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by Bamber Gascoigne

John Ruskin (1819-1900)

An English art critic and writer of the Victorian era, who correlated art and morality, defended the painter John Turner (1775-1851) and the Pre-Raphaelites, and criticized the laissez-faire economics and the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Ruskin writings paved the way for the Arts and Crafts Movement. His major works include Modern Painters (1843-60), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice (1851-53), and Unto this Last (1860).

"It is only by the habit of representing faithfully all things, that we can truly learn what is beautiful, and what is not." (in Modern Painters, Vol. III, 1856) 

John Ruskin was born in London, the only child of John James Ruskin,  founder of Ruskin, Telford & Domecq, sherry merchant, and Margaret Cox (née Cock). His parents were cousins. Margaret had entered the Ruskin family as companion-housekeeper to John James's father. Mentally unbalanced, he shot himself in 1817, after which Margaret and John James married. At the time her son was born, she was thirty-eight.

Ruskin was educated privately. His parents required him to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart. On Sundays, he went to church, recalling in the autobiographical Praeterita (1885-89): "the gloom, and even terror, with which the restrictions of the Sunday, and the doctrines of the Pilgrim's Progress, the Holy War, and Quarles' Emblems, oppressed the seventh part of my time." Ruskin's mother was deeply religious ‒ she never went to the theater, as his father did. John James was a voracious reader who liked Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope, and Johnson. When Ruskin was in his twenties, his father warned him that "too much enthusiasm in Religion ends in Selfishness or Madness" (The Peculiar Life of Sundays by Stephen Miller, 2008, pp. 146-153). The isolation of Ruskin's childhood without any friends was broken by journeys to France, Switzerland, and Italy. While traveling his parents read Johnson's essays aloud. As a child, he was bitten by a dog; he was left by a scar on his upper lip.

Ruskin attended lectures ar King's College, London, where he heard lectures on early English literature. He attended exhibitions and was taught painting by the water colourist Copley Fielding. In 1836, he went to Oxford, entering Christ Church in 1837. His mother accompanied him, keeping watch on her son in his lodgings at 90 High Street. "I count it as just a little to my credit that I was not ashamed, but pleased, that my mother came to Oxford with me to take care of me such as she could", Ruskin later remembered. His gifts for drawing and poetry were admired by other students. Ruskin was five feet 10 inches tall, he had piercing blue eyes and a radiant smile. Several of his poems from this period expressed passions for Adèle Domecq, the daughter of one of his father's business partners. Too shy to propose a marrige, Ruskin suffered a nervous breakdown.

Modern Painters (1843), which first gained Ruskin fame as an art critic, was written in defence of John Turner, whom he had met three years earlier. In his diary Ruskin wrote of the painter: "I found him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded ‒ gentleman; good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look." After Turner's death, Ruskin destroyed a large collection of erotic drawings, which he found from the artist's studio.

Traveling with his parents in Italy, he discovered Italian romanesque and Gothic architecture. In 1848 he married a Scottish girl named Euphemia (Effie) Chalmers Gray. Her father was a distant relative. Ruskin had known Effie since she was a little girl and composed for her a fairy tale, 'The King of the Golden River' (1841), an early example of an English children's fantasy. After Ruskin's neglect of marital duties, the marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of nonconsummation. Effie revealed that "the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening". It has been speculated that it was her pubic hair that had repulsed the sheltered Ruskin, or she was menstruating. After divorce, Effie married the painter John Everett Millais and had five children.

When Ruskin still lived with Effie, he poured all his energy into his intellectual activity. The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written in the winter of 1848, the  Stones of Venice in the autumn and winter of 1852, and in addition, he worked on the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters.

Like Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Ruskin was an admirer of prepubescent girls. Moreover, they both were close friends of the Liddell family, where Ruskin taught drawing, sketching, and painting (see Alice Beyond Wonderland: Essays for the Twenty-first Century, edited by Cristopher Hollingsworth, 2009, pp. 69-70). Carroll developed an emotional attachment to Alice Liddell, and Ruskin, who was for a time Alice's private drawing master, was fond of Edith.

During the 1860s, Ruskin visited sixteen times a school for well-to-do girls called Winnington Hall, run by a Miss Margaret Bell. Writing to her, Ruskin jokingly said that "it is really a hard fate . . . to fall in love with thirty-five young ladies at once". In 1859, Ruskin became the teacher of the ten-year-old Rose La Touche. His love lasted for over fifteen years. Rose grew into a religious young woman, who had mental problems; she died in 1875. Her memory tormented Ruskin for the rest of his life.

