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RUSKIN, TURNER AND THE PRE-RAPHAELITES

Tate Britain

March 9 to May 28, 2000

Portrait of the Critic as a Young Artist

John Ruskin by Sir John Everett Millais

"John Ruskin" by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 78.7 by 68 centimeters, private collection

 

By Michele Leight

Connoisseurs and artists are different, usually.

The former take delight in the work of others and the latter take delight in their own work, generally.

Most people would prefer to be known as an artist rather than merely as a connoisseur, but without connoisseurs most artists would be lost.

John Ruskin, the world’s foremost art critic in the mid- and late-19th Century, was a connoisseur and an artist. Although best known for his controversial libel trial with Whistler and for his promotion of the work of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin was a very influential writer on architecture whose advocacy of preservation and public exposure to the arts and "adult education" were highly important.

As this superb exhibition makes abundantly clear, Ruskin was also a wonderful artist. Although not as great, of course, as his hero, Turner, Ruskin’s only rival among writers about art as an artist is Vasari.

In the current age of multi-culturalism and "political correctness," Ruskin’s "elitist" views might still seem controversial to some, but his fervor and oeuvre, both literary and artistic, is in no way diminished. While his contributions to English heritage are magnificent and very impressive, his life’s interests, goals, and achievements are of exceeding interest to everyone in love with art, architecture, and the notion of beauty. Moreover, his is a fascinating story of how even the most brilliant observers can have blind spots and how even powerful and influential men can have strange love lifes.

This major exhibition, the inaugural show for the reopening of the Tate Gallery renamed as the Tate Britain Museum in London, is accompanied by a splendid, 288-page catalogue with many fine color illustrations, published by Tate Gallery Publishing.

"Turner is the exception to all rules, and can be judged by no other standard of art…" wrote a confident John Ruskin, aged 17, in reply to an attack on Turner by the Rev. John Eagles, art critic of Blackwood’s Magazine, in 1836. Rev. Eagles had described Turner’s "Juliet and Her Nurse" as "…a composition as from different parts of Venice, thrown higgledy-piggledy together, streaked blue and pink and thrown into a flour tub…. We have Rev. Eagles to thank for arousing Ruskin’s passions enough to spur him on to the great heights of art criticism which he eventually achieved, and most importantly for his unequivocal defense of his hero, Turner.

While it is difficult from a modern standpoint to comprehend that the Rev. Eagles could have been so blind to Turner’s talent, Ruskin’s rebuttal is an early warning signal of the tenacity with which he upheld his beliefs, and of the yet-to-be-published "Modern Painters," which established him as Britain’s foremost art critic.

Ruskin became a formidable and life-long supporter of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites by his commitment to challenging both critical and public opinion, which was not sympathetic to them, and his defense of what he perceived as " the essence and the authority of the Beautiful and the True."

"Snow Storm - Steam Boat Off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel left Harwich," by Joseph Mallord William Turner, oil on canvas,91.5 by 122 centimeters, 1842

Ruskin attacked, in print, those around him who represented "establishment" views on what did, or did not, constitute "good" art. He championed Turner, whom he idolized, and the Pre-Raphaelites vehemently and with steadfast self-assurance and stated plainly in "Modern Painters," published in 1843, that Turner’s "Snowstorm" was "…One of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light, that has ever been put on canvas, even by Turner," adding that "Of course it was not understood; his finest works never are." That last sentence captured both his perceptiveness and the frustration he felt at what he considered to be the deliberate ignorance of the critics and the general public when confronted with true genius. His tone was designed to blow those critics out of the water who had panned Turner’s work in as disparaging terms as the Rev. Eagles.

Ever protective of his son, Ruskin’s father cautiously advised him to send the response to Blackwood’s Magazine to Turner first. The artist replied with endearing honesty; "…I beg to thank you for your zeal, kindness, and the trouble you have taken in regard of the criticism of Blackwood’s Magazine for October, respecting my works; but I never move in these matters." By "move" Turner meant respond, and so Ruskin’s brave rebuttal was never published in his life time.

The artist and the critic did, however, share a single-mindedness in the pursuit of their respective truths.

For Ruskin, this meant exposing establishment values that misjudged painters of formidable talent by what he considered to be their own shallow standards.

The staggering beauty and talent displayed in Ruskin’s own drawings and watercolors are at the heart of this important and fascinating exhibition and give added weight to his arguments - Ruskin knew what he was talking about: he was a competent and trained artist himself, which is more than can be said of most art critics. He was also on a crusade for artistic truth, as the artist himself perceived it, and not the "manufactured" truths of the prevailing tastes of his day.

Ruskin’s confidence represented the emerging new middle class in Britain at the time, exemplified by his own family, which had education and wealth; as the only son he was the center of his parent’s universe, and they had high hopes for him – "…You may be doomed to enlighten a People by your Wisdom & to adorn an age by your learning," said his father to ten-year-old Ruskin, which sounds like intense pressure except for the fact that it turned out to be true.

Ruskin grew up in a home with a few inherited pictures and all the late Georgian comforts his father’s profits from the sherry importing firm "Ruskin, Telford and Domecq" could afford, including private lessons; his father’s interests in art and poetry tempered the strict evangelical regime of his mother, Margaret. Nurturing Ruskin’s imagination was extremely important to his father.

"Portrait of John Ruskin at the age of three and a half" by James Northcote, oil on canvas, 126.7 by 101 centimeters, 1822, National Portrait Gallery, London

As a proclamation of their new-found respectability, Ruskin’s father commissioned a series of portraits by the conservative painter, James Northcote (1746-1831) which provided young John with his first contact with the art world. Ruskin was clearly the apple of his parents' eye, and the portrait by Northcote of the three-year-old Ruskin, illustrated above, cost a hefty 40 guineas, far more than was paid for their own, smaller portraits by the same artist. Entitled "Portrait of John Ruskin at the age of three and a half," 1822, it is described with customary self-assurance by Ruskin in his autobiography entitled "Praeteria": "…I am represented in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds, while two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance, which were put in by the painter at my own request; for I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland…"

At the tender age of three, the wonders of the natural landscape had made an impression upon Ruskin, and it is admirable that one so young would care enough to want the hills added – it lacked visual interest without hills so he asked for them to be included. (This willfulness is reminiscent of the landscape architect "Capability Brown" who was commissioned by a great many noblemen and upwardly mobile families in England to design their parks and grounds. He was famous for "moving" hills or lakes to enhance the "aspect" or view from the stately mansions from which they were observed. This required more than paint and brush - there were no earthmovers back then, or tractors, and these Herculean feats of engineering and landscaping were achieved by manual labor.)

Another event which Ruskin remembered 50 years later was the arrival of his father’s first purchase from "The Society of Painters in Watercolour" in Pall Mall in 1832, when he was 10 years old - a drawing by Anthony Van Dyke Copley Fielding (1787-1855). "The Old Watercolor Society" as Ruskin called it was in its "golden age" and the Ruskins owned works by David Cox (1783-1859), Samuel Prout (1783-1852), George Cattermole (1800-63), Copley Fielding, Frederick Tayler (1802-89) and John Frederick Lewis (1805-76), who exhibited at the society, and had consolidated the techniques of J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin.

Ruskin noted that he and his father were part of a shift by the middle classes toward a patronage of British Art, and represented a new type of middle-class collector; however, Queen Victoria also collected watercolors by the same artists at the beginning of her reign, and the name Turner is synonomous with "British" art to most Englishmen, regardless of their background or financial status.

It is no coincidence that "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites" was the subject chosen for the special exhibition for the re-opening of the Tate Gallery as the new Tate Britain in March 2000, separating it from the new Tate Modern at Bankside, which opened a month later housing the museum’s international collection. These men were the founding fathers of the concept of patronizing new "British Art" at a time when the rest of Victorian England was enjoying the spoils of an Empire and "taste" meant decorative excess to a degree which makes Donald Trump’s hotels and casinos look positively conservative. The subject matter depicted in most popular paintings and illustrations in Ruskin’s day was mawkish, sentimental and moralizing.

Ruskin’s father, John James Ruskin (1785-1864), was born in Edinburgh, the son of a grocer. He attended the Royal High School, hoping to become a lawyer. He was instead persuaded by his father to take up "trade" and went to London; while working for the wine importing firm Gordon, Murphy & Co., he met Pedro Domecq, whose family owned extensive vineyards in Spain. James Ruskin’s diligence and aptitude for commerce allowed the two men to branch out on their own in 1814, to be joined by a third partner, Henry Telford, who was the financial support.

After his father’s suicide, John James Ruskin married his cousin, Margaret Cock, in 1818, set up house in London in 1822, and eventually moved to a large house in Herne Hill by 1842. John James Ruskin’s Scottish schooling had left him with a love of literature, most especially Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, two great Romantics, and he shared this love with his son. It was in a copy of Samuel Roger’s poem, "Italy," that Ruskin first saw "vignettes" by Turner, which would forever cast their spell. In 1839 the Ruskins bought their first drawing by Turner.

Ruskin’s passion for Turner made him angry at the critics’ lack of understanding of him, and in battling them he joined their ranks, and began questioning the very nature of art criticism itself. He proved to be a formidable adversary; in his essay "The Poetry of Architecture," (1837) he wrote: "…it is not to the public that the judgment is entrusted. It is by the chosen few, by our nobility and men of taste and talent, that the decision is made, the fame bestowed, and the artist encouraged…" Ignorance confronted by Ruskin was sure to be overturned and ridiculed, and he stopped at nothing to expose it – endearingly pompous by today’s standards, but he made his point.

While Ruskin had all the makings of a gifted artist, he admitted to being unable to draw anything "out of his head" as a child – that is out of his imagination. This may have steered his adoration and awe of Turner to the public defense of him that is now famous – Turner, however true to nature and architecture his works may have been, was probably the greatest imaginative landscape painter England has ever produced.

Copying maps and book illustrations was encouraged for hand-eye co-ordination for fledging artists. Ruskin began sketching his impressions of places he traveled to with his parents, including a view of a street in Sevenoaks (dated 1831) which Ruskin claimed was his first sketch drawn directly from nature.

In 1830, in a luxuriously produced ‘annual’ called "The Friendship Offering," Ruskin saw his first Turner reproduction, "Vesuvius." Later in life he came to own the original watercolor, and its pair, (the former now in the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, and the latter in private collection). He was a regular contributor to "The Friendship Offering," which combined light literature with exquisite illustration and was "the practical and artistic representation of the age." In any event, Ruskin was hooked for life, reveling in Turner’s scrupulous faithfulness to nature. Ironically, "Vesuvius" was not painted from the subject itself, but from a camera obscura drawing by James Hakewill.

