It is hard to think of another artist who has suffered such a steep decline in reputation as John Ruskin. A prodigious visual artist and writer as well as a highly influential social reformer; a polymath who is little read today. In all he wrote over two hundred books during his life and for a generation after had an international reputation. Figures as varied as George Eliot, Wordsworth, Proust and Tolstoy praised him; Ghandi and Clement Atlee cited him as an influence. To say you had read Ruskin was evidence of possessing a soul. Today most of his books are out of print. In this the bicentennial year of his birth there have been and continue to be a number of terrific exhibitions of his art work, and while you can buy books about him in the gallery bookshops – considering his collected works run to thirty-seven volumes – you will find relatively few books by him.
Why is John Ruskin no longer widely read and why should he matter? Admittedly he doesn’t make for easy reading. His style is verbose, rambling, his sentences long and poetic. He preaches and moralises to us. His titles, Unto This Last, Fors Clavigera, Praeterita, hardly invite us in. Indeed, his prose became outmoded in his own time; in the modernist environment after the First World War it struggled to survive. There were also two central dramas to his life that colour his reputation to this day. He had a short-lived marriage to Effie Gray which was annulled on the grounds of impotency. Shortly after, Effie married Ruskin’s friend the Pre-Raphaelite artist Everett Millais. The affair was a public scandal at the time and has been portrayed in film, fiction and even opera, most recently by Emma Thompson in her 2014 film Effie Gray. It is true Ruskin was a failure as a husband, perhaps the explanation to this lies somewhere in his oppressive upbringing but that is not a reason to attach a permanent health warning to a huge body of work or to dismiss him altogether. Yet increasingly it seems artists are not judged on their work and their work not judged on its own terms. The second drama of Ruskin’s life was professional. In his forties the independently wealthy aesthete discovers social injustice and sets out to confront the orthodoxy of his class and the day – political economy. Friends abandoned him and the political class sought to destroy him. His views were contradictory and misrepresented. Today distorted and anachronistic claims are made about his political views – that he was a communist, that he advocated for the establishment of something akin to the E.U. Though not popular, his views were not ahead of his times, they were of his times.
Ruskin is best known as an art critic yet his first published works were on geology before entering Oxford to read Classics. To Ruskin rocks were aesthetically pleasing, sensuous, spiritual even – they spoke of creation – he was a theological geologist and he collected and drew rocks and minerals all his life.
By what furnaces of fire the adamant was melted, and by what wheels of earthquake it was torn, and what teeth of glacier and weight of sea waves it was engraven and finished into its perfect form, we may perhaps hereafter endeavour to conjecture.
In 1843 he made his mark as an art critic with the first volume of Modern Painters: their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to the Ancient Masters. He was initially driven by his passionate support of J.M.W. Turner, an artist much criticised by his contemporaries and whose work Ruskin vigorously defended. There were in the end five volumes of Modern Painters, in the first he set out his stall declaring that ‘art should be true to nature.’ Although in later life he had a crisis of faith, as an artist he was motivated by Christianity and inspired by the natural world. He believed that the Almighty had created nature for the benefit of mankind and that art – and much of his art was concerned with nature – was a form of praise.
There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe…than this, that you never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.
In Turner he recognised someone who had a detailed understanding of the forces of landscape, light and atmosphere. Significantly Turner was an atheist but it mattered not to Ruskin, who knew how to distinguish the artist from the rest of the man and fought his corner for the remainder of his life.
People kill my Turner with abuse of him- make rifle targets of my Paul Veroneses – make themselves, and me, unendurably wretched by all sorts of ridiculous doings – won’t let me be quiet. (From a letter to Mr and Mrs Browning)
Modern Painters established Ruskin’s reputation amongst intellectuals, his writings on architecture that followed were also a critical success but found a wider readership. Old buildings he saw as sacred. In particular he appreciated their irregularity and was opposed to the geometrics of contemporary buildings as he was the mechanisation of society. The restoration of old buildings he saw as sacrilege. The Seven Lamps of Architecture was published in 1849, the seven lamps referring to the demands that he thought architecture should meet: sacrifice; truth; power; beauty; life; memory and obedience. He argued that building innovations since the industrial revolution had drained the spirituality from architecture – no innovation was needed – but a return to the Gothic style and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.
Gothic or Romanesque buildings are now rising every day around us, which might be supposed by the public more or less to embody the principles of those styles, but which embody not one of them, nor any shadow or fragment of them; but merely serve to caricature the noble buildings of past ages, and to bring their form into dishonour by leaving out their soul.
Ruskin criticised machine-made ornament, defining it as pointless because it negated craft and the struggle of the artisan.
…true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heartbreakings…all this can be traced by a practised eye; but granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood.
He repeatedly travelled abroad and was infatuated with Venice; his architectural drawings of the City are extraordinary. Between 1851 and 1853 he published three volumes of a treatise on Venetian art and architecture – The Stones of Venice.
In 1862 Ruskin took a precarious leap away from art criticism with Unto This Last. It started life as a series of essays on The Cornhill Magazine but never reached completion there because of the furore it caused. The work is a critique of the fundamentals of nineteenth century capitalist economics, it’s impact on people and the natural world.
…whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor…Mercantile economy signifies the accumulation, in the hands of individuals, of legal or moral claim upon, or power over, the labour of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty and debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other.
God had created the natural world for man and to despoil it in the interests of trade was a blasphemy. Ruskin was quickly regarded as dangerous, much of the political class decided that the correct response was to destroy him. An editorial in the Manchester Examiner and The Times of 2nd October 1860 argued:
If we do not crush him his wild words will touch the springs of action in some hearts and before we are aware, a moral floodgate may fly open and drown us all.
It was as if the pampered aesthete had just discovered the working class and was appalled by what they had to endure. He said that before any employer should consider hiring a child, he should ask himself if he would put his own children to the same work. Ruskin had travelled across the continent but not the backstreets of English cities. His socialism was paternalistic, idealistic, one opponent describing him as a ‘mad governess.’
The political economy that Ruskin attacked was the orthodoxy of the day – he had gone out on a limb and found himself once again beleaguered. Socialism was in its infancy as an idea and much of Europe had recently convulsed under the revolutions of 1848. His friends and colleagues abandoned him with the exception of the Thomas Carlyle. The ideas expressed in Unto This Last bled into a series of lectures to ‘the workingmen and labourers of England’ published in pamphlets in the 1870s. Ruskin increasingly took his ideas and his teaching to working people. He taught labourers at the working men’s college in Red Lion Square, he established the Guild of St George with a £1000 of his own money acquiring land where people could work cooperatively. The Guild continues to this day as a charity for arts, crafts and the rural economy. He had a particular connection to Sheffield describing the cutlery workers there as the finest metal workers in the world. He donated a collection to the City so Victorian workers could see and handle beautiful objects. He became an advocate for improved education of women which led to the establishment of the Queenswood Girls School which provided an education that couldn’t be found elsewhere. An Oxford College specifically for workers was named after him and once there were Ruskin Societies everywhere. His legacy was a spur to action and at the heart of his public work was the belief that art was morally improving; that artistic taste was a moral question. But as a religious man he tended to see all decisions as moral questions. He once said ‘Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are.’ He also suffered from bouts of depression and mania, triggered one suspects by self-imposed over exhaustion.
Ruskin matters today because when one looks at his artwork that possesses such accuracy and clarity it is unsettling – for we are reminded how much craft has disappeared from contemporary visual art. He had an eye for beauty in everything and the skill to translate it. Similarly, his command of language and highly coloured prose is difficult for many because we have a mistrust of elegance these days. Ruskin wrote as if he were answerable to no one, thus there are surprises and there are contradictions. He introduces emotion into subjects which we are accustomed to being subject to reason alone. He spent much of his creative life teaching and encouraging others – he didn’t exhibit his own work – he didn’t think it worthy. William Morris said of him ‘He seemed to point out a new road on which others should travel.’ The bicentennial events and exhibitions on Ruskin have been terrific – they continue to the end of the year, catch them while you can but don’t forget him the year after. As a poet I use verse to explore history through historical voices and am working on a biographical sequence about Ruskin. I have not inhabited his voice but rather those that knew him over his long life; his story, his work and its influence through the imagined voice of others.
Michael Crowley: Three Poems on Ruskin
JOHN IN THE GARDEN
Barefoot in his nightgown
lost in clouds and caves of a reverie
he walks the lawn in curves and lines
a beetle talking to itself.
He stops at a teasel, squeezes
his palm against the needles
as if holding a peach, shuts
his watery eyes and whispers.
Lowers his nose to a smoky moth
that splashes its wings in flight
passes me speaking of the infinite God
the twisted arrow of a winding stream
cries out Turner sees what I see.
John Everett Millais on John Ruskin
I have seen his drawing of a velvet crab
astonishing in detail and accuracy –
the mixed colours of its shell, the shadow
beneath its claws. Ruskin can see the elusive
tones between two blues and even into subjects
– the sinews of a building. Yet there are no
children by his brooks, no vendors in his markets,
he doesn’t draw his wife and never shall
turn his hand to the prism of her eyes.
She embroiders in a chair, waiting on his word,
he stands at a window calibrating the sky.
When evening comes he reaches for his drawing board.
The velvet crab is estranged from sand and sea,
his brush strokes cannot make his subjects breathe.
EVENING OF THE DELUGE
J.M.W. Turner to John Ruskin
My ragged light stampedes over water
yours moves quietly on its feet, sits
dressed in silk. Your prose you cannot order.
You see clearly and you see differently
the tear in an oak leaf – the wind that put it there
dissolve them into ink and water but hide
your work believing it unworthy.
There will be a deluge here this evening
sky and earth becoming one, you would praise it
drink in the delirium, become mad
as the heavens for you are besotted by clouds
knowing their pallor better than your own
complexion. Sunset has brought a magnolia fog
you think man is the sun – the sun is God.
Michael Crowley is a writer and dramatist. Earlier this year he was commissioned by Sky Arts to write and direct a large-scale community play on the English Civil War. In 2017 his debut novel The Stony Ground was published by Waterside Press, in 2016 his debut poetry collection First Fleet, published by Smokestack Books. He has a new collection out next year. Michael has also written drama for BBC Radio and was a writer in residence in a young offender’s institution for six years.