Taken from our April/May 2019 issue. 

Simon Tait

Ruskin: Encouragingly Disgusted of Dulwich

The Power of Seeing, Two Temple Place, London, January 26 – April 22
John Ruskin: Art & Wonder, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, May 22 – September 15

There was an awkward moment at the V&A last September when Chris Smith, Lord Smith of Finsbury and the first Blair culture secretary, was delivering the Ruskin Foundation’s annual lecture. His grist was free admission for national museums and galleries which he had ushered in    in 2001: ‘I’m afraid I find myself in opposition in one respect’ he said. ‘Ruskin believed you should value art enough to be prepared to pay to see it.’

Well, yes. And emphatically no. And that is the problem with Ruskin. He won’t fit any convenient categories, and while he undoubtedly did think the well-off should pay to go into public galleries he also thought that not just the wealthy should have art in their lives.

So he made his own large collection of art and objects into a free museum for working people, an educational exhibition. And it was for the people of Sheffield that he gave it because he admired the devoted craftsmanship of steelworkers. It opened early and closed late, even on Sunday. ‘It was not meant for casual pottering on a nice day out, it was meant for workers to inspire creativity, but also just to make them happier,’ said Louise Pullen, curator of the collection and of this exhibition.

Ruskin was a spectrum of contradictions: a high Tory who was a social reformer, a deeply devout man and powerful preacher who loathed the church, a lover of classical architecture who abhorred the neo-classical, a champion of great art, particularly of the Pre-Raphaelites and the inspiration for William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, who despised academic painting, especially that in public galleries – ‘Walked down to Dulwich Gallery’ he noted in his diary in 1844 ‘and thought the pictures worse than ever; came away encouragingly disgusted.’

John Ruskin, Self Portrait with Blue Neckcloth, 1873
Abbeville: Church of St Wufran from the river. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 34.3 x 50.2 cm
John Ruskin on one of his daily walks near Coniston in the Lake District, circa 1885. Photograph: T, A & J Green

He was probably the most famous man of his time, certainly the most famous intellectual, whose influence was profound and wide, who is barely known of now but whose time may have come again.

In Sheffield in the 1870s he set up the Guild of St George with its own – free – public museum. Its sole purpose was to make Britain a happier place to live in by challenging the zeitgeist for profit and mass-production with love of beauty. ‘I have listened to many ingenious persons’ he wrote in one of his Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain ‘who say we are better off now than ever we were before’ but (he went on) ‘we cannot be called, as a nation, well off, while so many of us are living… in… beggary.’

He consigned his collection of over 17,000 things to the Guild’s museum for the education, stimulation and inspiration of working men. He included copies of great paintings he’d had specially commissioned, architectural studies, Turner sketches, geological specimens, casts of sculpture, medieval manuscripts and rare books.

For the first time and to mark the centenary of Ruskin’s birth some of that collection is being seen outside Sheffield with the exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing at 2 Temple Place. The exhibition is not merely a transplanting of the Guild collection from Sheffield to London for a few months. Ms Pullen is using the collection to frame a biographical narrative, with augmentations of loans – the Turner Venetian Festival, for instance, is borrowed from Tate  as a reference point; to Ruskin oil painting was   for baronial halls, not for the horny-handed for whom he considered watercolour to be a more truthful medium. And rather than simply tell Ruskin’s story, the choice of objects helps set out what Ruskin wanted to say to his working class audience: that in Keatsian terms, truth is beauty, and beauty is nature.

John Ruskin was the only child of a wealthy wine merchant and Margaret, the daughter of the landlord of the Old King’s Head in Croydon, a prim and pious lady who had already changed her surname from Cock to Cox. He was a precocious infant, educated by tutors at home, and his father, John James, had a career path mapped out for his son at an early age: it would culminate in his being either Archbishop of Canterbury or Poet Laureate.