By 1831, Ruskin had a private drawing master, Charles Runciman (1825-67) whom he remembered as rigid in his approach to perspective; he did however seek to stimulate Ruskin beyond "copying" things. Runciman submitted his own work to the annual Society of British Artists, the British Institute and the Royal Academy, and he was primarily a landscape artist. Whatever Ruskin’s misgivings might have been, the foundations Runciman helped him lay are evident in the impeccably executed and highly polished examples of Ruskin’s own drawings in this exhibition. While "training" is apparent, so is an uncanny sense of symmetry and order, and an unerring eye for detail.

It was Henry Telford, his father’s business partner, who gave Ruskin a copy of a revised edition of Samuel Roger’s poem "Italy," for his 13th birthday, on February 8th 1832. It contained 25 exquisitely engraved "vignettes" by the master, and Telford was thereafter held responsible for Ruskin’s "Turner insanities…"

"…At that time I had never heard of Turner, except in the well-remembered saying of Mr. Runciman’s that "the world had been much dazzled and led away by some splendid ideas thrown out by Turner…" Ruskin initially was enthralled by Turner’s black and white line engravings and aspired to emulate them in his own drawings. The early watercolors did not impress him, nor did Turner’s treatment of color; however, he was to confront color later.

Ruskin also had a lifelong fondness for the work of Samuel Prout, whose most recent set of lithographs were acquired by the Ruskins just before the family’s summer tour of 1833. They, in fact, chose some of the places to visit from Prout’s illustrations; although it was not the family’s first foreign trip, it was to be the first time Ruskin was old enough to understand the sights he was seeing and his responses to them.

It is as an architectural draughtsman that Ruskin’s work most resembles Prout’s, although it is less delicate. In the first volume of "Modern Painters" (1843) Ruskin declares: "…I repeat there is nothing but the work of Prout which is true, living or right, in its general impression, and nothing, therefore, so inexhaustibly agreeable." Ruskin could well have been describing his own work, with "Study of Marble Inlaying on the front of the Casa Loredan, Venice" (1845), "North West Angle of the façade, St. Marks, Venice" (1851) or "Christ Church from St. Aldates, Oxford" (1842). These are sublime examples of his incredible skill at rendering both architectural elements and the ambiance of the places of which they were a part.

Ruskin’s pen-and-ink illustration "Ehrenbreitstein"(1833-4) from the manuscript "An Account of a Tour of the Continent," (Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven), described the family’s 1833 summer tour, which took them across Belgium to the Rhine and on to Switzerland, where, aged 13, Ruskin first visited Chamonix. Poems by him accompanied the illustrations in a desire to imitate Roger’s "Italy." "Ehrenbreitstein" is a direct copy of a view by Turner in watercolor, which was engraved for "The Keepsake" annual of 1833.

The first artist whose work the Ruskin’s acquired, Copley Fielding, also gave young Ruskin his first watercolor lessons – a medium far better suited to his temperament that oils. They were attended by his father, who welcomed the opportunity to meet the celebrated artist. The elder Ruskin’s enthusiasm for everything becomes more amazing the more one explores Ruskin’s formative years. It is easy to understand how such a devoted and genuinely passionate man could effortlessly influence a son to greatness.

As a young boy, Ruskin was passionately interested in geology – far more than art – and confessed to an "unabated, never to be abated, geological instinct…" Once again, this interest was sparked by his father, who bought him a box of rock samples while traveling in the Lake District, and he claimed these first stones were "…the beginning of science to me which never could have been otherwise acquired…"

Aged 12, Ruskin began a mineralogical dictionary founded on his studies of specimens in the British Museum; by 15, two of his geological essays had been published in J. C. London’s "Magazine of Natural History." He attended the Royal Geological Society from 1837, and became a Fellow in 1840. His scientific inquiries strengthened as he traveled, and he made notes and sketches along the way.

The milestone European Tour of 1835 marked Ruskin’s development as a draughtsman. Although he had taken watercolor lessons with Copley Fielding before the trip, his linear architectural sketches derived from Prout. The Ruskins first visit to Venice occurred between the 6th and the 12th of October, 1835, after two months of travel in the Alpine region. Ruskin made four drawings of subjects close to the Ducal Palace (cats. 76, 83, 84) a building which was to be important to him later in life. "…No boy could have been more excited that I was by seeing Italy and the Alps; neither boy nor man knew better the difference between a Cumberland cottage and Venetian palace, or a Cumberland stream and the Rhone," (Praeterita, 35.220).

Close observation was ingrained in Ruskin by the time he was 18; a summer in Yorkshire and the Lake District caused him to compare the local architecture with foreign examples, and it marked the beginning of a more disciplined approach on the study of architecture – the result was "The Poetry of Architecture, which appeared monthly in J. C. London’s "Architectural Magazine." He published it under the ‘nom-de-plume’ "Kata Phushin" ("According to Nature"). He was to publish the first volume of "Modern Painters" under a pen-name as well.

Ruskin tried to explain the differences between cottages in Westmoreland and the Swiss Alps, the chimneys of England, the Netherlands, Germany Italy and Spain; artistic license was required for the Netherlands and Spain, which he had not visited. They were probably gleaned from prints or pictures in the family collection. Englishness, through Ruskin’s eyes, won over the other nations of course.

The Ruskin family collection contained 3 watercolors by David Cox (1783-1859) who exhibited at the Old Watercolor Society. Ruskin believed that art should be true to nature, and while he thought Cox’s work beautiful, he had problems with his "style," which he thought carelessly executed, with "loose and blotted handling." By 1871, in his "Lectures on Landscapes," and after he had sold his watercolors by Cox, he criticized Cox and John Constable (1776-1837), who "…represented in their intensity the qualities adverse to all accurate science or skill in landscape art; their work being the mere blundering of clever peasants…(with) the pretense of ability which blinds the public to all the virtue of patience and to all the difficulty of precision…" Ruskin did not mince words, and it can been seen how his tone and position probably infuriated many, but he told it as he saw it and felt it – uncompromisingly.

In January, 1837, Ruskin went to study at Christ Church, Oxford; two years later his father bought their first painting by J. M. W. Turner – "Richmond Hill and Bridge, Surrey (British Museum). Six more followed from a series of "Picturesque Views in England and Wales," which Turner had begun in the mid 1820’s. Ruskin was not impressed with two of the "views" his father purchased, of Gosport and Winchelsea, and as a result he was given the freedom to choose his own pictures when his father gave him stocks worth 200 pounds that year (1840). Ruskin the collector was born - he bought "Christ Church College, Oxford," (circa 1832) by J. M. W. Turner for 50 pounds.

"Christ Church from St. Aldate's, Oxford" by John Ruskin, ink, crayon and watercolor over pencil, 1842, private collection

Ruskin’s fame as a draughtsman spread amongst his Oxford contemporaries and he painted his own "Christ Church from St. Aldate's, Oxford" in 1842, which is clearly indebted to Turners view of the same subject. "…The Dean…stumbled on the sketch – said it was beautiful – that he had heard a great deal of my drawings – said he would be much obliged to me if I would send them in." (Letter to his father, 15 March, 1837).

The same Dean, Thomas Gaisford, looked kindly on Ruskin when bad health forced him to break off his studies before taking his degree – the Dean received the painting as a token of Ruskin’s gratitude. It is a truly beautiful work, and there is a pang when the viewer learns that it will return to a private collection, making it doubly precious to admire first-hand in this exhibition.

Despite the generous "fund" his father provided for him, Ruskin did not spend recklessly because "there were no Turners to be had in Oxford, and I cared for nothing else in the world of material possession." However, he did purchase an impression by Turner ("Venice from the Porch of Madonna della Salute" (Metropolitan Museum of Art), from James Ryman, a London print dealer. The actual painting was in the collection of H. A. J. Munro, who owned the pre-eminent collection of Turner’s works, and after 1842, together with Ruskin, he was amongst a select group of collectors who commissioned the series of late Swiss watercolors. Ruskin may also have met Turner for the first time at Ryman’s print shop, as he had commissioned him to paint a view of that beautiful city.

Ruskin left Oxford prematurely in 1840 due to ill-health and the unwelcome news of the engagement of his first love, Adele Domecq. The Ruskins departed for Italy, to Rome, where Ruskin found he disliked most of the fabled classical architecture – amusingly, his stringent Protestant upbringing objected to the interior of St. Peters, which he wrote "would make a nice ballroom." (Letter to Dale). Compared to the spartan churches of Protestant England, devoid of statues, gilding or frescoes, St. Peters must have seemed a little "over the top."

The sight of Vesuvius by moonlight on January 8th, 1841, restored him. He stayed for weeks in Naples, recording in paint Vesuvius at all times of day or night, with strong Turneresque influences. Ruskin had by now become single-minded in his reverence for the 65-year-old Turner; his style impacted on Ruskin’s own work and he was enriched by personal association with the artist. Despite his father’s wariness of making extravagant purchases, when Turner died at the end of 1851, the Ruskins owned two oils and 30 watercolors; by the time Ruskin died in 1900, he had at one time or another owned as many as 300 works by Turner.

The mockery of Turner’s annual exhibits continued during his lifetime, and Ruskin’s defense intensified with each assault. The first volume of "Modern Painters" was published in May, 1843 – its first title, proposed by an outraged Ruskin intent on countering the ridicule of Turner’s interpretation of nature was "Turner and the Ancients." This was intended to present him as the first artist courageous and original enough to break free of the slavish conventions of earlier landscape painters.

His publishers, however, advised him to title it "Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters, Proved by example of the True, the Beautiful and the Intellectual from the works of Modern Artists, especially from those of J. M. W. Turner." With this landmark volume, Ruskin charted a new course for the appreciation of modern artists, men "of their time," and of art criticism, which turned the tide away from only looking at the old and passing over the new – a very modern concept that has had an impact through subsequent generations of artists and critics.

In his day, Ruskin was thoroughly modern, as a collector, critic and admirer of great art. He did not overlook the artists "of his time," he celebrated them and championed them fearlessly. The final wall text of the exhibit states: "…This exhibition explores not Ruskin’s distance from us as a Victorian sage, but his modernity in his own time and as someone who still has something to say now. The aim is to present him as a contemporary critic…"

It would be easy for someone new to Ruskin to regard him initiatlly, and naively, as an outmoded, bewhiskered Victorian with chauvinistic opinions. But seeing his own exquisite work, which he made light of, at this extraordinary show, and the paintings he chose for himself and those he championed obliterates such first impressions. Ruskin did have some pompous opinions, but he was a gutsy gentleman who did not tolerate fools quietly, knew good art when he saw it, and took a sledge-hammer to stupid criticism of great and innovative art. For that we are forever indebted to him, and can learn from him.

From 1843 to 1860, the tireless Ruskin mounted an all-consuming, seventeen-year, five-volume crusade in pursuit of a new landscape "aesthetic."

