The name John Ruskin may be familiar to many people, however, how many can accurately say who he was, what he did and why he is important in today’s art world? In a recent exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, the bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a collection of 200 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, plaster casts and so forth that demonstrated Ruskin’s stance on aesthetics, culture and society. Regarded today as one of the greatest Victorian artists, critics, educators and social thinkers who devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge, the exhibition briefly delved into the mind of a polymath whose influence is still felt today.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was the only child of sherry and wine importer John James Ruskin (1785–1864), co-founder of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, and his wife Margaret (1781–1871). From an early age, Ruskin’s parents pressed their ambitions upon him, introducing him to writers, such as Byron (1788-1824), Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Walter Scott (1771-1832). Whilst John Ruskin Senior was focused on intellectual knowledge, his mother, an Evangelical Christian, pressed the Bible upon her son, teaching him to repeatedly read it from beginning to end and learn lengthy passages by heart. At this time, Ruskin also began to develop a passion for geology.
Described by Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, he had very few friends his own age, to begin with, as a result of being homeschooled at Herne Hill, in Camberwell, South London, although, he later spent a year at a school in Peckham. It was not his education, however, that set his path for the future. When he was thirteen, Ruskin was given a book-length poem illustrated by the painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), which sparked an interest in both art and poetry.
Whilst studying at Oxford University, where he took up residence at Christ Church in 1837, he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry and met the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Ruskin also met and became close to the future Dean of Westminster, William Buckland (1784-1856), who also had an interest in geology and palaeontology. Ruskin’s other good friends, however, were studying archaeology and medicine.
Unfortunately, Ruskin never achieved independence whilst at university because his mother was lodging nearby and his father joined him at weekends. He was also suffering from ill health and had to take a lengthy break from Oxford before returning to pass his exams with a double fourth-class degree.
Even with a degree under his belt, Ruskin was unable to escape from the clutches of his parents. From 1840 until 1842, the Ruskin family spent time abroad, mainly in Italy, where John had the opportunity to study Italian painting. After returning to England, Ruskin continued to live with his parents in Camberwell, where they were frequently visited by the likes of Turner and the watercolourist Samuel Prout (1783-1851), whose work was collected by Ruskin’s father. At this time, J.M.W. Turner’s work was under severe criticism at the Royal Academy and Ruskin was spurred to defend his childhood idol.
Ruskin passionately regarded Turner as the greatest painter of his age and was thus outraged at the critical judgment of the Royal Academy. In a book eventually published in 1843 under the anonymity of “A Graduate of Oxford”, Ruskin wrote Modern Painters I as a response to these attacks.
“Turner perceives at a glance the whole sum of visual truth open to human intelligence … The power of every picture depends on the penetration of the imagined into the TRUE nature of the thing represented, and on the utter scorn of the imagination for all shackles and fetters of mere external fact that stand in the way of its suggestiveness.”
– John Ruskin
John Ruskin held the controversial opinion that landscape artists, such as Turner, were superior to the “Old Masters” from the post-Renaissance era. He argued that these so-called Masters painted from pictorial convention, i.e. with emotion, and were not being true to nature. Ruskin maintained that an artist should observe the reality of nature and not produce imaginary scenes in a studio. Turner, on the other hand, had a better understanding of the “truth”, such as the air, the clouds, water, stones, and plants.
Inspired by Turner, Ruskin produced his own artworks, adopting the artist’s subtle use of colour. His watercolour painting of Towers of Freiburg, which was painted on a misty morning in Germany’s Black Forest, was used in the book Modern Painters as an example of “Turnerian Topography”. While in France, Ruskin painted Lanslebourg, Savoie, recording the “facts” and landscape that he saw, rather than an attractive impression.
Unlike Turner’s paintings that sometimes appear as a blur of colour, Ruskin produced many carefully observed drawings, such as The Kappellbrücke at Luzern (Lucerne) in which he has captured every element, including the angles of the bridge, the stonework on the turret and the shimmering light on the water.
As well as modern landscape painters, Ruskin was inspired by the works he saw on his travels around Europe. In 1844, whilst in France with his parents, Ruskin was able to investigate the geology of the Alps as well as study the artwork at the Louvre in Paris. Finally, in 1845 at the age of 26, Ruskin travelled without his parents for the first time, taking the opportunity to explore medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and Italy. Cities such as Florence, Pisa and Venice were of great inspirational value to the young artist, however, he was dismayed at the modernisation processes, which were gradually replacing the traditional buildings.
Ruskin’s independent tour of western Europe led him to write a second volume of Modern Painters. This time, however, he concentrated on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, arguing that aesthetic and the divine are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. His tour also took him in a new artistic direction; temporarily leaving painting behind, Ruskin developed a keen interest in architecture.
In 1847, Ruskin developed a close relationship with Euphemia “Effie” Grey (1828-97), the daughter of family friends for whom he had written the story The King of the Golden River when she was twelve years old. They married on 10th April 1848 at her home in Perth, Scotland and spent their early years together in Mayfair, London.
Although the European Revolutions of 1848 restricted the amount of travel the newlyweds could undertake, the couple eventually visited Venice in October 1849. In the meantime, Ruskin’s knowledge of architecture had been rapidly increasing and earlier that year he had travelled with his parents – Effie was not well enough to join him – to gather material for the third and fourth editions of Modern Painters.
Whilst in Venice, John and Effie’s marriage began to breakdown. Effie wished to socialise, whereas, her husband was occupied in solitary studies. Already that year he had published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which promoted the seven virtues of secular and Protestant Gothic buildings: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Now, all he wanted to do was gather material for his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice and create sketches of notable buildings that he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops.
“Nothing interrupts him … He is either with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerreotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs just as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.”