But young Ruskin went his own way. When he was 13 and absorbed by the new science of geology, he was given a book-length poem illustrated by J M W Turner’s etchings, and his attention veered. Turner, born in 1775, was in his mid-50s when Ruskin first came upon his work and famous, a full Royal Academician 17 years before Ruskin was born, but out of fashion.

As a child he travelled through Europe with his father, and his first published work was a poem, ‘Skiddaw and Derwent Water’, when he was ten. At 15 he had three articles on geology published in the Magazine of Natural History and in the year before he went up to Oxford, 1837, the Architectural Magazine began to serialise his The Poetry of Architecture.

Ruskin won a scholarship to Christ Church as a ‘gentleman commoner.’ He won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry (when he met Wordsworth), but was ill for much of his time at Oxford with suspected consumption, despite the ministrations of his mother who took lodgings in the High Street so that she could have tea with him every day. He eventually graduated in 1842, aged 23, with a pass, elevated to a rare ‘honorary double fourth-class’ to recognise his achievements.

A year later he began the work he is most famous for, Modern Painters, a brilliant defence of Turner which, when it was finally finished in 1860, was to run to more than 1,500 pages. The first volume was published in 1843 and he quickly became a doyen among art critics. It’s hard to believe now that in the mid nineteenth century Turner was unpopular, but Ruskin wrote in his Praeterita autobiography in the 1880s, ‘Nobody, in all England, at that time, – and Turner was already sixty, – cared, in the true sense of the word, for Turner, but the retired coachmaker of Tottenham (a reference to the wealthy collector Benjamin Windus), and I.’

In 1848 he married the daughter of family friends, Effie Gray, and whether or not he was disgusted by the sight of wife’s naked form as was later claimed, the marriage was never consummated and was anulled in 1854. A year later Effie married Ruskin’s protégé, John Everett Millais, and had eight children.

But  Ruskin’s  enthusiasms  expanded  to  conserving  architecture,  and  to Venice in particular, so his next books were The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1848 and The Stones of Venice in 1851, and to science. In the mid-1850s he began teaching at the Working Men’s College in London, attracting audiences fascinated by his stentorian style of speaking and florid language, as they did when he became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1869.

Ruskin had no particular affinity with Sheffield, and probably only went there half a dozen times, but he considered its steelworkers the most skilled craftsmen in the world, so aimed his philanthropy at them. The museum he built is no more, but the collection survives in the city’s Millennium Gallery.

The surprising thing about this survey is the quality of Ruskin’s own work. He was an accomplished draughtsman and there is drama and infinite accuracy in, for instance, his pen and ink drawing of Ancienne Maison, Lucerne, Switzerland, done when he was 16, or his watercolour study of  a piece of brick of 1871. A page of sketches for his The Stones of Venice of about 1849 shows an architect’s obsession with detail. And there is a moving passion in his watercolour of the porch and buttress of the fifteenth century St Wulfram’s church in Abbeville, done in 1868, which he was worried about – ‘It is the last [late Gothic building] I know left untouched, and it is to be “restored” in the spring,’ he wrote. The watercolour and gouache portrait, probably a self-portrait, of 1875 when he opened the museum is gently painted, but the intense gaze of the pale blue eyes demands respectful attention.

The other artists he chooses are not well known now but give honest, simple accounts: Samuel Prout’s The Piazzetta, Venice of the 1830s;

William Hunt’s Grapes and Pineapple of about 1850; George Allen’s Study of Thorns done in 1859 for the last volume of Modern Painters, an example of the ‘minutest extremities’ of a tree that have to be studied to understand the tree’s ‘character.’

Ruskin’s influence was immense during his lifetime and into the twentieth century – he died in 1900 – and today his teaching has a new relevance. His attitude was that monetary wealth was meaningless without happiness, and happiness lay in slowing down and enjoying beauty, which fits with the modern appreciation of mindfulness and well-being.

‘I think he is the finest writer living,’ George Eliot wrote to Barbara Leigh Hunt in 1856 after reading volume 4 of Modern Painters:

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

Words by Simon Tait.

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