The first volume of "Modern Painters" was greeted favorably, with the usual reservations about Turner, who took a full year and a half to thank Ruskin; he was upset by the unfavorable references made by Ruskin of the work of his peers when compared to his. Turner was also completely unconcerned with the critics’ response to his paintings. The public began to see the light, thanks to Ruskin, and welcomed the passionate young critic’s defense of Turner and his vehement call for young painters to study nature first hand – among them the Pre-Raphaelites in England and their contemporaries in America.

Ruskin’s name became synonymous with Turner’s from then onward, and he was expected to write Turner’s biography after his death; he chose instead to confine his involvement to a more personal quest – trying to understand the nature of Turner’s unique and expressive response to landscape. In his essay of 1851, "Pre-Raphaelites," Ruskin linked Turner with the young artists he championed, especially John Everett Millais, which frankly is a stretch by anyone’s imagination, but typical of Ruskin. In his "Lectures on Landscapes," in Edinburgh in 1853, he called Turner "the first and the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelites." Ahem.

"Modern Painters" was published anonymously as the work of "A Graduate of Oxford" – even his close friends did not know for some time that he was the author. Amongst those friends was the artist George Richmond (1809-1896) who once said "…Ruskin, when your criticism is constructive you talk like an angel, when it is destructive you declaim like a demon."

Richmond was, more importantly, responsible for Ruskin’s interest in the Venetian School, and his subsequent passion for them: "…When I wrote the first volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ I only understood about one-third of my subject; and one-third especially of the merits of Turner. I divided my admiration with Stanfield, Harding and Fielding. I knew nothing of the great Venetian colorists – nothing of the old religious painters – admired only in my heart Rubens, Rembrandt, and Turner’s gaudiest effects: my admiration being rendered however right as far as it went – by my intense love of nature."

Richmond also tried to persuade Ruskin to buy some drawings by William Blake (1757-1827) in the hope of "turning him on" to this great artist; he guided him to "see the truth" in a Veronese painting owned by Samuel Rogers, and he may have introduced Ruskin to Thomas Carlyle, the historian and philosopher. All of Ruskin’s associates and friends were accustomed by now to his fixation with Turner. From 1833 onwards, Turner exhibited views of Venice almost annually at the Royal Academy; his glowing evocations had become more ethereal and amorphous by the 1840s, but appealed to collectors more than his other subjects.

By 1841 Ruskin decided that Venice as a subject was "quite beyond everybody but Turner." Of "Approach to Venice," 1844, (National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.) he wrote in "Modern Painters"- "…the most perfectly beautiful piece of color of all that I have seen produced by human hands, by any means, or at any period…." Ruskin was responding to the sensuous as well as the literal elements in the painting. He also interpreted from Turner’s themes a fundamental pessimism, a sadness: "…Turner would constantly express an extreme beauty where he meant that there was most threatening and ultimate sorrow." It was a characteristically brilliant insight on the part of the still young critic, and very likely right on target.

"Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon coming on" by Joseph Mallord William Turner, oil on canvas, 91 by 138 centimeters, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of the most moving, and gorgeously, executed paintings in the exhibition is "Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on," 1840 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Despite the sad and barbaric practice portrayed, or perhaps because of it, the painting gives deeper insight into Turner than almost any other work, and it sheds some light on why, perhaps, as an artist he faced such constant ridicule and contempt. He made people uncomfortable. "Slavers" is arguably Turner’s greatest "protest" painting; he chose a subject which he knew was inflammatory amongst his peers and the public at large, who at the time accepted such barbaric behavior as part of the status quo. Turner believed it was morally wrong, which it absolutely was, and he entered the raging anti-slavery debate as a critic of the trade which continued to be practiced outside Britain during the 1830s. A bill calling for the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies was passed two years earlier. (The great and socially conscious writer, Jane Austen, deals with the subject subtly, but with the same moral finality as Turner, in her novel "Mansfield Park:" the tyrannical "lord of the manor" is a slave trader, with all the accoutrements and manners a gentleman should possess, illicitly and secretly acquired through this most barbaric of "trades." She captures the "hush-hush" aristocratic hypocrisy of it all with her usual brilliance and mischievous wit.)

Ironically, Spain, from which the Ruskin’s fortune derived, was still heavily involved in the slave trade, and although Ruskin’s comments clearly favor the abolition of the slave trade, his usual verbosity is curtailed on the issue. In "Modern Painters," however, he wrote that "…I believe if I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. Its daring conception, ideal in the highest sense of the word, is based on the purest truth."

Ruskin hoped that his father might buy this painting, and, loving father as always, he did, and presented it to him on New Years Day, 1844, as a reward for writing "Modern Painters." It hung in their dining room, where it was seen, but not commented upon by Turner – what a character! The general public had to rely on Ruskin’s descriptions of it, as it was never engraved. As time wore on, however, the subject of the painting made it tough to live with and he tried to sell it at Christie’s in 1869. The public so valued his opinion that they did not want to buy anything he was getting rid of, so he finally negotiated a private sale of the picture to the American collector, J. T. Johnston.

At that time, there were almost no works by Turner in America, and the triumph of its acquisition was short-lived; when the picture was exhibited in New York in 1872 there was widespread disappointment and outrage. It was pronounced that the critic’s praise of the painting and the artist did not measure up to the reality, and both artist and critic were discredited – for the time being. It is reassuring to note that this magnificent work is permanently on view for all to see at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Ruskin’s religious background found in Turner an almost biblical, or at least mythical, hero, and his descriptions of this aspect of Turner’s art, the transcendent and at times apocalyptic Turner, is captured in this glowing description in "Modern Painters": "…And Turner – glorious in conception – unfathomable in knowledge – solitary in power – with the elements waiting upon his will, and the night and the morning obedient to his call, sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of this universe, standing, like the great angel of the Apocalypse, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow upon his head, and with the sun and stars given into his hand.…" The wildly imaginative and beautiful writing in this passage is said to have inspired Turner to paint "The Angel Standing on the Sun," (1846) This hymn of praise would turn to dismay after Turner’s death, upon discovering that his hero was far from perfect – but more of that later.

Two outstanding watercolors must be mentioned, "The Pass of St. Gotthard, near Faido," c. 1842-3 (a study now in the Turner Bequest at Tate Britain), and the 1943 finished work of the same title (Thaw Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York)., the latter commissioned by Ruskin, which made him for the first time Turner’s patron. It had always been Turner’s practice to make pencil sketches at the scene, and to work on the color later in the studio. Ruskin found this worrisome in other artists, but did not believe, or ignored, that Turner was guilty of the same vice. Either way, Turner produced such glorious finished works that it is possible no one cared how he achieved them as long as he did; these paintings would have been "finished" in the studio, after the initial pencil sketches, and not in "plein air" – the sketch of St. Gotthard is as atmospheric and site-specific as if it were painted entirely on the spot. "This was a favourite sketch of Turners. He realized it for me in 1843, with his fullest power and the resultant drawing is, I believe, the greatest work he produced in the last period of his art," Ruskin wrote in his catalog of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery, part 1,1857.

When Ruskin was having his famous portrait painted by Millais, he wrote to his father, "We shall have the two most wonderful torrents in the world, Turner’s "St. Gotthard" and Millais’s "Glenfinlas."

Along with sublime views of Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire and numerous tranquil country scenes, Ruskin was to find a significant number of "erotic sketches," bundled up in the Turner Bequest, bequeathed by the artist to the National Gallery (before it was moved to the newly founded Tate Gallery). Ruskin was one of eight executors of Turner’s will and removed himself from a five-year battle initiated by Turner’s family; it was settled with the entire bequest of over 20,000 items being retained for the nation. If it were not for Ruskin, all this might never have happened, because no one but faithful Ruskin thought he was any good. A comparable relationship would have been Van Gogh’s with his brother Theo, who believed in him and supported him both emotionally and financially throughout his tortured life.

Ruskin did, however, offer to put the collection in order, which occupied him for most of the winter of 1857, as well as the following spring. This daunting task left him physically and mentally exhausted, for several reasons. Among the rich treasury of Turner’s body of work, Ruskin was dismayed to find the groups of carefully bound erotic sketches. He was shocked by these examples of his hero’s earthy humanity, and attributed them to the conviction that his idol had in fact succumbed to mental illness. The equation of erotic sketches and insanity on the part of Ruskin makes him a likely candidate for frigidity (which is not far from the truth). Ruskin’s marriage to Effie was believed to be unconsummated, giving the poor woman ample grounds to make off with young, eager Millais, the painter, and subsequently marry him – their romance taking hold as the artist painted the portrait of Ruskin, standing over the rushing water of the river in Glenfinlas, illustrated below.

In a regrettable, and almost unforgivable, desire to "cleanse" the hallowed image of Turner, Ruskin and the National Gallery’s Keeper, Ralph Wormun, ordered the "offensive" material destroyed: "…the parcel was destroyed by me, and all the obscene drawings it contained burnt in my presence in the month of December 1858," Ruskin later wrote. Some survived, and the true extent of what was lost is not known, but it was substantial. Ruskin was not perfect, and he remained faithful to Turner despite the "disgusting discovery."

Ruskin made an enviable number of European tours with his parents, but his first solo trip to the continent occurred in 1845; the significance of the trip was to research French and Italian old masters in preparation for Vol. II of Modern Painters – in the process, early Italian architecture caught his interest. Ruskin eloquently describes the church of San Frediano in Lucca "…I have discovered enough in an hour’s ramble after mass to keep me at work for a twelvemonth. Such a church – so old – 680 probably – Lombard – all glorious dark arches and columns – covered with holy frescoes – and gemmed gold pictures on blue grounds. I don’t know when I shall get away, and all the church fonts charged with heavenly sculpture and inlaid with whole histories in marble – only half of them have been destroyed by the Godless, soulless, devil hearted and brute-brained barbarians of French – and the people here seem bad enough for anything too…"

There were upheavals in an as yet ununified Italy, which threatened its heritage; Ruskin saw with dismay this ruinous work of contemporary restorers. He began to record the buildings and churches no longer for pleasure but as a security against the day when they might no longer exist.

Ruskin’s landmark trip to Lucca that year resulted in drawings of the early Italian painters in the Church of San Romano, the Duomo, studies of the façade of San Michele, and drawings (which have not survived) of Ilaria de Caretto’s tomb in the Duomo, carved by Jacopo della Quercia in 1430. This figure became his touchstone for judging all sculpture.

His arrival in Venice was a shock – the changes to the cityscape were horrendous, introduced by the Austrian authorities. A basilica had been demolished to make way for a railway station, and horrors, a railway bridge trundled across the peaceful lagoon! Undaunted, Ruskin sketched, amongst many other subjects, the central pillars on the first floor of the Casa Loredan, at the lower end of the Grand Canal. Weeds grew out of the sculpted casque of the Lusygnan arms, but the squarely frontal view allowed him to record details of the moldings of the twelfth-century arcade.

