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Ruskin, John

Category: Genius

John Ruskin by Elliott & Fry albumen carte-de-visite,
9 August 1882

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) was a hugely talented and influential English artist, writer, poet, designer, and art patron, as well as a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He promoted environmental conservation, was a campaigner against all forms of cruelty to animals, wrote about sustainable living and agriculture and encouraged creativity and design in crafts and manufacture. Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture, for example, was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centred on the argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials. It was after seeing the changes that took place in Venice that he started to promote and write on preservation and conservation. His ideas provided inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founders of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy. Ruskin also wrote philosophical works. The Ethics of the Dust (1865) is superficially a discourse on crystallography, but is in actuality a metaphorical exploration of social and political ideals.

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 The elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing was later superseded by a preference for plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively.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.

Ruskin was a good technical artist producing soft gentle and detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. Interestingly, he could not be honestly described as an inspired artist. But he could recognise inspiration in others and this proved key.

Ruskin championed the work of numerous other artists - J. M. W. Turner, Edward Burne-Jones and from the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelites, who were influenced by his ideas. Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843), was an authoritative survey of the rationale behind the new movements in art. He promoted the new artists over the 'Old Masters' arguing that the Old Master simply reproduced views, whereas the new wave of artists interpreted what they saw. In a sense he was arguing for inspiration as opposed to imitation. The second volume of Modern Painters (published in 1846) emphasised even more the links between inspiration, beauty and art. He argued that 'the divine' was behind all artistic works of true beauty. It was the artist's job to be the channel for this - “the Beautiful as a gift of God” and that symbolism had a key part to play in expressing and communicating this input. Ruskin later became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing and he continued throughout his life to be a patron of the arts. After Turner died in 1851, for example, Ruskin catalogued the nearly 20,000 sketches Turner gave to the British nation.

It is worth adding that Ruskin believed that “The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues.” In effect art reflects a country's values, which makes rather interesting food for thought given the output of films, TV programmes, magazines and so on that pass for art in western society today.

Ruskin by William Downey,
for W. & D. Downey albumen carte-de-visite,
29 June 1863

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. His ideas greatly influenced William Morris. Ruskin also taught drawing classes (assisted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at the Working Men's College, established by the Christian socialists, Frederick James Furnivall and Frederick Denison Maurice. Although Ruskin did not share the founders’ politics, he recognised that through them he could promote his idea that through education, workers “could achieve a crucially-important sense of (self-)fulfilment”. He also supported women's education. From 1859 until 1868, Ruskin was involved with the progressive school for girls at Winnington Hall in Cheshire. He was also involved in a social housing scheme set up by Octavia Hill and numerous other philanthropic schemes.

Ruskin was not, as many seem to state, an agnostic or atheist, but eventually a believer in a sort of spiritualism and it was this belief that tended to direct his views on humanity and its role. It is noteworthy that his first published poem Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland: Derwentwater was published in the Spiritual Times. His mother was an Evangelical Christian, who forced her son to read the King James Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Needless to say it gave him a good grasp of its contents, but no love for Evangelical Christianity. Ruskin abandoned his mother's Evangelical Christian faith, as Biblical and geological scholarship undermined his childhood beliefs in the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible:"those dreadful hammers!" he wrote to Henry Acland, "I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses."

Where he had problems was in what they should be replaced by. He could see the value of having moral frameworks in society, but of course the big question in his mind was which ones?

This question was to occupy him throughout his life.

Where did his prodigious talent come from? Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. He was also left handed as can be seen from his hair parting.  He was a weak sensitive child and ended up being a very sickly adult. He suffered recurrent bouts of depression and the current view of psychologists is that he eventually became a manic depressive.

But things are never this simple, his entire upbringing actually greatly aided his development. His father was keenly interested in 'Romanticism' and introduced him to Byron, Shakespeare and Walter Scott. Ruskin had the great good fortune to be educated at home by his parents and private tutors and also greatly benefited by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. His father visited business clients in Britain's country houses, and tours took them to the Lake District, Scotland, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Thus he was lucky to be free of all constraining educational systems, whilst at the same time given the opportunity to learn for himself first hand.

From an early age Ruskin composed “elegant if largely conventional” poetry, and his notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings, remarkable for a boy of his age.

In Michaelmas 1836, Ruskin was sent to the University of Oxford. But university education was a terrible disappointment to him. Ruskin was thoroughly disenchanted by Oxford and suffered bouts of illness. The only benefits he gained from his time there were from the friendships he made. He also suffered terribly when his first love, Adèle Domecq, second daughter of his father’s business partner, became 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.

Effie Gray

Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends, helped him by organising a six-week break at Leamington Spa to undergo 'Dr. Jephson’s celebrated salt-water cure'. Thanks to Effie's help he managed to recover enough to sit his degree in 1842, and was awarded 'an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree' in recognition of his achievements.

During 1847 Ruskin became closer to Effie Gray. The couple became engaged in October. They married on 10 April 1848.

We have two balancing forces in our minds the Conscious intellect and the subconscious emotions. The marriage of Effie and Ruskin was a marriage of the intellect and not of emotion and from the start it proved to be a disastrous match. If we put it into crude vernacular he found after his wedding that he simply 'didn't fancy her' and as a consequence he never achieved an erection. Ruskin confirmed this in his statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings. "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion."  Gladstone said to his daughter, Mary, "should you ever hear anyone blame Millais or his wife, or Mr. Ruskin, remember that there is no fault; there was misfortune, even tragedy. All three were perfectly blameless."

Later in April 1854, Effie was to file a suit of nullity, on the grounds of “non-consummation” owing to his "incurable impotency," but Ruskin was not impotent and even wrote, "I can prove my virility at once."

