John Ruskin was a leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. His writing styles and literary forms were varied; he penned essays, treatises, poetry, lectures, travel guides, manuals, letters, and fairy tales. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation.
Ruskin was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation steadily improved since the 1960’s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognized as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft.
Ruskin was born in 1823 and he grew up in the village of Camberwell in South London. He was educated at home by his parents and private tutors, and from 1834 to 1835 attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive Evangelical, Thomas Dale (1797–1870). Ruskin went on to enroll and complete his studies at King’s College, where he prepared for Oxford under Dale’s tutelage
Ruskin was greatly influenced by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. Travel helped establish his taste and enriched his education. His father visited business clients in Britain’s country houses, exposing him to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. The tours provided Ruskin with the opportunity to record his observations of nature. He composed conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship’s Offering. His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings, remarkable for a boy of his age.
Ruskin’s travels also provided inspiration for writing. His first publication was the poem “On Skiddaw and Derwent Water” (August 1829). In 1834 three short articles for Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History were published; they show early signs of his skill as a close “scientific” observer of nature, especially its geology. From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture was serialized in Loudon’s Architectural Magazine, under the pen name “Kata Physin” (Greek for “According to Nature”). The poetry was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centered on an argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials. In 1839, Ruskin’s ‘Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science’ was published in Transactions of the Meteorological Society.
Ruskin toured the continent again with his parents in 1844, visiting Chamonix and Paris, studying the geology of the Alps and the paintings of Titian, Veronese and Perugino among others at the Louvre. In 1845, at the age of 26, he traveled without his parents for the first time and it provided him with an opportunity to study medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and especially Italy. In Lucca he saw the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia which Ruskin considered the exemplar of Christian sculpture.
During 1847 Ruskin became closer to Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends. It was for Effie that Ruskin had written “The King of the Golden River”. The couple was engaged in October and they married on 10 April 1848 at her home in Perth. The European Revolutions of 1848 meant that the newlyweds’ earliest travelling together was limited, but they were able to visit Normandy, where Ruskin admired the Gothic architecture.
Their early life together was spent at 31 Park Street, Mayfair, a home bought for them by Ruskin’s father. Effie was too ill to undertake the European tour of 1849, so Ruskin visited the Alps with his parents, gathering material for the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters. He was struck by the contrast between the Alpine beauty and the poverty of Alpine peasants.
In November 1849, Effie and John Ruskin visited Venice. For Effie, Venice provided an opportunity to socialize, while Ruskin was engaged in solitary studies. In particular, he made a point of drawing the Ca’ d’Oro and the Doge’s Palace, because he feared they would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops. One of these troops, Lieutenant Charles Paulizza, made friends with Effie, apparently with no objection from Ruskin. Her brother, among others, later claimed that Ruskin was deliberately encouraging the friendship to compromise her, as an excuse to separate. Their marriage, not consummated, later dissolved under discord and eventual annulment.
Ruskin’s sexuality has led to much speculation and critical comment. His one marriage, to Effie Gray, was annulled after six years because of non-consummation. Effie, in a letter to her parents, claimed that he found her “person” repugnant:
He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April .
Ruskin confirmed this in his statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings:
It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.
The cause of Ruskin’s “disgust” has led to much controversy. Ruskin’s biographer, Mary Lutyens, suggested that he rejected Effie because he was horrified by the sight of her pubic hair. Lutyens argued that Ruskin must have known the female form only through Greek statues and paintings of the nude lacking pubic hair and found the reality shocking. However, Peter Fuller in his book Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace writes, “It has been said that he was frightened on the wedding night by the sight of his wife’s pubic hair; more probably, he was perturbed by her menstrual blood.” Ruskin’s biographers Tim Hilton and John Batchelor also take the view that menstruation is the more likely explanation, though Batchelor also suggests that body-odor may have been the problem.
Ruskin’s later relationship with Rose La Touche has led to claims that he was a pedophile, since he outwardly declared that he fell in love with her when he met her at the age of nine. It is also true that in letters from Ruskin to Kate Greenaway he asked her to draw her “girlies” (as he called her child figures) without clothing In a letter to his physician John Simon on 15 May 1886, Ruskin wrote:
I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.—I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells.
Ruskin’s biographers disagree about the allegation of “pedophilia”. Tim Hilton, in his two-volume biography, boldly asserts that Ruskin “was a pedophile” but leaves the claim unexplained, while John Batchelor argues that the term is inappropriate because Ruskin’s behavior does not “fit the profile”. It is because of this that many speculate Ruskin’s marriage with Effie truly never worked out.
Meanwhile after Ruskin’s marriage was annulled, he was making the extensive sketches and notes that he used for his three-volume work, “The Stones of Venice” (1851–53). Developing from a technical history of Venetian architecture, from the Romanesque to the Renaissance, into a broad cultural history, Stones also reflected Ruskin’s view of contemporary England. It acted as a warning about the moral and spiritual health of society. Ruskin argued that Venice had slowly deteriorated, that its cultural achievements had been compromised, and its society corrupted, by the decline of true Christian faith. Instead of revering the divine, Renaissance artists honored themselves, arrogantly celebrating human sensuousness.