Ruskin wrote a long commentary on this drawing years later (1n 1878), and used it as a teaching aid at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford: "…The building is of three dates; its capitals, and the arches they bear, are Byzantine; the shields and casque, inlaid with modification of the earlier work, presumably in the fifteenth century; the balustrade above, barbarous seventeenth. But nothing could surpass the beauty of the whole when I made this sketch in 1845…"

The Casa Loredan was restored more than once in the nineteenth century and the present façade dates form 1881: Ruskin’s concern for architectural style is clearly demonstrated by his attention to detail and by his impassioned prose. The second volume of ‘Modern Painters’ was published in April, 1846, and thereafter Ruskin’s thoughts turned toward architecture as a separate topic. His book on the Gothic, "The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ was published in 1848, the year of his marriage to Effie Gray. A Venetian uprising against the Austrian occupiers meant that he was unable to take his bride to Venice for their honeymoon as they had hoped, and the Revolution in France blocked any possibility of traveling their as well.

They went to Salisbury Cathedral instead – the purest example of English thirteenth century Gothic. By August, the situation had calmed down sufficiently for them to travel to Normandy – to study more examples of Northern Gothic. Effie found herself waiting endlessly for her husband to return from sketching sessions – the churches of Abbeville, Rouen, Caen and Caudebec. Of the inside of the Cathedral of St. Lo, he wrote that it was an example of "The Lamp of Life" experiencing the vital energy of the Gothic, where proportion is not a matter of mechanical regularity, but organic rhythm.

This drawing was given by Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton in 1875. He became Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University in 1875, and used his position to promote Ruskin’s ideas in America. In 1878, he arranged exhibitions of Ruskin’s work in New York and Boston, which took place in 1879.

For Ruskin, the Ducal Palace in Venice was "the central building in the world – it was a synthesis of what he called Roman, Lombard and Arab architecture. An entire chapter in "The Stones of Venice" was devoted to it. It was in Venice that Ruskin began to focus more on the man-made than the natural world…" I used to feel as much awe in gazing on the buildings as on the hills…" By 1876-77, Ruskin returned again to write, if possible, a fourth volume on ‘The Stones of Venice’ – his fragile mental state constrained him and prevented this, but he did produce a "Guide to the Principal Pictures in the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice" (1877) and his concern for the neglect and the wanton restoration of his beloved Venice prompted him to publish "St.Marks Rest: The History of Venice, written for the help of the few travelers who still care for her monuments." His watercolor sketch of "The North West porch of St. Mark’s" (1877) was chosen because the thirteenth-century mosaic above the porch was the sole survivor from the original façade, threatened with restoration, as was the entire west front by the architect G. B. Meduna – he supported local Venetian protestors who were outraged at the proposed restoration and returned to England to back the campaign mounted by Wlliam Morris and Burne-Jones through the newly formed Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The campaign stopped the proposed restorations.

"The Golden Stairs" by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, oil on canvas, 269.2 by 116.8 centimeters, 1876-80, Tate Gallery, bequeathed by Lord Battersea 1924

William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were amongst many young men greatly influenced by reading John Ruskin. In 1892, Morris, (artist, craftsman, social reformer and disciple of Ruskin) wrote in the preface to the central chapter of "The Stones of Venice," which he published in special edition: "…it is one of the most important things written by the author, and in future days will be considered as one of the few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century. To some of us when we first read it…it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel." That was quite a vote of confidence from the awesome William Morris.

In "The Poetry of Architecture," written while Ruskin was still an undergraduate, he made the connection, through landscape, between God and man. The organic forms of Gothic architecture represented a type of landscape, and he theorized that when Renaissance buildings replaced the Gothic, landscape painting developed to replace the images of nature the cities now lacked. Nature was the model for good architecture and a good society.

In 1849, Ruskin had turned to Gothic with ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture,’ brought on by the destructive work of ‘the Restorer, or Revolutionist’ – economically or politically. The "lamps" were the moral tenets governing good building design. The real life illustration he used were the threatened Pre-Renaissance buildings of Venice. His romantic impression of this most beautiful cities gave way to an in-depth study of the medieval builders and the values of their society. As a result his own drawings became more accurate and he constructed an architectural history in his notebooks. Taken as a whole, "The Stones of Venice" is more than an architectural history, it is a treatise on the rise, gradual decline and ultimate downfall of empires, which Ruskin related to the England of his own time.

Ruskin’s early enjoyment of a picturesquely decaying Venice gave way to increasingly serious study of its history, and to developing his own principles governing the moral and social purpose of architecture – and of expressing those principles in the design of a brand new building in his old college city – The Oxford Museum.

Ruskin was not the inventor of Pre-Raphaelitism or the Gothic Revival; the Revival’s leader was the Roman Catholic convert Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52), who began work on the Houses of Parliament in London with Charles Barry (1785-1860) in 1840, and Ruskin, along with the Pre-Raphaelites popularized and brought Protestant ideas into the existing avant-garde. Ruskin argued for the secularization of the Gothic and for its use in new domestic buildings and churches. The Oxford Museum showed its modernity with its use of iron and its dedication to Science, or the "natural sciences" as they were called.

Interior court of the Oxford Museum

Interior Court of the Oxford Museum (The Illustrated London News 1859)

The architect of the museum, Benjamin Woodward, (1816-1861), had been greatly influenced by Ruskin’s writings, and was also commissioned to build a new library and debating hall, which became the famous Oxford Union. The design for the museum was completed in 1854, and it was opened in 1860 with great fanfare as the first secular, public building in the Gothic style to be built since the Houses of Parliament. Its purpose was secular and scientific – it was to house the collections, teaching rooms and laboratories of the School of Natural Sciences, which had been established with considerable opposition by the University, which was devoted mainly to the "classics" – using the Gothic in support of modernity instead of in an antiquarian or ecclesiastical style. It used iron columns, modern technology in those days, to support an innovative glass roof.

Ruskin did not have a direct hand in Benjamin Woodward’s design for the Oxford Museum, but he did become involved in its decoration, enlisting Pre-Raphaelite artists, raising funds to pay them, publishing a promotional booklet "The Oxford Museum," in 1859, and making the largest donation for the ground floor windows of the façade, and assuming much of the responsibility for the completion of the Museum, together with Dr. Henry Ackland (1815-1900) when tuberculosis forced Woodward to spend winters abroad.

The museum’s new library was used for the famous debate between T. H. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce on Charles Darwin’s "On The Origin of Species." The book, published in 1859, marked the end of the natural theology that had inspired Ruskin in his youth, and he became an advocate of the synthesis of art and science that the Oxford Museum represented. When Woodward died suddenly in 1861, Ruskin lost interest in the project, and was never again so closely linked with a Gothic revival building. His ideas continued to influence George Gilbert Scott, Wiliam Butterfield (1814-1900) and George Edmund Street (1824-81). Woodward’s building remains, however, a true expression of Ruskinian ideas.

Ruskin was not the only one who loved the color, encrustation and sculpture of Venetian architecture; contemporary architects like George Gilbert Scott, William Butterfield and George Edmund Street felt as he did. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, both undergraduates at Oxford at the time, wrote in 1853 that Ruskin was in prose what Tennyson is in poetry, and what the Pre-Raphaelites are in painting. Morris became a designer whose spirit imbues interiors even to this day, and Burne-Jones became a pre-eminent painter and active member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Ruskin longed to see the workers liberated from industrial production, which had taken hold everywhere: the O’Shea brothers, Irish masons, "gathered out of nature the materials he needed," for the Oxford Museum" – literally the first building raised in England since the close of the fifteenth century, which has fearlessly put to new trial this old faith in nature, and in the genius of the unassisted workman…" Ruskin was on a social as well as an aesthetic mission, and gaining support rapidly for his ideas, which translated gradually into the architectural environment.

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, oil on canvas, 86.5 by 139.8 centimeters, 1854-8, Board of Trustees of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

Whatever Ruskin wrote about, drew, or painted, he influenced remarkable people. In his memoirs, William Holman Hunt recalls a conversation with Millais in which he tells Millais that Ruskin "describes the pictures of the Venetian School in such a manner that you see them with your inner sight, and you feel that the men who did them had been appointed by God, like old prophets, to bear a sacred message, and that they delivered themselves like an Elijah of old." Ruskin influenced Holman Hunt to use his own naturalistic symbolism in works like "The Light of the World." A chance meeting between artist and critic in Venice in 1869 resulted in them visiting the Scuola di San Rocco where Ruskin read aloud to Holman Hunt the passages that had inspired him more than twenty years before.

In 1849-50, Ruskin made a careful study of the principal buildings of Venice – an enormous task as there was no secure documentary record, or even a history of the Ducal Palace. He used his eyes, distinguishing between the parts built in the fourteenth century (on the seaward side) and those looking out onto the Piazetta built in the fifteenth.

Ruskin, Effie, Millais and his brother made the fateful trip to Glenfinlas in the Highlands to paint Ruskin’s portrait in 1853. While Millais concentrated on the portrait, Ruskin made an index to "The Stones of Venice" and prepared four lectures to be given at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution in November. J. F. Lewis, an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy, extended the invitation; it would be the first time Ruskin would lecture in public. He was 34.

He gave two lectures on architecture, one attacking Edinburgh’s neo-classical buildings, the second urging the use of the Gothic in domestic architecture. One, naturally, was devoted to praising Turner who had died in 1851; and one on Pre-Raphaelitism, praising especially Millais and Holman Hunt as members of a new young school that would replace Turner: "…With all their faults, their pictures are, since Turner’s death, the best – incomparably the best – on the walls of the Royal Academy." In all four lectures to about a thousand people he told his audience, as patrons of the arts, they had a moral duty to employ artists and craftsmen as creatively and usefully as possible.

Ruskin employed Millais to help him with large-scale illustrations to his lectures. Millais wrote to his friend and artist Charles Collins who was also a Pre-Raphaelite that "You will shortly hear of me in another art beside painting," adding that "Ruskin has discovered that I can design architectural ornamentation more perfectly than any living or dead party. So delighted is he that in the evenings I have promised to design doors, arches and windows for churches etc. It is the most amusing occupation and it comes quite easily and naturally to my hand…Ruskin is beside himself with pleasure as he has been groaning for years about the lost feeling for architecture. When I make a design he slaps his hands together in pleasure. He draws the arches and frames the mouldings for me to fill up."

Portrait of Rose La Touche by Ruskin

"Portrait of Rose La Touche" by John Ruskin, pencil with wash and bodycolour, 49.5 by 33 centimeters, 1862, Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster)

Ruskin’s personal relationship with Millais was soon to take an unexpected turn; a proposed extension to Camden Chapel, Camberwell, where he and his father worshipped. It resulted in the possibility of Millais and other Pre-Raphaelites doing the designs for stained glass windows. Millais large-scale design consisted of angels (all with the face of Effie) in Art Nouveau style. The relationship with Effie, however, prevented Ruskin and Millais from going any further with the project. The drawing is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Weber (alias Andrew Lloyd Weber, the musician and playwright).

