by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rescuing Ruskin

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 May 2000
Sarah Quill



Victorian authors were in the habit of producing massive works on a par with the gigantic building and engineering projects of the age. John Ruskin, art critic, historian and social theorist, who died a hundred years ago this year, was a prime example of this tendency.

'The Stones of Venice' (1851-53) was a truly monumental construction, running to three volumes and nearly half a million words, and an invaluable contribution not just to art history but to the literature of travel and urban geography. However, it has long been out of print and can now be found only in libraries and second-hand bookshops. And even for those who possess a copy, it is hardly a handy guide book.

A major barrier to the modern reader's appreciation of Ruskin's writings lies in his personality. He was a mass of contradictions. He fearlessly championed Turner's move towards an almost abstract style in painting, but denounced Whistler for doing very much the same. He had a deep nostalgia for the Middle Ages and believed that everything had gone desperately wrong during the Renaissance, but could not help seeing the virtues in the art of later periods that according to this general scheme were irredeemably decadent. And his polemical bent meant that he could happily bang on for page after page about a whole range of topics in a manner that can seem profoundly wrong-headed and perverse.

And yet, Ruskin could be full of original insight and capable of sharing his intense pleasure in the visual world, human creativity and ingenuity.

Anthologizing Ruskin for today's audience is a difficult and daunting task, but one brilliantly carried out by Sarah Quill in this book. A professional photographer, she has spent 25 years building up an archive of images of Venice that Ruskin himself would undoubtedly have admired - for, like the early daguerreotypes of the city he himself collected, her pictures illustrating the selections from Ruskin's text are 'glorious things', fully representing, as earlier black-and-white photographs could not, the extraordinary sumptuousness, light and coruscating colour of this unique cityscape.

Most of the words are Ruskin's - from 'The Stones of Venice' and other relevant writings - as are the watercolours and engravings, but with illuminating additional commentaries and notes by Sarah Quill and Alan Windsor. The book is remarkably compact and portable, and guaranteed to stimulate those who have never been to Venice to set off at the first opportunity, and even send old hands on renewed voyages of discovery to unearth the city's infinite hidden riches.

RUSKIN'S VENICE: The Stones Revisited by Sarah Quill, pp 206 with 280 illustrations. Ashgate. £30

First published: Geographical

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023