natural world untainted by waste and pollution? If art, as he had long argued, reflected its society, modern society could only produce an art that was diseased.
Moreover, in his teaching at Oxford he would be bringing knowledge and wisdom only to the sons of the ruling class. He had no objection to that, believing as he did in a hierarchical society with different classes fulfilling different roles, but he was also concerned at how little in the way of knowledge, wisdom and appreciation of beauty was imparted to working people. ‘Perhaps, having now committed himself to Oxford,’ writes his biographer Tim Hilton, ‘Ruskin felt that he should also speak to unlettered men.’ So he now needed a way of addressing such men, and possibly women too, and it had to be through something he could write (as it were) alongside his Oxford lectures. It was probably for this reason that, in January 1871, having given the first and second series of his Slade lectures, he embarked on the strange work called Fors Clavigera, a monthly series of – to quote the subtitle – Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of England. In precisely what sense they were addressed to working people has never been clear. Recondite, allusive and technically innovative as they mostly are, they might have been conceived for the most sophisticatedly literary of audiences, the Latin title alone requiring several pages of text for explanation and still remaining to some degree obscure. Nevertheless, where the Slade Lectures deal mainly with matters of art and art history, Fors is clearly a means of attending to the issues of the moment, month by month. Furthermore, though I think the phrase ‘workmen and labourers’ was meant to apply to people of that description as generally understood, it seems likely that Ruskin was also thinking of all those who work – ‘brain-workers’ like himself as well as farm labourers and industrial operatives.
In January 1871, in the first letter of Fors, Ruskin announced another project intended for workers of all classes. This was St George’s Fund, the kernel of what was to have been St George’s Company but, seven years later, became the Guild of St George. Ruskin had been thinking of his company not as a business designed to make profit – which is how Companies House understood the word – but as a Company of Knights: the St George he had in mind was the knightly saint of medieval iconography. The word ‘Guild’, which also had medieval associations, was less obviously appropriate, characterising a society for the mutual support of people working in a common trade or craft. Though the word had already been revived in the 1870s, it was perhaps as a result of its use by Ruskin that it became popular with his admirers in the Arts and Crafts movement, who organised themselves into co-operative bodies such as the Century Guild of Artists (1882), the Art Workers’ Guild (1884) and the Guild of Handicraft (1888). We do not know how or when the idea of founding a Guild first struck Ruskin – it seems almost to have sprung out of nowhere – but it is possible to trace a number of sources. One must have been his visit in the summer of 1869 – the summer in which he was offered his Professorship – to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice.
Ruskin had long been attracted by the Venetian scuole. These were charitable bodies rooted in particular districts of Venice, supportive of the poor or disadvantaged in those districts, concerned with social cohesion, and generous in their patronage of the arts. Ruskin’s interest had centred mainly on the Scuola Grande di San Rocco with its magnificent collection of sixty-one paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-94), the sixteenth-century artist he admired above all others. On the occasion in question, however, he had been directed to a scuola as yet unknown to him by his friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones had been excited by his discovery of an earlier artist, Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1460/5 – 1523/6), who was like Tintoretto in associating himself with the scuole, but otherwise very different – still, in the period 1502-07 when he worked in the Scuola di San Giorgio, rather Gothic in feeling. Taking up his friend’s recommendation, Ruskin was bowled over by the nine Carpaccio canvases that confront the visitor on entering the building, especially the first, St George Slaying the Dragon.
Download and read the full illustrated lecture here.
 Quoted in E.T. Cook, The Life of John Ruskin, 2 vols (London: George Allen, 1911), 2: 165
 Ibid., 2: 166
 John Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 188
 Published as Lectures on Art (1870) and Aratra Pentelici (1872)
 For Ruskin’s explanation of the title, see 27. 27-29.
 I am indebted to Marcus Waithe for one source of this very Victorian phrase. It occurs in the catalogue to the 1865 exhibition of paintings by Ford Madox Brown, which included his best-known picture, Work. Brown contrasts the navvies in the foreground of the painting with the by-standing figures of Thomas Carlyle and F.D. Maurice, ‘the brain-workers who, seeming to be idle, work, and are the cause of well-ordained work and happiness in others’ (The Exhibition of "Work", and Other Paintings, by Ford Madox Brown, 191 Piccadilly (London: McCorquodale, 1865), 28).