– Effie in a letter home to her family
Despite Effie not being keen on her husband’s work, Ruskin was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was established in 1848 by John Everett Millais (1829-96), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1826-82). The group were committed to “paint[ing] from nature only” and shared Ruskin’s opinion about the “Old Masters”.
Through the poet Coventry Patmore (1823-96), a mutual friend of Ruskin and Millais, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote letters to The Times to argue against their critics. Ruskin provided the Brotherhood, particularly Millais, with encouragement and patronage, and Effie became one of their models.
In 1853, Millais visited the Ruskin’s in Scotland where he studied and closely observed the landscape. In his painting of Glenfinlas, Millais added Ruskin’s portrait. Previously, Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.
Unfortunately, Effie was growing increasingly distressed about her unhappy marriage, causing her to suffer both physical and mental illnesses. She was constantly arguing with Ruskin who would rather concentrate on his studies than spend time with his wife. Effie was also fed up with his intense and overly protective parents. In an act of desperation, Effie filed for an annulment on grounds of “non-consummation” due to Ruskin’s supposed “incurable impotency”. Although Ruskin disputed the claim, the annulment was granted in July 1854. A year later, Effie married Millais.
Shortly before the end of his marriage, Ruskin had begun lecturing on architecture and painting in Edinburgh. This led to lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857 about how to use and acquire art. By 1869, Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, delivering his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre.
The following year, he founded The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford University. The School’s intent was to challenge the orthodox teaching and methodology of government art schools. Often, his lectures, which included themes such as myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature, were so popular, they had to be given twice.
“The teaching of Art is the teaching of all things.”
– John Ruskin
In the 1870s, Ruskin visited Sheffield where his former pupil and friend Henry Swan (1825-89) was working as an engraver. By this time, not only had Ruskin had a fairly successful career, he had amassed an impressive collection of art, minerals, books, architectural casts, ancient coins and other precious, beautiful objects. After purchasing a small cottage in the district of Walkley to store his collection, Ruskin founded the Guild of St George, a charity devoted to arts, crafts and the rural economy. The cottage was then opened as a museum and he encouraged the working class man to view artworks that were once only something the wealthy could afford to see. The majority of the items at the Two Temple Place exhibition came from this museum.
Whilst it is not certain how the collapse of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie affected him, he remained unlucky in love for the remainder of his life. When he was nearly 40 years old, he became the private art tutor to the daughters of the Irish poet Maria La Touche. Rose La Touche (1848–1875), who was only ten at the time, caught the eye of the much older Ruskin who gradually fell in love with her. Ruskin proposed to her on her 18th birthday but she asked him to wait three years until she was 21. At the time, Ruskin was having doubts about the Christian faith, which was beginning to cause problems with the staunchly Protestant family.
Ruskin proposed a number of times to Rose but she consistently turned him down. Her final rejection occurred in 1872, however, they still met up occasionally. Sadly, Rose died at the age of 27 after suffering from a long illness. As a result, Ruskin was plunged into despair, which led to bouts of mental illness, breakdowns and hallucinations. In an attempt to help himself come to terms with Rose’s death, Ruskin turned to Spiritualism, believing it would give him to power to communicate with the dead. Gradually, desperate to believe there was life after death, Ruskin returned to Christianity.
Throughout his life, Ruskin wrote numerous books, ranging in topic from art and architecture to travel guides and literature. His last great work was his autobiography Praeterita, meaning “things of the past”, which focused on selective parts of his life, omitting many facts.
Ruskin’s final home was in the Lake District where he tried to continue to write, however, most of this work was considered irrelevant in the art world. He was also still suffering from mental health issues and was unable to continue to travel to Europe. His 80th birthday was celebrated around the country, however, Ruskin was barely aware of the proceedings. Not long after, he passed away from influenza.
The once slim lecturer with piercing blue eyes became the grumpy old man with a long beard who resembled an Old Testament prophet. Although he held strong opinions throughout his life, his later convictions were more complaints than anything insightful. As part of the Two Temple Place exhibition, the curators had pieced together Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed from the writings of John Ruskin.
Ruskin detested iron railings and bemoaned that the Houses of Parliament were “the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man.” The Renaissance buildings in Venice were defined as the “ribaldries of drunkenness” and, apparently, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge looked like an upsidedown table.
Other things Ruskin despised were the “doggerel sound” of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, lawyers, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being photographed and cycling. He hated railway stations and could not stand the “beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed” railways round Dieppe in Northern France. And more fool anyone who got Ruskin talking on matters such as making money or the English constitution: “The rottenest mixture of Simony, bribery, sneaking tyranny, shameless cowardice, and accomplished lying that ever the Devil chewed small to spit into God’s Paradise.”
Regardless of the ups and downs of his personal life and his strong opinions, Ruskin is renowned across the world. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) described him as “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times”. Ruskin also influenced people such as Gandhi (1869-1948), the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and William Morris (1834-96). Ruskin’s thoughts about the conservation of historic buildings inspired the foundation of the National Trust and many Christian socialists were inspired by his ideas.
Overall, Ruskin wrote more than 250 works, beginning with topics involving art and architecture. As he became more known for his work, he expanded to cover topics encompassing science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, pollution, mythology, travel, economy and social reform. Alongside this, he painted and developed the idea that it was important to paint what can be physically seen rather than imagined.
Numerous areas of study, research and thought have been affected by Ruskin in one way or another. His influence is still present throughout the arts, education, economy and environment today. Although most people are oblivious to his presence, John Ruskin is embedded in contemporary culture and society. Without him, who knows what the world would be like today.
Whilst it is important to celebrate the phenomenal works of John Ruskin, the man behind the books and artwork must not be overlooked. A number of events are being held by Ruskin 200 in honour of the bicentenary of his birth. Details of events can be found on their website www.ruskin200.com