Ruskin was unanimously appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in August 1869, largely through the help of his friend, Henry Acland. He gave his inaugural lecture on his 51st birthday in 1870, at the Sheldonian Theatre to a larger-than-expected audience. It was here that he said, “The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues. Thus, its effect on each man should be visible and moving.”
In 1871, John Ruskin founded his own art school at Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Ruskin endowed the school with £5000 of his own money. He also established a large collection of drawings, watercolors and other materials with which to illustrate his lectures. His lectures were often so popular that they had to be given twice, once for the students, and again for the public. Most of them were also eventually published. He lectured on a wide range of subjects at Oxford, his interpretation of “Art” encompassing almost every conceivable area of study, including wood and metal engraving (Ariadne Florentina), the relation of science to art (The Eagle’s Nest) and sculpture (Aratra Pentelici). His lectures ranged through myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature. “The teaching of Art…,” Ruskin wrote, “is the teaching of all things.”
In the same year he founded his art school, Ruskin set out to found his ‘utopian society’: The Guild of St George. Its aims and objectives were articulated in Fors Clavigera; a communitarian venture, it had a hierarchical structure, with Ruskin as its Master, and dedicated members called “Companions” whose first loyalty was nearly always to Ruskin personally. Ruskin wished to show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed traditionally and with minimal mechanical assistance. With a personal donation of £7,000, Ruskin acquired some land and a remarkable collection of books, art and other precious and beautiful objects.
Ruskin worked out different levels of “Companions”, wrote codes of practice, described styles of dress and even designed the Guild’s own coins. Ruskin wished to see St George’s Schools established, and published various volumes to aid its teaching, but the schools themselves were never established. In reality, the Guild, which still exists today as a charitable organisation, has only ever operated on a small scale.
In 1858, Ruskin had become acquainted to the wealthy Irish La Touche family; Maria La Touche, a minor Irish poet and novelist, asked Ruskin to teach her daughters drawing and painting. The aforementioned, Rose La Touche was nine, and Ruskin gradually fell in love with her. Their first meeting came at a time when Ruskin’s own religious faith was under strain, which always caused difficulties for the extremely Protestant La Touche family who at various times prevented the two from meeting. Ruskin’s love for Rose was a cause of great joy and deep depression for him, and always a source of anxiety.
Ruskin proposed to La Touche on her eighteenth birthday in 1867, but she asked him to wait three years for an answer, until she was 21. A chance meeting at the Royal Academy in 1869 was one of the few occasions they came into personal contact thereafter. She finally rejected him in 1872, but they still occasionally met. After a long illness, she died on 25 May 1875, at the age of 27. These events plunged Ruskin into despair and led to increasingly severe bouts of mental illness involving a number of breakdowns and delirious visions. Ruskin turned to spiritualism and was by turns comforted and disturbed by what he believed was his ability to communicate with the dead Rose.
In the 1880s, Ruskin returned his writings to some literature and themes that had been among his favorites since childhood. He wrote about Walter Scott, Byron and Wordsworth in “Fiction, Fair and Foul” (1880) and returned to meteorological observations in his lectures. Ruskin’s prophetic writings were also tied to his emotions, and his more general dissatisfaction with the modern world.
His last great work was his autobiography, “Praeterita” (1885–89) (meaning, ‘Of Past Things’), a highly intimate, but incomplete account of his life.
The period from the late 1880s was one of steady decline and it became too difficult for him to travel to Europe. He suffered a complete collapse on his final tour, which included Beauvais, Sallanches and Venice, in 1888. His later writings were increasingly seen as irrelevant, especially as he seemed to be more interested in book illustrators such as Kate Greenaway than in modern art. He also attacked Darwinian theory with increasing violence, although he knew and respected Darwin personally.
Ruskin’s 80th birthday was widely celebrated in 1899, but Ruskin was scarcely aware of it. He died from influenza on 20 January 1900 at the age of 80. He was buried five days later in the churchyard at Coniston, according to his wishes. As he had grown weaker, suffering prolonged bouts of mental illness, he had been looked after by his second cousin, Joan Severn and she inherited his estate. “Joanna’s Care” was the eloquent final chapter of his memoir which he dedicated to her as a fitting tribute.
‘He was a character of great fascination and complexity . . . made up of contradictions:
intelligence and silliness; puritanism and a refined sensuality; selfishness and extreme generosity . . . The central drama of his life, that of the pampered aesthete who gradually becomes aware of social injustice and as a result sacrifices his reputation, his wealth and ultimately his sanity, is as moving as anything in fiction . . . We should read Ruskin for the very quality of his mind . . . his refusal to consider any human faculty in isolation.’