Sunday, May 17, 2015
John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. Ruskin penned essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. The elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing on art was later superseded by a preference for plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation.
He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century, and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation has steadily improved since the 1960s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognised as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft.
Ruskin first came to widespread attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defence of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is "truth to nature". From the 1850s he championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly "letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain", published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organisation that endures today.
Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. His father, John James Ruskin (1785–1864), was a sherry and wine importer founding partner and de facto business manager of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq (see Allied Domecq). John James was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a mother from Glenluce and a father originally from Hertfordshire. His wife, Margaret Cox, née Cock (1781–1871), was the daughter of an aunt on the English side of the family and a publican in Croydon. She had joined the Ruskin household when she became companion to John James's mother, Catherine.
Ruskin was born at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London (demolished 1969), south of St Pancras railway station. His childhood was characterised by the contrasting influences of his father and mother, both fiercely ambitious for him. John James Ruskin helped to develop his son’s Romanticism. They shared a passion for the works of Byron, Shakespeare and especially Walter Scott. They visited Scott's home, Abbotsford in 1838, but Ruskin was disappointed by its appearance. Margaret Ruskin, an Evangelical Christian, more cautious and restrained than her husband, taught young John to read the King James Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Its language, imagery and stories had a profound and lasting effect on his writing.
Ruskin’s childhood was spent from 1823 at 28 Herne Hill (demolished c. 1912), near the village of Camberwell in South London. It was not the friendless and toyless experience he later claimed in his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). He was educated at home by his parents and private tutors, and from 1834 to 1835 attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive Evangelical, Thomas Dale (1797–1870). Ruskin heard Dale lecture in 1836 at King's College London, where he was the first professor of English Literature.
Ruskin was greatly influenced by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. It helped establish his taste and augmented his education. His father visited business clients in Britain's country houses, exposing him to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. Tours took them to the Lake District (his first long poem, Iteriad, was an account of his 1830 tour) and to relations in Perth, Scotland. As early as 1825, the family visited France and Belgium. Their continental tours became increasingly ambitious in scope, so that in 1833 they visited Strasbourg, Schaffhausen, Milan, Genoa and Turin, places to which Ruskin frequently returned. He developed his lifelong love of the Alps, and in 1835 he first visited Venice, that 'Paradise of cities' that formed both the symbol in and the subject of much of his later work.
The tours provided Ruskin with the opportunity to observe and to record his impressions of nature. He composed elegant if largely conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship’s Offering. His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings, remarkable for a boy of his age. He was profoundly affected by a copy of Samuel Rogers’s poem, Italy (1830), which was given to him as a 13th birthday present. In particular, he admired deeply the accompanying illustrations by J. M. W. Turner, and much of his art in the 1830s was in imitation of Turner, and Samuel Prout whose Sketches and Flanders and Germany (1833) he also admired. His artistic skills were refined under the tutelage of Charles Runciman, Copley Fielding and James Duffield Harding. Gradually, he abandoned his picturesque style in favour of naturalism.
Ruskin's journeys also provided inspiration for writing. His first publication was the poem "On Skiddaw and Derwent Water" (originally entitled Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland: Derwentwater and published in the Spiritual Times) (August 1829). In 1834 three short articles for Loudon's Magazine of Natural History were published. They show early signs of his skill as a close "scientific" observer of nature, especially its geology.
From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in Loudon's Architectural Magazine, under the pen name "Kata Physin" (Greek for "According to Nature"). It was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centred on a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials and anticipated key themes in his later writings. In 1839, Ruskin’s ‘Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science’ was published in Transactions of the Meteorological Society.
In Michaelmas 1836, Ruskin matriculated at the University of Oxford, taking up residence at Christ Church in January of the following year. Enrolled as a "gentleman-commoner", he enjoyed equal status with his aristocratic peers. His study of classical "Greats" might, his parents hoped, lead him to take Holy Orders and become a bishop, perhaps even the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ruskin was generally uninspired by Oxford and suffered bouts of illness. Perhaps the keenest advantage of his time in residence was found in the few, close friendships he made. His tutor, the Rev William Lucas Brown, was always encouraging, as was a young senior tutor, Henry Liddell (later the father of Alice Liddell) and a private tutor, the Rev Osborne Gordon. He became close to the geologist and natural theologian, William Buckland. Among Ruskin’s fellow undergraduates, the most important friends were Charles Thomas Newton and Henry Acland.