The drawing illustrated below, "Edinburgh Lecture diagram: Decorated cusped gothic window, 1853, is described as the work of John Ruskin and Sir John Everett Millais, Bt., assisted by Euphemia Chalmers Ruskin (Effie), 1828-1897." All three parties to the scandal collaborated on this work – Effie, who had been taught to paint by Ruskin, did the gilding.

Edinburgh lecture diagram of decorated gothic window by Ruskin, Millais and Euphemia Chalmers Ruskin

"Edinburgh Lecture diagram: Decorated cusped gothic window" by John Ruskin and Sir John Everett Millais, assisted by Euphemia Chalmers Ruskin, pencil, charcoal, ink, wash, oil and gold paint; paper mounted on linen, 1853, Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster)

Ruskin mentioned Millais for the first time in April, 1854, in the published version of ‘Lectures on Architecture and Painting’ – the same month that Effie left Ruskin and began proceedings for the annulment of their marriage.

Throughout his life Ruskin kept notes on his most recent research, which recorded the day-to-day events of his life – travel, bible reading, the weather, health, church-going and dreams. One of the most significant diaries, cryptically marked "Notebook M, (1849-50)," contains a substantial portion of the raw material which became Volume I of the "Stones of Venice.’ He similarly made entries in a similar notebook marked M2 which is now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. The second was used for archival as opposed to architectural research.

"…It became necessary for me to examine not only every one of the older places, stone by stone, but every fragment throughout the city which afforded any clue to the formation of its styles." (The Stones of Venice I, 1857). To his disbelief, Ruskin discovered as he began to research Venetian architecture, that "the Venetian antiquaries were not agreed within a century as to the date of the building of the façade of the Ducal Palace, and that nothing was known of any other civil edifice of the early city.."

He evolved his own, ingenious methodology based on the measurement and stylistic analysis of the buildings themselves. He developed a typology based on the evolution of the pointed Gothic arch from its rounded Byzantine and Romanesque predecessors, arguing that the more elaborate the shape of the arch, the later the date of construction. Ruskin’s historical typology is considered valid today.

In addition to the large notebooks, Ruskin kept numerous small "pocket" notebooks, used for "on the spot" gathering of material as he moved around the city – they were labeled "House Book," "Door Book," "Palace Book," "Gothic Book," "Bit Book," (a miscellaneous notebook) and "St.M" book, which was reserved exclusively for St. Mark’s.

Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre’s invention, the daguerrotype (1839), aided Ruskin in the overwhelming task of visually recording Venice’s many threatened buildings. In a letter to his father in October, 1845, he wrote: "Among all the mechanical poison that this terrible nineteenth century has poured upon me, it has given us at any rate one antidote, the Daguerrotype. It is a most blessed invention." In 1851, he would also write his father that the Daguerrotype "is very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself – every chip and stone and stain is there – and of course there can be no mistake about proportions."

By 1849, Ruskin acquired his own equipment which he took to Venice. His servant, John Hobbs, had the responsibility of producing the plates. Ruskin also experimented with Calotypes and the commissioned and collected photographs became an important part of the architectural recording schemes of the Guild of St. George, and were ultimately included in the teaching collection of the Ruskin School of Drawing. Ruskin never regarded photography as an art form, though he definitely appreciated it as a means of recording architecture.

In Volume III of "Stones of Venice," he wrote: ‘…a photograph is not a work of art, though it requires certain manipulations of paper and acid, and subtle calculations of time in order to bring out a good result; so, neither would a drawing like a photograph, made directly from nature, be a work of art, although it would imply many delicate manipulations of the pencil and subtle calculations of effects of color and shade…but the moment that inner part of the man, or rather, that entire and only being of the man, of which cornea and retina, finger and hands, pencils and colors are all the mere servants and instruments, that manhood which has light in itself…the moment this part of the man stands forth with its solemn ‘Behold, it is I,’ then the work becomes art indeed.’

As time passed and photography became more popular, and claimed to be an art form, Ruskin found himself growing hardened to it, and defended the Pre-Raphaelites from the charge that they used photographs. This reluctance to embrace what today might be compared to digital art proclaiming itself art makes Ruskin again someone to whom we can relate, a "purist" when it came to the artistic process involved in the creation of an art work. When a machine or technology enters the process, is it art? Ruskin’s question is as pertinent now as it was then, depending on which side the artist, or the viewer, is on.

The religious climate in England witnessed a growth in Roman Catholicism, and Ruskin was dismayed at the effects of industrialization on contemporary architecture and art. In his opening paragraph of "The Stones of Venice," Ruskin compared the Venetian maritime empire and the British – politically: "Since the first dominion of men asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the first of these great powers only the memory remains; of the second, ruin; the third which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction."

Volume I dealt with a theoretical discussion of the component elements of architecture; Volume II comprised a history of Venice read through architecture and paintings – divided between the Byzantine and Gothic periods. This volume contains some of Ruskin’s most powerful set pieces, like the descriptions of St. Mark’s and in the chapter on "The Nature of Gothic" he begins to make a critique of the effects of industrial production on the contemporary worker.

"The Fall," Volume III, ends with the Renaissance when the architecture of the Greeks and Romans replaced the organicism of Gothic, and when humanism, luxury and sensual enjoyment corrupted the religious schools of painting; dogmatic as ever, he continued: "I date the commencement of the Fall of Venice from the death of Carl Zeno, 8th May, 1418," but he agreed that in fact the corruption of Venetian architecture began with the decay of the Gothic itself, and he admired the works of many Renaissance painters – Tintoretto, Veronese and Giorgione.

In Volume III, Ruskin also develops his ideas on symbolism, but ends with his ‘Venetian Index,’ surveying the city’s principal buildings and paintings. Domestically, the most important building to be built according to the principles of "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" and "The Stones of Venice" was Oxford University’s new museum for – not art – but the ‘natural ‘ sciences.

Both Ruskin and his father, with whom he was so close, were connoisseurs of the highest standards, and Ruskin was fortunate to receive "hands-on" training – by buying artworks for their family collection – which was to become an invaluable and practical form of criticism. His innate desire to teach was balanced by his conviction of the importance of "guiding" patrons, and ultimately for the public collections which he helped to found. He had the foresight to grasp that the general public could only learn to appreciate and value great art if they had the opportunity to see it first hand.

The elder Ruskin despaired, however, at Ruskin’s fixation with Turner as a critic and as a patron – it was Turner who inspired the transition to patron when Ruskin began to commission works directly. This gave him the invaluable opportunity to witness the artist’s working methods first hand. A curmudgeon, Turner was easier to hero-worship as an artist than to patronize.

Irascible Turner proved no easier to patronize than John Everett Millais – the latter betrayed his trust by making off with his wife, which could not have been easy to swallow. Ruskin greatly admired Holman Hunt, but he left for Palestine in 1854, and Ruskin had to content himself with Rosetti and Elisabeth Siddall (1829-1862), the model for Sir John Everett Millais’ famous "Ophelia" at the Tate Gallery (see The City Review blah blah article..) amongst many other famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

He was very kind to Elisabeth, who suffered from ill health, and called her a genius. Rossetti was not easy-going at the best of times, and he exploited Ruskin financially. Ruskin disapproved of Lizzy being a "kept woman," instead of Rossetti’s wife, and he protected him from having to sell works "short" to speculative dealers and public exhibitions. He voiced his frustration at dealing with artists of all types, and of Elisabeth’s wayward behavior to Dr. Akland: "…These genius’ are all alike, little and big and I have known five of them – Turner, Watts, Millais, Rossetti and this girl – and I don’t know which was, or is, wrongheadedest…" Patronage, it seems, had its downside

Ruskin’s soft-heartedness comes through with Siddall, and later, most movingly, with his beloved Rose La Touche. Rossetti finally, if reluctantly, married Elisabeth, and Ruskin’s allowance to her of a hundred and fifty pounds was also intended to help encourage their relationship toward marriage – a touchingly gallant gesture considering the circumstances of his own marriage and Rossetti’s self-centeredness. In a letter to Elisabeth in May, 1855, he remarked: "You inventive people pay very dearly for your powers – there is no knowing how to manage you."

Despite all this kindness, Elisabeth ended up taking her own life from an overdose of laudanum while suffering from depression – she had given birth to a stillborn child the year before – in 1863. Saddened and disappointed, Ruskin wrote to his friend Charles Eliot Norton: ‘I loved Rossetti’s wife much, too – and bid her goodbye, and sorrowfully – with a kiss, in her coffin."

Burne-Jones and Ruskin met in 1856, and he replaced Rossetti in Ruskin’s attentions despite a disagreement over Michelangelo, who Ruskin did not admire. Their relationship greatly influenced the development of the Aesthetic Movement. Of his work, Ruskin wrote; "In its purity and seeking for good and virtue as the life of all things and creatures, his designs stand, I think unrivaled and alone." Burne Jones was also very persuasive in keeping Ruskin in England at a time when Ruskin was increasingly disenchanted with life – his father’s death in 1864 guaranteeing Ruskin’s departure for the Alps, and possible exile, in memory of happier times.

"Love Bringing Alcestis Back from the Grave" by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, watercolor, 134.5 by 135 centimeters, 1863, The Visitors of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In an exquisite watercolor, "Love Bringing Alcestis Back from the Grave," shown above, Burne-Jones typified a new distinction between what Ruskin described as "constant" as opposed to "dramatic" art – a classical repose and peacefulness rather than "vulgar storytelling." This classical quality placed Burne-Jones at the top of the school of contemporary art, and indicated a shift in Ruskin’s appreciation from the naturalistic and narrative paintings of the 1850s to the artists who shaped the Aesthetic Movement.

"The Madonna adoring the Infant Christ" by Andrea del Verrocchio, 106.7 by 76.3 centimeters, circa 1470, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

While Ruskin’s passion for Turner is clear in his own collection – justifiably – there is one other painting which lingers in the memory for its incredible beauty and that is "The Madonna adoring the Infant Christ" (also known as "The Ruskin Madonna," circa.1470, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) by Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488). As always, Ruskin’s own summation of the work is most valuable: "I bought it for a hundred pounds, out of the Manfrini Palace at Venice, and consider it an entirely priceless painting, exemplary for all time." Ruskin bought the work with the help of Charles Fairfax Murray, who, at the age of 16 had become Burne-Jones’s studio assistant as a result of Ruskin’s patronage. While working in Venice as a copyist and assistant to Ruskin in 1877, Fairfax Murray drew his attention to this painting, which had been on sale from the Manfrini Collection; it was in poor condition when Ruskin bought it, and he immediately had it transferred from its original wood panel to canvas and restored. In 1960 the scholar Alberto Martini suggested that Verrocchio’s pupil, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), may have helped him with it – which would explain its extraordinary beauty and mysteriousness. If Verrocchio did it alone, it is probably his best work and well worth a detour if Edinburgh happens to be on the itinerary.

