by Roderick Conway Morris

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Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc by J.M. W. Turner, 1802-05

Victorian Visionary

By Roderick Conway Morris
COMPTON, Surrey 2 October 2020


'I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold - this book seems to give me eyes,' wrote Charlotte Brontë in 1848, having read the first volume of John Ruskin's Modern Painters, an impassioned defence of Turner and contemporary landscape painters.

The book urged young artists to 'go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning…rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.'

'Modern Painters' was published anonymously as simply 'By a Graduate of Oxford', when its author was only 24 years old. He was born in 1819, shortly before Queen Victoria and died in 1900, a few months before her death in 1901.

Few eminent Victorians became so eminent at such a young age as Ruskin and few have remained so influential so long after their death. He is now the subject of a modestly sized but revealing bicentennial exhibition, 'Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin' - for which the Art and Crafts inspired complex of buildings of the Watts Gallery at Compton near Guildford in the Surrey Hills provides a perfect venue. Many of the exhibits are on loan from Yale, at New Haven, Connecticut, the home of outstanding collections of Ruskin's works and related materials, and where a previous version of the show was staged at the Yale Center for British Art last year.

Ruskin was of Scots parentage, born in London of a wealthy, self-made sherry merchant and his evangelical wife. Despite the Protestant religiosity of the household, Ruskin's father collected art, including pictures by Turner, with whom he became friends, and was happy to spend substantial sums on taking the family on extended trips, especially to France, Switzerland and Italy, where his son received an unusually broad artistic education before going up to Christ Church Oxford in 1837.

The young Ruskin's innate skills with pen and brush were nurtured by first-class private teachers and he became an excellent draughtsman and watercolourist. He also developed his scientific interests, especially in geology, mineralogy and botany. He could have excelled as an artist or scientist, but, as his first volume of 'Modern Painters' demonstrated, he saw his principal destiny as a writer and thinker.

He was by nature a polemicist, with a natural tendency to swim against the current of conventional wisdom. His ideas on 'truth to nature' were a primary force in the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. And when their richly colourful and often minutely detailed works were derided by mainstream painters and critics he argued in favour of them with the same vigour with which he had defended Turner.

Indeed, close observation became for Ruskin almost a religion. As he wrote in the third volume of 'Modern Painters': 'The greatest thing a human soul ever does in the world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way.' And again, in the final, fifth volume of this monumental work: 'If you can paint a leaf, you can paint the world.'

At a time when Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture were regarded as the most perfect expressions of human endeavour in building, Ruskin rebelled, championing instead the Gothic and medieval architecture. He had visited Venice for the first time with his parents when he was sixteen. Subsequent visits culminated in extended stays in 1849-50 and 1851-52, during which he undertook single-handed a full-scale survey of every church, palazzo and other significant building in the city and the lagoon.

Applying that phenomenal energy and determination that characterized the great achievements of the Victorian age, he minutely measured and recorded entire edifices and details in hundreds of drawing, watercolours and photographs, over an area he later reckoned to total five square miles, finding time meanwhile to plough through forty enormous volumes of the Serenissima's historic archives.

The result was the three-volume 'Stones of Venice', the first part of which was issued in 1851. This was Ruskin's most sustained counter-blast to the contemporary worship of the classical and Renaissance art and architecture. His love of the medieval and Gothic derived directly from his own studies of nature, for he came to believe that the decorative styles created by medieval craftsmen were based on their familiarity with the natural world, and their intimate knowledge of its leaves, plants, flowers and trees. This relationship between nature and art, which he found in such abundance in the medieval fabric of Venice, was brilliantly reflected in the eloquence of his own descriptions of the city.

The Basilica of St. Mark's appeared to modern critical eyes - schooled to admire the cool lines of classical architecture and Palladianism - as barbaric in its colourful eclecticism and richness of its ornament but, in a famous passage, Ruskin described its façade as 'a confusion of delight, amidst which the breasts of the Greek horses are seen blazing in their breadth of golden strength, and the St. Mark's lion, lifted on a blue field covered with stars, until at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers of the Lido shore had been frost bound before they fell and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst'.

This simile of frost-bound breaking waves to describe the decoration of St. Mark's calls to mind the Mer de Glace, an astonishing ice-field on the Mont Blanc glacier that had the appearance of a frozen stretch of wildly agitated sea, and which fascinated many artists and writers, including Mary Shelley, Turner and Ruskin himself.

In an age when individual craftsmanship was increasingly threatened by mass production and standardization, Ruskin highlighted organic asymmetry in nature, writing: 'Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent…In things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.'

His political ideas were paradoxical. He did not believe in democracy and never voted, his vision of an ideal society being paternalistic, verging on the feudal. But he was generous with his time and personal wealth in trying to advance the education of the working classes. His most ambitious project was the setting-up of the Guild of St.George in Sheffield aimed at broadening the cultural horizons of industrial workers, the assets of which included a museum furnished with exhibits from his own collection.

He was a visionary who not only saw industrialization as a blight on the landscape and a source of pollution, creating miserable living conditions for workers and causing ill health, but also as having a deleterious effect on the weather. His observations on these phenomena were the subject in 1884 of two lectures on 'The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century', in which he spoke of a 'plague-wind' that threatened to have a permanent effect on the environment and climate.

But while he decried the wage slavery of industrial workers, he was critical of the north during the American Civil War and sympathized with the Confederacy, yet condemning the slave trade itself. Such contradictions did not prevent the socialist William Morris from publishing a beautiful illustrated edition of 'The Nature of the Gothic', a chapter taken from the second volume of 'The Stones of Venice', and declaring in his own introduction to it that it would come to be 'considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.'

Indeed, the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, in which William Morris was a prime mover, was largely based on Ruskin's ideas and insights.

His progressive thinking was extraordinarily far-reaching in its influence. For Mahatma Gandhi, when a young lawyer in South Africa, his reading of Ruskin's late work 'Unto This Last' in 1904 - in which he attacked laissez-faire capitalism and advocated what was in effect a minimum wage - was a transformative experience. Gandhi translated it into Gujarati under the title 'Sarvodaya' (The Welfare of All) and continued to be inspired by Ruskin throughout his life.

Shortly before Ruskin's death, Tolstoy had declared in his preface for a Russian biographical study of the great man's life that: 'John Ruskin is one of the most remarkable men not only of England and our generation, but of all countries and times… he thinks and says what he has himself seen and felt, and what everyone will think and say in the future.' And as Kenneth Clark was to remark a little over half a century later, most of the changes which Ruskin had advocated: 'free schools, free libraries, town planning, smokeless zones, green belts - are now taken for granted'.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin; Watts Gallery, Compton, near Guildford, Surrey; 17 August - 1 November 2020

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024