His biggest success came in 1839 when at the third attempt he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry (Arthur Hugh Clough came second). He met William Wordsworth, who was receiving an honorary degree, at the ceremony. But Ruskin never achieved independence at Oxford. His mother lodged on High Street and his father joined them at weekends. His health was poor and he was devastated to hear his first love, Adèle Domecq, second daughter of his father’s business partner, was engaged to a French nobleman. In the midst of exam revision, in April 1840, he coughed blood, raising fears of consumption, and leading to a long break from Oxford.
Before he returned, he answered a challenge set down by Effie Gray, whom he later married. The twelve-year-old Effie had asked him to write a fairy story. During a six-week break at Leamington Spa to undergo Dr. Jephson's (1798–1878) celebrated salt-water cure, Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction, the fairy tale, The King of the Golden River (published in December 1850 (but imprinted 1851) with illustrations by Richard Doyle). A work of Christian sacrificial morality and charity, it is set in the Alpine landscape Ruskin loved and knew so well. It remains the most translated of all his works. At Oxford, he sat for a pass degree in 1842, and was awarded with an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree in recognition of his achievements.
Much of the period, from late 1840 to autumn 1842, Ruskin spent abroad with his parents, principally in Italy. His studies of Italian art were chiefly guided by George Richmond, to whom the Ruskins were introduced by Joseph Severn, a friend of Keats (whose son, Arthur Severn, married Ruskin's cousin, Joan). He was galvanised into writing a defence of J. M. W. Turner when he read an attack on several of Turner's pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy. It recalled an attack by critic, Rev John Eagles, in Blackwood's Magazine in 1836, which had prompted Ruskin to write a long essay. John James had sent the piece to Turner who did not wish it to be published. It finally appeared in 1903.
Before Ruskin began Modern Painters, John James Ruskin had begun collecting watercolours, including works by Samuel Prout and, from 1839, Turner. Both painters were among occasional guests of the Ruskins at Herne Hill, and 163 Denmark Hill (demolished 1947) to which the family moved in 1842.
What became the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), published by Smith, Elder & Co. under the anonymous but authoritative title, "A Graduate of Oxford," was Ruskin’s response to Turner’s critics. An electronic edition is available online. Ruskin controversially argued that modern landscape painters—and in particular Turner—were superior to the so-called "Old Masters" of the post-Renaissance period. Ruskin maintained that Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude, and Salvator Rosa, unlike Turner, favoured pictorial convention, and not "truth to nature". He explained that he meant "moral as well as material truth". The job of the artist is to observe the reality of nature and not to invent it in a studio—to render what he has seen and understood imaginatively on canvas, free of any rules of composition. For Ruskin, modern landscapists demonstrated superior understanding of the "truths" of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation, a profound appreciation of which Ruskin demonstrated in his own prose. He described works he had seen at the National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery with extraordinary verbal felicity.
Although critics were slow to react and reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man’s work, notably Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. Suddenly Ruskin had found his métier, and in one leap helped redefine the genre of art criticism, mixing a discourse of polemic with aesthetics, scientific observation and ethics. It cemented Ruskin’s relationship with Turner. After the artist died in 1851, Ruskin catalogued the nearly 20,000 sketches Turner gave to the British nation.
Ruskin toured the continent again with his parents in 1844, visiting Chamonix and Paris, studying the geology of the Alps and the paintings of Titian, Veronese and Perugino among others at the Louvre. In 1845, at the age of 26, he undertook to travel without his parents for the first time. It provided him with an opportunity to study medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and especially Italy. In Lucca he saw the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia which Ruskin considered the exemplar of Christian sculpture (he later associated it with the object of his love, Rose La Touche). He drew inspiration from what he saw at the Campo Santo in Pisa, and in Florence. He was particularly impressed by the works of Fra Angelico and Giotto in San Marco, and Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco but was alarmed by the combined effects of decay and modernisation on Venice: "Venice is lost to me," he wrote. It crystallised his lifelong conviction that to restore was to destroy, and that the only true course was preservation and conservation.
Drawing on his travels, he wrote the second volume of Modern Painters (published April 1846). The volume concentrated more on Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists than on Turner. It was a more theoretical work than its predecessor. Ruskin explicitly linked the aesthetic and the divine, arguing that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably bound together: "the Beautiful as a gift of God". In defining categories of beauty and imagination, Ruskin argued all great artists must perceive beauty and, with their imagination, communicate it creatively through symbols. Generally, critics gave this second volume a warmer reception although many found the attack on the aesthetic orthodoxy associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds difficult to take. In the summer, Ruskin was abroad again with his father who still hoped his son might become a poet, even poet laureate just one among many factors increasing the tension between them.