Kingfisher by Ruskin

"Kingfisher" by John Ruskin, pencil, ink, watercolor and bodycolor, 25.8 by 21.8 centimeters,n circa 1870-1, The Visitors of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Ruskin’s own drawings are breathtakingly beautiful – all the more impressive for holding their own in galleries brimming over with the superb draughtsmanship and brilliant coloration of Pre-Raphaelites such as Burne-Jones and Sir John Everett Millais, Turner’s individualistic masterpieces and the exquisite work of an artist whose work he publicly denounced and lost a libel case to – James Abbott McNeil Whistler. It came almost as a shock to realize that the man who is remembered primarily for his writings on art and architecture, also ranked high amongst his peers when it came to drawing and watercolor.

"There is a strong instinct in me," Ruskin wrote his father in 1852, "which I cannot analyze, to draw and describe the things I love – not for reputation, not for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but a sort of instinct, like that for eating and drinking."

Ruskin’s tutoring from keen draughtsmen like Rinciman and Copley Fielding helped shape his talent to a point in the early 1840s when he could have become a professional artist himself – intellectual ambition and independent means prevented him from doing so. Underlying everything was his own desire to paint as well as Turner, which being the honest soul that he was, he just did not measure up to: "Anybody can pick the picturesque things and leave the plain ones, but (Turner) doesn’t do this…and of the ugly things he takes and misses and cuts and shuffles till everything turns up trumps, and that’s just what isn’t in me."

Ruskin was at his best when he drew exactly what he saw: kingfishers, crabs, twigs, old towers in alpine towns or an architectural detail in the Doge’s Palace that most observers might miss altogether. It was in larger, more imaginative landscapes that he felt he was on shaky ground – the very landscapes at which his hero Turner excelled. He wrote in father I 1858 that he was "Getting on well with my drawing; the worst of it is that unless it be as good as Turner’s, it doesn’t please me, so that on the whole I am seldom pleased."

In 1869 Ruskin was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford – a great honor – which gave him the opportunity to teach drawing, which he loved, and fulfilling his constant urge to portray "the true appearance of things": "The system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole."

He drew continuously, and developed a method of focusing in on a detail; the small feature standing for the significance and humanity of the larger work of art. Its effectiveness can be seen in the superb "Spiral relief from the north transcept door, Rouen Cathedral, 1882" (Ruskin Foundation, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster).

sketch of withered oak by Ruskin

"Fast sketch of withered oak" by John Ruskin, watercolor, bodycolor and ink, 14 by 18 centimeters, 1879, The Ruskin Gallery, Guild of St. George Collection

Using these "details" - leaves, architecture, birds’ heads - as visual aids during his lectures, Ruskin exhibited more of his work in public than is realized. He sent "Fragment of the Alps" on an American tour of an exhibition of British art arranged by William Michael Rossetti in 1857-8, accepted honorary membership of the Old Watercolor Society in 1873, and he had enough confidence in his work to include groups of his own drawings in exhibitions which he arranged for the Fine Arts Society – alongside those of Turner (in 1878) and of Prout and William Henry Hunt (in 1878).

1879 witnessed the largest display of his work ever held in his lifetime – sadly one he never saw – assembled in Boston by his good friend Charles Eliot Norton. Ironically, a reviewer who had learned too well from Ruskins teachings deterred him from exhibiting in 1884 because of unfavorable reviews: his architectural watercolors were taken apart in the "Art Journal" for showing works "in the unfinished state he condemns in others." Hubert Herkomer also noted that Ruskin "never finishes his work to the edges." Perhaps these men had absorbed Ruskin’s teachings too dogmatically!

Ruskin did not need to produce work for exhibitions, and had he given in to the impulse to "finish" off his works for hours in the studio, he would not have been able to do the many other tasks in hand: "I could have done something, if I had not had books to write," he noted in 1878. It must be said here that despite the towering geniuses who surrounded his drawings at the show, they remained the heart and soul of the exhibition.

Wistful, atmospheric ‘Cascade de la Folie, Chamonix" (1849), which would be considered a masterpiece by just about anyone, failed to meet his own standards when he compared it to Turner’s work; the ethereal, medieval "Towers of Fribourg" (1854) (The British Museum), all the better for being left "unfinished," is like zooming in on one of Turner’s towers swathed in mist with a telephoto lens, revealing more of its 15th century detail than the great master himself would have done. It is a sublime pencil and watercolor and was engraved by J.C. Armityge as an illustration for Modern Painters IV.

The first??????? came into direct contact with Ruskin after he had become their critical "champion," their idealism and interests complemented Ruskin’s own, and in advocating their work he was able to illustrate first hand that, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, the majority of contemporary paintings were made to a set of stock academic formulas, rather than realistic observation of the world around them. He had stressed this theory before in Modern Painters I (1843), but in a pamphlet entitled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism’ (August, 1851) he claimed more specifically that their movement had followed his guidelines – and that they were on the verge of generating a new, national style. How deeply they were influenced by Ruskin is unclear, but they were delighted to find themselves endorsed by the foremost art critic of their day, and one who did not hesitate to bombard the public with negative opinions of those whose work he disliked.

Direct contact with Ruskin proved to be a double-edged sword for the Pre-Raphaelites – and a nerve wracking one emotionally for Ruskin. He was not keen on their movement’s interest in Medievalism, which he associated with Catholicism, and subject-matter continued to be a concern. Ruskin defined Pre-Raphaelitism as the pursuit of visual truth above all other considerations. Then again, those who did follow his belief in visual truth were confounded by encountering his disapproval if the resulting "‘truth" proved to be ugly – that is ugly subject matter! Anti-picturesque views always met with disapproval – it had to be a truthful rendering of a beautiful subject to pass muster with Ruskin.

Intending to encourage Pre-Raphaelite participation in the Royal Academy exhibitions, Ruskin began an annual "circular letter" in which he set down his appraisals of the "key" paintings. Entitled "Academy Notes," the first (of five parts) was issued in 1855. In the beginning this dealt mainly with the Royal Academy but its range expanded to include the French Gallery in Pall Mall, and the Society of British Artists. These "circulars" displayed Ruskin’s name boldly on their covers, unlike the unsigned reviews in newspapers and art journals – what he gained in stature as an authority on art issues was now counter-balanced by the premise that Ruskin could be held directly accountable for his published views, and set the stage for the future libel case with Whistler.

Petra by David Roberts

"El Khasnè, Petra" by David Roberts, lithograph, 32.8 by 49 centimeters, 1840, The British Museum

Ruskin’s habit of praising some artists, ignoring others, and tearing the remaining apart immediately drew fire and outrage from the artists involved. David Roberts, Ruskin’s close friend who was famous for his prints of his travels in the Mid East, such as to Petra as illustrated above, was infuriated by his casual dismissal of him as "nothing more than an academician" – which he viewed as "personal" in tone – and he promised to thrash him soundly the next time he saw him. For the first time in his career as an art critic, the "unassailable arbiter of public taste," Ruskin found himself a target.

In 1856, Ruskin claimed the Pre-Raphaelite style had become thoroughly assimilated into the traditional mainstream, and declared the battle had been "completely" won, adding that "A true and consistent art is at last established in the Royal Academy of England."

Millais continued to impress Ruskin with "Peace Concluded," (Minneapolis Institute of Art) and "Autumn Leaves," (Manchester City Art Gallery), which elevated Millais to the same level as Titian ( in Ruskin’s opinion). Characteristically, Millais promptly abandoned the meticulous style so admired by Ruskin the following year, galling the critic further by adopting a looser, more expressive style – which Ruskin equally promptly labeled "backsliding," and incomplete, thereby establishing a precedent for the aesthetic issue at the core of his famous confrontation with Whistler 20 years later.

Disappointment came thick and fast as many of the artists he vouched for and admired changed lanes and experimented with new styles of expression; John Brett diligently followed Ruskin’s principles but was met with disapproval for a lack of involvement with the subject in Ruskin’s view, and he began to distinguish two types of Pre-Raphaeliteism – the factual style of artists like Brett, and the opposing styles of Holman Hunt and Rosetti, which were inventive and full of meaning. He had grown close to the two artists while they taught together at the "Working Men’s College," in London throughout the 1850s. This innovative college was the forerunner of the adult education programs that became part of the British educational system, allowing working people to take degrees or attend diploma courses after work for free. Ruskin was a firm believer in paving the way for such education, and it is a monumental contribution to the public he so desperately cared to educate. Adult and further education are now woven into the fabric of British life, and are among the shining lights of their educational philosophy.

Ruskin’s lifelong compulsion to enlighten his fellow men manifested itself through teaching illiterate craftsmen, in writing "Academy Notes," and producing self-improvement manuals like "The Elements of Drawing."

Ruskin, interestsingly, did not venture beyond the parameters of the London art world; he did not feel the need to venture opinions on what he saw of modern art abroad, observed Norman Hewison in an essay in the exhibition's fine catalogue. He drew attention to what Ruskin might have made of the work of Gustave Courbet (1819-77), who was his exact contemporary and actively pursuing his own "truth to nature." Courbet proved hugely influential with the Impressionists, took painting out of the dark studio and into "plein air" and undoubtedly attracted the attention of Whistler. Ruskin makes no reference to any of this.

The London of the 1850s showed an increased tendency towards complex narrative or moral themes: "Ruskin was in many ways the perfect person to evaluate and decode such meanings for an audience who had until then been unaware that art could carry intellectual matter," wrote Hewison. Even a former detractor, Ford Madox Brown, appreciated his "clout" when it came to criticism; when a recent work by Arthur Hughes remained unsold he lamented: "A few years ago Ruskin would have been writing about it, and everybody would have been talking about it" Ruskin’s influence was enormous, and this testimonial is evidence of his importance to the Pre-Raphaelites; without his writing, their work did not sell.

"Unto This Last" was Ruskin’s best known work of social criticism. The final volume of "Modern Painters," it was published in 1860, freeing him to turn his attention to the political economy. He had abandoned evangelical Protestantism in 1858, reflecting a crisis being felt throughout Victorian society as confident materialism was dragged down by religious doubt. Artists were seeking new ways of expressing themselves – transcendental, alluding to an imaginary past, Beauty became the new religion, "Art for Arts Sake" its slogan.

The Aesthetic Movement, which embodied these principles, emerged as the new artistic order when Sir Coutts Lindsay opened the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877. Naming it a "palace of art," he challenged the authority of the established galleries, and called for new patrons for the contemporary avant-garde. Among the artists he represented was Whistler.

