The great Victorian John Ruskin, who died on this date in 1900 and whose birth bicentenary we celebrate on February 8th, was once a household name, which is what he should be today. Few thinkers or writers from the Victorian era more clearly anticipated such issues as climate change, social injustice and ways to overcome it, sham renovation (specifically with reference to his beloved Venice) or the artificial polarity between left- and right-thinking politics. Although not a liberal in the strictest sense, Ruskin had a synoptic overview of politics that we could benefit from revisiting. His most famous aphoristic thought – and his work is crammed with meaningful aphorisms – is ‘There is no wealth but life’ and his alarmed response to the ‘storm cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ (as both witness to a natural phenomenon and prophet of damaging industrialisation) is deeply significant.
Ruskin was born into comfortable circumstances and as a boy was inculcated by his mother into reading the Bible daily, a process that would greatly influence his writing style, though it wouldn’t nail his thinking to any conventional religious template. Early travel among family and friends awakened his senses to the beauty of art and nature abroad. His discovery of Turner was pivotal: a devotion to Turner’s work helped consolidate the great painter’s reputation and he was destined to accept the role, initially unwillingly, of executor to Turner’s will.
Ruskin was himself a superb draughtsman, whose pencil sketches of important buildings and scenes from nature vied with the best for sensitivity and a feeling for perspective. He was a great literary stylist whose magisterial pen lightened somewhat with the passing years. He was also a significant influence on the pre-Raphaelites. A fine teacher and lecturer, Ruskin initiated ‘The Guild of St George’ (which survives to this day), where the idea that urban folk can enjoy, and work, the countryside was revived under his supervision.
Most controversially, there were Ruskin’s women who, from an amatory point of view, were all very young. His marriage to Effie Gray was never consummated, an issue widely misunderstood until recently when motives other than a ‘distaste’ for her actual body (the long-held theory) were discovered as far more significant. Gray eventually went on to marry the painter John Everett Millais with whom she had eight children. Ruskin’s love for the wealthy Irish girl Rose La Touche (he fell for her when she was ten) survived her premature death at the age of 27. No evidence has survived that he ever attempted physical engagement with younger girls whose attentions he craved and whose company he enjoyed so deeply. Nowadays he would probably have been deemed a pedophile, which I’m convinced he wasn’t. Ruskin was in many ways an eternal child himself, reaching the age of 80 at his eventual home in Brantwood on the shores of Coniston Water (now a Ruskin museum).
What I’ve written hardly touches the surface of a life that although fraught with problems, even occasional bouts of madness, was richly fulfilled and crammed with fascinating literary production.
An early volume of poetry is heavily derivative but Ruskin’s mature work – and there’s a great deal of it – impressed the likes of Tolstoy, Ghandi (whose life’s direction was changes by Ruskin’s Unto This Last) and Proust, who translated key material into French. This influence can be seen to extend beyond Wilde, Chesterton, Pound and Eliot to this very day.
As to further reading, I always recommend going straight to the source, in this case with Unto This Last (variously published at reasonable prices), a brief but powerful book on economy where Ruskin proves himself an eloquent precursor of social economy. The Brantwood Diary (Yale) offers many insights and there’s a useful ‘Selected Writings’, published by OUP. The complete works edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn and stretching to 39 volumes is magnificent in both form and content and includes one of the most impressive indexes ever published; it’s pricey but would provide a lifetime’s worth of reading.
As to biographies, Tim Hilton’s comprehensive work – the one I’d most recommend – is divided into ‘The Early Years’ and ‘The Later Years’ and available either as two separate volumes or as a single-volume 947-page paperback from Yale. A Cambridge Companion and various writings by Robert Hewison (especially on Ruskin and Venice) are valuable; Robert Brownell’s fascinating ‘Marriage of Inconvenience’ researches the Ruskin-Gray debacle and its various implications and if you can find it, Derrick Leon’s ‘Ruskin: the Great Victorian’ (Archon Books) is couched in a literary style that virtually levels with Ruskin’s own. It’s a joyous read. Beyond that there’s Cynthia Gamble on Ruskin as translated by Proust and so much more that to reach further into the critical bibliography would be to court confusion, at least initially. The important thing to remember is that John Ruskin ventured into the future without breaking the tablets of the past. That for me makes him a major thinker, one to be reckoned with.