The effect on Effie of his 'impotency' in her company [but apparently not in others] was understandably catastrophic and she became increasingly ill. And then Millais came onto the scene.

Ruskin came into contact with John Everett Millais through Coventry Patmore. In the summer of 1853, Millais and his brother travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie. Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Suffering increasingly from physical illness and acute mental anxiety, Effie was arguing fiercely with her husband and seeking solace with her parents in Scotland. The Ruskin marriage was already fatally undermined as she and Millais fell in love, and Effie left Ruskin, causing a public scandal. An annulment was granted in July 1854. Ruskin did not even mention it in his diary. Effie married Millais the following year.

The break up and humiliation he suffered did not have a positive result. He made the personal into the general. In later volumes of Modern Painters published in 1856 after his disastrous break-up with Effie, Ruskin started to argue that only the morally and spiritually healthy are capable of admiring the noble and the beautiful, and transforming them into great art. Given the lives of the pre-Raphaelites and artists like Burne-Jones, it is hard to see how he managed to come to these conclusions. By the standards of the day not one would be regarded as 'moral'.

And this bitter episode in his life gradually affected more and more of his work. He lectured and preached on virtue and morals more and more. The increasingly critical tone and political nature of Ruskin’s work outraged his father. When he worked on the Turner Bequest of nearly 20,000 individual art-works left to the nation by the artist, he is said to have 'colluded in the destruction of Turner’s erotic drawings'. [Although this has recently been disputed by the Tate].

Rose La Touche by Ruskin

Then, in 1858, Maria La Touche, a minor poet and novelist but one of the wealthy Irish La Touche family, asked Ruskin to teach her daughters drawing and painting. Rose La Touche was ten, Ruskin nearly 39. Ruskin gradually fell in love with her. Their first meeting came at a time when Ruskin’s own religious faith was under considerable strain. This always caused difficulties for the staunchly Protestant La Touche family who at various times prevented the two from meeting. Ruskin’s love for Rose was a cause alternately of great joy and deep depression for him, and always a source of anxiety.

And the past humiliations and grief, coupled with the love and unrequited love for Rose, as well as his increasing mental imbalance at last had an effect and he suddenly and at long last had a crisis of confidence – a sort of epiphany. In 1860, he gave up all his art work and wrote Unto This Last, a book that he considered 'the central work of my life'.

Ruskin’s social view broadened from concerns about the dignity of labour to consider wider issues of citizenship, and notions of the ideal community. In his four essays, Ruskin rejected the division of labour as dehumanising (separating labourer from his product), and argued that the “science” of political economy failed to consider the social effects on communities. He also combined the ideas of overall 'quality' of end products and reward.

The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed. The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.

The press reaction was hostile, but Ruskin’s friend, Thomas Carlyle, wrote, "I have read your paper with exhilaration... such a thing flung suddenly into half a million dull British heads... will do a great deal of good."

And indeed, Ruskin’s ideas later proved highly influential, praised and paraphrased by Mohandas Gandhi, and the founders of the British Labour party. Ruskin also promoted the ideas that “idlers be compelled to toil; and pensions provided for the elderly and the destitute, as a matter of right, received honourably and not in shame”.  Many of these ideas were later incorporated into the UK's welfare state [with the conspicuous absence of the idlers being compelled to toil!]

But I'm not sure that his supporters fully understood all that he was trying to promote. Great things are achieved by aggregation and co-operation around ideals and ideas [see Strategy of the Great Work] and aggregation cannot be achieved without some degree of moral [and thus social and governmental] framework to help people work and live together. And the people must want to work within it and believe in it and keep to it for it to work. Ruskin was again exploring which social frameworks might work. In Time and Tide (1867), his later letters to Thomas Dixon, he further explored these themes espousing honesty in work and exchange, just relations in employment and the need for co-operation.

Ruskin proposed to Rose La Touche on or near her eighteenth birthday in 1867, but she asked him to wait three years for an answer, until she was 21. A chance meeting at the Royal Academy in 1869 was one of the few occasions they came into personal contact thereafter. She finally rejected him in 1872, but they still occasionally met, for the final time on 15 February 1875. After a long illness, she died on 25 May 1875, at the age of 27.

These events plunged Ruskin into despair and led to increasingly severe bouts of mental illness involving a number of breakdowns and delirious visions. The first of these occurred in 1871 . Ruskin turned to spiritualism and was by turns comforted and disturbed by what he believed was his ability to communicate with the dead Rose.

During an episode of mental derangement after Rose died, he wrote a letter in which he insisted that Rose's spirit had instructed him to marry a girl who was visiting him at the time.

This level of mental derangement turned Ruskin into a sort of prophet. If you glance at the photo of him you can see that he grew a long beard and gradually changed in appearance. By the end of his life he looked almost Biblical.

In the 1880s, Ruskin wrote The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth-Century (1884), describing the effects of industrialisation on weather patterns.  A prophecy of global warming. 

Most of Ruskin’s writing became more and more prophetic and he cut himself off from the modern world with which he now felt almost completely out of sympathy. The period from the late 1880s was one of steady and inexorable decline. Gradually it became too difficult for him to travel to Europe. He suffered a complete collapse on his final tour, in 1888.

His last great work was his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89), (meaning, ‘Of Past Things’), a highly personalised, selective, eloquent but incomplete account of aspects of his life.

Although Ruskin’s 80th birthday was widely celebrated in 1899, Ruskin was scarcely aware of it. He died at his home Brantwood from influenza on 20 January 1900 at the age of 80. As he had grown weaker, he had suffered prolonged bouts of mental illness.

There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the function of his own life to the utmost, has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others”.

Observations

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