"Nocture: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, oil on canvas, 67.9 by 50.8 centimeters, 1872-7, Tate Gallery, presented by the National Art Collections Fund 1905

In 1877, Whistler showed eight works at the Grosvenor Gallery, including "Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge," shown above, and "Nocturne in Black and Gold - The Falling Rocket" (The Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Dexter M. Ferry). In Fors Clavigera, Ruskin wrote the following about the exhibition:

"Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

Ruskin's comments were reprinted in the Spectator, and Whistler sued for libel. The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"The case did not come to court until November 1878. Ruskin had had his first mental collapse in February that year, and did not appear. His instructions to his defence counsel were unrepentant: Whistler was ill-educated because the price demanded was unjust, the analogy between painting and music was misunderstood, the work was not art but ornament, unfinished and empty of ideas. No work should leave an artist's hands 'which his diligence could further complete, or his reflection further improve.'...Whistler dominated the trial with his witticisms, arguing the case for art for art's sake....Nocture...Old Battersea Bridge, which shows the profound influence of Japanese woodcuts on Whistler's art, was produced in court. Asked if it was a 'correct representation,' Whistler answered: 'It was not my intent simply to make a copy of Battersea Bridge. The pier in the centre of the picture may not be like the piers of Battersea Bridge. I did not intend to paint a portrait of Battersea Bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene. As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.'...Whistler won, but the derisory award of a farthing's damages without costs led to his bankruptcy. Ruskin resigned his Slade Professorship, partly in disgust, partly because of his mental depression."

Nocture in Blue-Green by Whistler

"Nocture in Blue-Green" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, oil on wood, 50.2 by 59.1 centimers, 1871, Tate Gallery, bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander, 1972

Ruskin had tangled with Whistler before. In 1971-2, Whistler exhibited "Nocturne in Blue-Green," shown above, which he had painted in 1981, at the Dudley Gallery. In a lecture at Oxford in October, 1873, Ruskin made the following comment:

"I never saw anything so impudent on the walls of any exhibition, in any country, as last year in London. It was a daub professing to be a 'harmony in pink and white' (or some such nonsense); absolute rubbish, and which had taken about a quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub - it had no pretence to be called painting."

The catalogue notes that the comment was "clearly directed at Whistler, but he did not name the artist, exhibition, or a specific picture" and suggests that "it is very possible he was referring to" a painting now known as "Nocture in Blue-Green," shown above. The catalogue also notes that in his book "The Stones of Venice" Ruskin argued that "the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts," adding that "facts, and a moral purpose, there had to be, and a painting apparently having neither was another matter."

Whistler’s libel case against Ruskin, which he won, lead the public to believe that Ruskin was now beyond relating to a hot-bed of young artists and out of touch with contemporary art. With the exception of Whistler, the facts prove otherwise. Ruskin had always believed that the imagination was the most important factor in painting; as early as 1856 he had compared the work of Rossetti and Watts to Turner’s visionary allegories, and claimed they represented "the dawn of a new era of art." These works of the imagination represented neither the natural world (as landscape) nor the contemporary world (of people and events), but an ideal world designed to evoke atmospheres and emotions instead of storytelling.

Albert Moore (1841-1893) was, according to the catalogue, "Whistler's most effective prosecution witness in 1978; his work offers a remarkable synthesis of the neo-classical and Aesthetic style. After experimenting with Biblical subjects in the manner of Holman Hunt in the early 1860s, and carrying out wall-decorations for churches, which were to have a lasting influence on the decorative, panel-like format of his mature works, Moore began to find his style with narrative-less images of girls in quasi-classical dress and flowered settings. These figures have the quietness and repose that Ruskin had begn to advocate in his lecture 'On The Present Condition of Modern Art' in 1867, and are certainly 'doing nothing.'"

"Blossoms," by Albert Moore, oil on canvas, 147.3 by 46.4 centimeters, 1881, Tate Gallery, presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894

In discussing his painting, "Blossoms," show above, the catalogue notes that "the foreshortened foreground is similar to those used by Whistler, to whom he had been close since 1865."

Ruskin was weary of romantic Medievalism and more drawn to the art of ancient Greece, most especially Greek Mythology, which, with its gods and idealized landscapes allowed him to fill the gap formed by the loss of his literal faith, Protestantism, making the gods "the totality of spiritual powers, delegated by the Lord of the universe." Ruskin deduced that the Greek art most preferred (by him) was still aligned to the religious art of Italy – a continuum broken by the Roman Renaissance. His study of Veronese in Turin in 1858 found new values in Venetian masters. In his first Oxford lecture in 1870, he compared "line and light," represented by Greek art and "line and color" represented by the Gothic. Finding neither complete in themselves, it was ultimately a synthesis of "Mass, Light and Color" which became the glorious Venetian School.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, who Ruskin persuaded to embody this synthesis, became the acknowledged leader of the Aesthetic Movement, which embraced these values – the balance between "constant and dramatic art." The new Aesthetic Movement took form with the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, which included several works by Whistler. The storm cloud of the Whistler libel case obscured Ruskin’s contribution to the Aesthetic Movement, as Whistler was one of the major players in it. Whistler was destroyed financially by the case that he technically won but was awarded only one guinea in damages.

"Regina Cordium" by Rossetti

"Regina Cordium" by Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, oil and gold leaf on panel, 26 by 21.5 centimeters, 1860, Johannesburg (South Africa) Art Gallery

The ground-breaking "Beata Beatrix" (1864-70) and "Regina Cordium" (1860) (shown above) by Rossetti were also exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery – both were paintings of his beautiful wife, Elisabeth Siddal, and greatly admired by Ruskin. Elisabeth was also the model for the famous "Ophelia" painted by Sir John Everett Millais, who caught such a bad cold from hours immersed in a tub (so that Millais could be "true" to his subject) that her father sent him the doctor’s bill. In a letter to Watts, Ruskin wrote: ‘Yes, Rossetti is a great-great fellow and his wife’s as charming as the reflection of a golden mountain in a crystal lake which is what she is to him." The emotional and financial support Ruskin invested in this couple is proof enough that he greatly admired their art.

Burne-Jones’s "The Mill" (1870-82) was watched over from its inception by Ruskin who also sponsored his visits to Italy and his independent tour. Ruskin also put his money where his beliefs lay when it came to artists. The painting’s Venetian coloring, the three ladies with linked hands recalling the Greek "Three Graces," and, most of all, its atmosphere of "repose" that Ruskin so advocated translate completely into Ruskin’s beliefs about beauty.

The only disagreement between them was over Michelangelo, whose work Ruskin placed firmly in the category of "dramatic" art and called him "dishonest, insolent and artificial." Burne-Jones persevered and included several nude figures in this painting which allude to Michelangelo.

"Symphony in White" by Whistler

"Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl" by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, oil on canvas, 76.5 by 51.1 centimeters, 1864, Tate Gallery, bequeathed by Arthur Studd, 1919

Ruskin made mistakes, the most glaring of which was his dismissal of Whistler as a lightweight and an incompetent. An overpoweringly beautiful painting titled "Symphony in White, No.2: The Little White Girl" (1864), shown above, dominated the Aesthetic Movement gallery at this exhibition – despite sublime works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais. For most observers today, Whistler comes across as the greatest genius of them all, and certainly the most innovative of this group.

Whistler must have been devastated by Ruskin’s blunt, cold damning of his artistic abilities, and by his admonition to "put Oriental art entirely out of your heads," a reference to Whistler’s "Japonisme," which he caught in Paris along with other artists who were influenced by the influx of Hiroshige and Utamaro reproductions and woodcuts that began flooding the market at that time. Whistler was a "modern" genius, an artistic "enfant terrible" who Ruskin could not control or influence. He marched to his own drum, and his most "Japanese" compositions are stunningly abstract, original and minimalist even today. They must have been real eye-openers and gossip-fodder for the stodgy Victorians!

By the 1860s, Ruskin had become disillusioned with what he perceived to be destructive greed and the public’s indifference to art: "Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood;- but I cannot anymore; for it seems to me that no one regards them. Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty."

He still believed in the importance of art, but he no longer believed that people responded to its moral significance. However, there were deeper, more personally disturbing reasons for his gloomy outlook. He had fallen hopelessly in love with a young girl. Her name was Rose La Touche, and she first came into his life as a drawing student, aged 10.

By 1861, (she was still only 13) he felt deeply attracted to her; she was, however, from a family of devout Evangelicals, a faith which he, ironically, had abandoned the year he met Rose, 1858, after an upbringing and continued faith in her religion until that fateful year. For the duration of this love affair and until his death, he painted the most extraordinary series of clouds, which followed his mental and emotional state as he tried to find happiness with Rose.

He wrote about the political economy and economic exploitation in works such as "Unto This Last" (1860) in which he compared the rapidly encroaching pollution brought on by industrialization to moral disintegration and societal decay:

"Blanched sun, - blighted grass, - blinded man, - If, in conclusion, you ask me for any conceivable cause of meaning of these things – I can tell you none, according to your modern beliefs; but I can tell you what meaning it would have borne to the men of olden times. Remember, for the last twenty years, England, and all foreign nations, either tempting her, or following her, have blasphemed the name of God deliberately and openly; and have done iniquity by proclamation, every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it is in his power to do."

Ruskin’s words recall the environmental concerns of Rachel Carson in her book, "The Silent Spring" and her plea for moderation in "developing" the environment of the 20th Century. Ruskin was crusading for his environment in the 19th Century, with coal dust and smoke transforming London into the smog-ridden and murderous city of novels by Charles Dickens.

Rose’s parents wanted their daughter to have nothing to do with Ruskin – the age difference aside, it was his lack of Evangelical faith that upset them the most. There is enough evidence to suggest that she returned his love, but her parents did everything within their power to thwart or subvert their meeting – but somehow, with the help of friends, they managed to meet and maintain their love until disaster struck.

Rose suffered from bouts of mental illness, which intensified as her mother’s jealousy and father’s resistance to her relationship remained steadfast; to ease his frustration and pain, Ruskin made exquisite drawings of her and made coded references (relating to roses and saints) in his writings. His work darkened, both pictorially and in print. None of his drawings of her show her smiling or happy. Their happy moments together were clouded by doubts and disapproval.

Ruskin had a bevy of beautiful, adoring ladies he might have chosen over Rose, many of them drawing pupils – Lady Trevelyan (1816-91), Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford (1818-91) who introduced him to Rose, and Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), who was to become a famous illustrator and to earn a living from her work. Some fell head over heels in love with him; others, like Louise Blandy, the daughter of his dentist, he flirted with playfully – "It was very sweet and pretty of you, and violetty and snowdroppy, to send me flowers – but I never will have birthday presents from young ladies unless I get a kiss too." He wrote her in 1875, the year Rose died.

