John Ruskin

The Works of John Ruskin, edited by Cook and WedderburnAnglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, the Ruskin School of Art and Ruskin College at Oxford, Ruskin’s home at Brantwood in the Lake District, now owned by a charitable trust and open to the public, the Ruskin Research Centre at Lancaster University . . . John Ruskin’s name has been kept alive for over 100 years by the many institutions that bear it, but oddly, to me he was for a long time ‘the man who wrote The King of the Golden River’.

I have to confess to having been terrified as a child by many of the books thought appropriate for my age group – not the texts, but the illustrations. Tenniel’s horrific drawings for the Alice books, especially the Duchess; the illustrations to Dickens (Old Rudge peering malevolently round the closet door haunts me still); and most of all, the grotesque illustrations in the anthology of  ‘Fairy Stories for Children’ which contains Ruskin’s story, written in 1841 and based (allegedly) on a folk-tale from Styria. I re-read it the other day from Vol. 1 of our reissue of his complete works – knowing rather more about Ruskin now, and less likely to be disturbed by the pictures. I was struck by how much the story (written when Ruskin was 22 and not yet decided on a career) demonstrates that many of the interests which would predominate throughout his life – mountain landscapes, glaciers and their geology, the flow of rivers, the effects of sunlight – were already filling his mind, and that his ability to observe the natural world and describe it elegantly but with pinpoint accuracy was already in evidence. So here follows a potted (necessarily, or the length of this post would achieve some sort of a record) and very partisan biography of an extraordinary and tragic human being.

Ruskin was born in 1819 into a well-to-do family which epitomized the emergence of the Victorian middle class. His father was a very successful, respected and prosperous wine merchant, but in the previous generation, his maternal grandmother was the landlady of the Old King’s Head pub in Market Street, Croydon, and his grandfather had been a sailor, ‘in the herring business’; uncles included a baker and a tanner.

An only child, he was educated entirely at home by his mother until he was ten years old, and was actively discouraged from mixing with other children. Both his parents watched over his development in a way which he later believed was detrimental to his subsequent emotional life: at the age of seven, ‘getting too independent, mentally, even of my father and mother; I . . . began to lead a very small, perky, contented, conceited, Cock-Robinson-Crusoe sort of life in the central point which it appeared to me . . . that I occupied in the universe’.

However, his solitary upbringing, his mother’s early teaching (very much based on the Bible) and his father’s enthusiasm for and deep appreciation of literature and art (‘he never allowed me for an instant to look at a bad picture’) combined with physical surroundings which would now be considered spartan (having no toys except a set of bricks and a bunch of keys, he amused himself by tracing patterns in the carpet, the wallpaper and subsequently in the garden), led to his developing the habit of acute visual concentration noted above. His support of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in his appreciation of the skill and accuracy of the detail in their paintings – the flowers on the drowning Ophelia’s dress, the wood shavings on the floor of the carpenter’s workshop. Similarly, his reverence for Turner – the complete opposite of the PRB in terms of execution – was driven by his appreciation of the truth to nature of his landscapes, which Ruskin contrasted with the contrived, melodramatic and artificial subject-matter of many of the Old Masters.

In 1837 he enrolled as a gentleman-commoner at Christ Church, Oxford (his mother famously took lodgings in the city to be near him), but ill health and a lack of enthusiasm for the curriculum would have meant that (as was not uncommon) he might have left without a degree; in fact he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, and obtained a fourth-class Pass Degree.

Family prosperity meant that Ruskin never needed to work for his living, but he felt a strong moral sense of duty which compelled him to be of use in the world, and on a journey round Europe which took in all the experiences of which he would later make use in his writings – Amiens, the Alps, Florence, Venice – he sensed a ‘call’ to writing about art which led to the first volume of Modern Painters and subsequently to international fame as a critic, thinker and visionary.

The 39 volumes of the Library Edition of his works, published between 1903 and 1912, are themselves a remarkable achievement, in which his books and essays – almost all highly illustrated – are given a biographical and critical context in extended introductory essays and in the ‘Minor Ruskiniana’ – extracts from letters, articles and reminiscences both by and about Ruskin. They demonstrate the almost incredible range of his interests, from the art and architecture with which he is mostly associated, to botany and ornithology, heraldry, education, the importance of working by hand (as opposed to the mechanisation of work in factories which he believed was dull, repetitive and soul-destroying) which so influenced the Arts and Crafts movement, the ethics of social relations, and the dangers to the environment of increasing industrialization (yes, in 1884!).

But while the round of travel, observing, corresponding with friends and colleagues worldwide, publishing and lecturing continued, his private life was – notoriously – a mess. The annulment of his marriage, and the subsequent marriage of his ex-wife to his artist protégé John Everett Millais, are touched upon in the most reticent and dignified way imaginable by his friend and biographer Edward Tyas Cook, but the scandal and gossip in a period where divorce was virtually unknown in respectable society must have been horrendous. Almost equally notoriously, Ruskin, aged nearly 40, fell in love with the 10-year-old Rose La Touche, and proposed to her when she was 18. Impossible now to gauge what would have happened if he had married her, but Rose (or her family) refused him, and her death at the age of 27 in 1875 seems to have precipitated a major breakdown which led to Ruskin’s gradual withdrawal from the world and indeed from sanity. The 1880s were a period of illness both mental and physical, interspersed with temporary recoveries, travel and writing, but in 1889 an attack of ‘brain fever’ incapacitated him, and for the last eleven years of his life he ‘wrote nothing more, and spoke very little, and with hardly any voice. He sat, and listened, and sometimes smiled’, until his death on 20 January 1900.

Si monumentum requiris – read the books!


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