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
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
"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,
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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.'"
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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
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).
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