From 1860 onward, Ruskin was criticized for straying from art criticism – his attack on contemporary utilitarian economic philosophy in "Unto This Last" dealt with the wider issues of education and social reform, and he believed completely that art needed to be viewed in its moral and social context.

With all this talk of morality it is startling to look at Ruskin’s tender images of Rose, the first – "Portrait of Rose La Touche" (1861)- painted when she was 13. He had been giving her drawing lessons for three years before this, and she appears even younger, which must have been cause for much gossip. When Ruskin proposed officially to Rose in 1866, just after her eighteenth birthday, she asked him to wait three more years but did not turn him down. Perhaps she hoped to persuade her parents, especially her mother, to accept him.

In 1868, Rose’s mother contacted Effie Millais – Ruskin’s former wife – regarding the legal status of the annulment of their marriage. She was concerned that if it had not been annulled, his marriage to Rose would be bigamous. Effie, now a happily married woman, meanly agreed that his marriage would be bigamous (or make hers so more likely), and accused him of abnormalities. Ruskin’s legal counsel advised him differently, assuring him that marriage would be valid.

Rose, however, had been worn down by nastiness, disapproval and increasing bouts of mental illness and anorexia, and in 1871 she rejected him. In a letter to Mrs. Cowper-Temple, written in 1866 he wrote: "I never loved many – and now – but this child, none." Despairing and heart-broken, and suffering from mental breakdowns himself he wrote to her again in 1872: "Why did not God make me a little stronger – her but a little wiser – both of us happy? Now – granting me faultful, her foolish, I suffer for her madness – she for my sin – and both unjustly. Why should she go mad because I don’t pray faithfully." Rose died in 1875, of what now would be clinically diagnosed as anorexia nervosa, leaving Ruskin inconsolable and on the verge of a complete breakdown himself.

In "Sunrise Over the Sea," which is undated but thought to be a late watercolor (Abott Hall Art Gallery, Kendal), Ruskin shows his mastery of technique and his ability to transcend the misery of his doomed love for Rose – at least temporarily – till the "dark clouds" re-appeared. It may be a lagoon in Venice, and in his last drawing manual, "The Laws of Fesole" (1879), he wrote: "Never, if you can help it, miss seeing the sunset and the dawn, and never, if you can help it, see anything but dreams between them."

In his drawing class, he emphasized color over line: "I believe you will find the standard of color I am going to give, an extremely safe one – the morning sky, love that rightly with all your heart, and soul, and eyes and you are established in foundation laws of color. The white, blue, purple, gold, scarlet and ruby of morning clouds, are meant to be extremely delightful to the human creatures whom the clouds and light sustain. Be sure you are always ready to see them, the moment they are painted by God for you." Ruskin refers covertly here to Rose La Touche’s book of devotional verse, "Clouds and Light" (1870). After Rose died Ruskin tried desperately to reach her through spiritualist groups and seances, as his mental stability waned.

"Sunrise over the Sea" by Ruskin

"Sunrise over the Sea" by John Ruskin, watercolor, 17.2 by 12.4 centimeters, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

Two watercolors, placed in the Ruskin School of Drawing in 1871, "Study of Dawn, The First Scarlet in the Clouds," and "Study of Dawn, Purple Clouds" (Presented to the Ruskin School of Drawing, 1871)(The Visitors of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) were chosen for their simple technique and as drawing exercises intended to illustrate a moral lesson from disciplining oneself to observe the sunrise: "The student will find his thoughts during the rest of the day both calmed and purified, and his advance in art-skill at once facilitated and chastised." These two watercolors hold their own with Monet’s more abstract skies, and look as fresh and modern in their simplicity as though they had been painted today, 130 years later. In these three cloud paintings at least, Ruskin chased away the ‘plague winds,’ though they retain a certain melancholy.

As Ruskin’s mental state weakened in the 1870s, his moods darkened and he was plagued with "mindstorms"; his father and Rose were both dead, and he found little to console him in life: he expressed himself as he felt, "The old story, wild wind and black sky, - scudding rain and roar – a climate of Patagonia instead of England, and I more disconsolate – not in actual depression, but in general helplessness, wonder, and disgust than ever yet in my life, that I remember, as if it was no use fighting for a world any more in which there could be no sunrise," he wrote in his Diary in March, 1880.

By 1886 Ruskin had suffered his fifth attack of mental problems. He struggled to complete his autobiography "Praeterita," (begun in 1885). His good friend W. G. Collingwood describes him in a hotel in Seascale near Folkestone in 1889, where he briefly escaped hoping to find a cure: "In his bedroom at Seascale, morning after morning, he still worked or tried to work – But now he seemed lost among the papers scattered on his table; he could not fix his mind upon them, and turned from one subject to the other in despair." It was at Seascale that he wrote the last chapter in an unfinished "Praeterita" – he suffered a devastating attack which resulted in a retreat into silence

In 1889, the full five volumes of "Modern Painters" were re-issued – and in an added Epilogue he returned to the subject he loved best – his artist hero, Turner. He wrote of Turner as an interpreter of God’s creation, returning to the subject that had launched his life as an art critic, which was now over. The teaching continued, and clearly it continues to the present; The Ruskin School of Drawing continued to offer training for the hand and eye for the development of the mind.

The Guild of St. George offered an alternative to industrialization and economic individualism (and greed) – this utopian vision, stressing cooperation and environmentalism influenced the founders of the National Trust and the Modern Welfare State. The Guild was committed to, and set a precedent for, a ‘living’ museum (like the interactive museums springing up now), where working people could seek intellectual stimulation and recreation – and educate themselves, as Ruskin so dearly wished. There is no greater legacy to leave behind than that, other than saving the world.

On a practical level he used the resources of the Guild of St.George to rescue his treasured Venice from the restorers havoc – Ruskin can take full credit for saving the West façade of St. Marks, one of the most gorgeous architectural creations in the world. His "Stones of Venice" rallied many to the cause of preservation, both locally and nationally in Britain, and the National Trust is the "Jewel in the Crown" of a thoroughly modern Britain, proud and protective of her past glory. Many an architectural treasure has evaded the wreckers’ ball because of the National Trust – and Ruskin, who had the vision and foresight to predict that unless there was preservation and conservation, our artistic, architectural and human heritage would become depleted and void.

Where words and public lectures now failed him – he had the satisfaction of seeing his books take over and do the talking for him. George Allen became his publisher, and his books became immensely popular to an ever widening public – mostly people hoping to educate themselves. By the 1890s his books were so in demand he was able to live off their proceeds, as his original wealth had been by now completely depleted. He had been a very generous man throughout his lifetime - to human, artistic and social causes, and it is heartening to know that it was his writing which sustained him financially in his old age.

Ruskin's disciples and interpreters were established members of the world-renowned Arts and Crafts Movement in England – his friend W.G. Collingwood, and C. R. Ashbee (1863-1942) and Selwyn Image (1849-1930). The Movement found its equivalent in America in innovative designers like Stickley. Further afield, Ruskin was greatly admired by Mahatma Gandhi and Leon Tolstoy. Proust was reputed to have read all his writing. In 1877, William Morris launched the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, spurred on by Ruskin’s "Stones of Venice." In 1892, Morris reprinted the chapter on "The Nature of Gothic" from "The Stones of Venice," pointedly drawing together the two sides of Ruskin’s teaching, the aesthetic and social.

In the final room of the exhibition were two extraordinary paintings, one by by Holman Hunt, "The Triumph of the Innocents" (1880-4), which Ruskin described as "the greatest religious painting of our time," probably more for personal reasons than objective ones, a strange combination of real-life and supernatural, and Turner's "Ulysses deriding Polephymus - Homer's Odyssey," (1829)(Trustees of the National Gallery, Turner Bequest - 1856).

Turner had taught Ruskin that the natural world had a higher significance than its appearance; Holman Hunt had learned from Ruskin that material facts contained symbolic meanings. Turner's visionary landscapes, such as "Ulysses deriding Polephymus - Homer's Odyssey" are not so very distant from Holman Hunt's "Innocents." The personal significance of Hunt's painting related to Ruskin's spiritualism and his trying to reach Rose by alternative means (seances) that religion. He told Hunt that this painting had restored his faith in immortality, and with that his involvement with spiritualism ended.
"Ulysses deriding Polephymus" by Turner

"Ulysses deriding Polephymus - Homer's Odyssey" by Turner, 1829, Trustees of the National Gallery, Turner Bequest - 1856

The painting by Turner had much deeper significance. Ruskin had first seen it at Marlborough House in 1856 at a major retrospective of the artist’s work after he died. He described "Ulysses deriding Polephemus – Homer’s Odyssey" as the "central picture" of Turner’s artistic career, and compared it to the controversial "Slavers." It is a haunting, majestic, sad, and glorious painting. Only Turner could combine all those quality in a single work of art!

"Polephymus," Ruskin wrote, "asserts his perfect power, and is therefore to be considered as the central picture in Turner’s career. And it is in some sort of type his own destiny." (Notes on the Turner Collection of Oil Pictures, 1856). Ruskin is referring here to Turner’s inspirational journey through Thomas Carlyle’s "Heroes and Hero Worship" (1841) as a young man. Turner was an artist-hero, a Ulysses of his time, who dared to challenge the powerful forces of convention – Turner replaced chiaroschuro with color, never to return to the conventional path. His colors took on symbolic meaning – in this case the red clouds representing death.

Turner defied his critics, and his reputation suffered for it. Ulysses was punished with long suffering for blinding the one-eyed giant, Polephymus, the sea god Poseidon’s son. Ruskin anticipated Turner’s melancholy end in this painting of 1829. Symbolically, Ruskin’s final years were equally melancholy and mentally debilitating.

On a wall nearby, an aged Ruskin, with a snowy white beard sits beside a small vase of roses – a possible reference to his Rose. It was painted by his old friend W.G. Collingwood (1897) a few years before his death. Collingwood had attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and met Ruskin in 1872 while he was up at Oxford. He was a trusted friend and secretary in Ruskin’s declining years, and gave important help to Helen Viljoen (1900-74), an American who visited Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, with the intention of researching a ‘life of Ruskin.". With her involvement, studies of Ruskin’s work and life entered the modern realm and introduced him to a new generation. Ruskin died in 1900, and his friend Collingwood designed the beautiful Celtic-inspired headstone for his grave in Coniston.

Ruskin, like a sage of "olden times," looks across at his hero Turner’s magnificent painting - swathed in morning mist with Apollo’s golden chariot pulled onward and upward by regal horses on billowing clouds, Ulysses departing in a ship under a blood-red sky – as if to say, if one must depart this earth, then let it be in glory such as this.

‘…The teaching of art is the teaching of all things…’(John Ruskin)

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