The death of his father in 1864 left Ruskin a wealthy man, but he gave away the greater part of the fortune he had inherited (£157,000 plus land and houses) to charity. Thereafter he lived by his writings. He also founded Mr. Ruskin's Tea Shop in Paddington. In 1870, he was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford. He also became an honorary fellow of Corpus Christ Collage. Ruskin kept his old house at Herne Hill, but had also a tumble-down villa on Coniston Water, named Brantwood.

Throughout his life, Ruskin suffered from manic depression and bouts of  physical illness. As a child he had suffered from pleurisy and tuberculosis. Between 1874 and 1877, Ruskin was frequently abroad. Some furious passages of Mornings in Florence (1875-77) and St. Mark's Rest (1877-84) reflect his hypersensitivity to sounds and sights. In 1878, Ruskin fell into deep depression and resigned from the Slade Professorship. He came back for a second spell in 1882, but he had not recovered his mental powers and he resigned again, nominally in protest following the vote endowing vivisection in the university.

At the age of 68, Ruskin proposed to marry Miss Kathleen Olander, an art-student of twenty. It came as a shock to her; she had tought of him as a teacher and a father-like figure. In the last period of his life, Ruskin withdrew from society. He lived in near seclusion at Brantwood, where he was looked after by his mother's former companion, Joan Ruskin Severn, the wife of the artist Arthur Severn. Over the decades, he wrote her almost 3,000 extant letters. Ruskin died of influenza at his home, on 20 January 1900 and was buried in Coniston churchyard. Ruskin refused to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Ruskin had a liberal attitude toward art. He gave the young Pre-Raphaelites his support, and his stamp of approval encouraged tremendously William Morris (1834-1896), who said that Ruskin made it possible for him to say that he wanted to devote his life to art. At first, Morris was drawn to Ruskin by his impressive prose ‒ he devoured the first two volumes of Modern Painters but it was Ruskin's ideas on architecture that were fundamental to his intellectual development.

Disgusted by the quality of the Victorian arts and crafts, Ruskin emphasized that art is a public concern.  "And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, ‒ that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strenghten steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to strenghten, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate advantages"  (in The Stones  of Venice, Vol. II, 1853).

Referring to thinkers who had influenced his thought, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) wrote, "Three moderns have left a deep impress on my life, and captivated me. Rachandbhai by his living contact; Tolstoy by his book, 'The kingdom of God is within you' and Ruskin by his 'Unto this last'." In his periodical Fors Clavigera he criticized the painter  James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) charging 200 guineas for one of his paintings, 'Nocturne in Black and White: The Falling Rocker'. The qurrel went to court. Whistler argued that he was being paid not for two days' labour but for "the knowledge of a lifetime". Although the moral victory was Whistler's, the legal costs drowe him into bankruptcy. Unto this Last (1860), essays on political economy, was considered nonsense by Ruskin's contemporaries. Later the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) praised the book "in many ways his greatest work". 

For further reading: The Life and Works of John Ruskin by W.J. Collingwood (2 vols., 1893); The Life of John Ruskin by E.T. Cook (2 vols., 1912); Ruskin, the Great Victorian by Derrick Leon (1949); John Ruskin: The Portrait of a Prophet by Peter Quennell (1949); John Ruskin by Joan Evans (1954); John Ruskin and Rose La Touche: Her Unpublished Diaries of 1861 and 1867, ed. Van Akin Burd (1979); John Ruskin: An Illustrated Life 1819-1900, ed. James S. Dearden (1981); The Wider Sea by John Dixon Hunt (1982); Ruskin by Francis O'Gorman (1999); Ruskin and Modernism, edited by Giovanni Cianci and Peter Nicholls (2001); Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper (2010); The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, edited by Francis O'Gorman (2015; To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters by Suzanne Fagence Cooper (2019); Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud, edited by Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns (2019) 

Selected works:

  • Salsette and Elephanta; a Prize Poem Recited in the Theatre, Oxford, 1839
  • The Poetry of Architecture, 1837–38 (in The Architectural Magazine)
  • Modern Painters, 1843–60 (5 vols.: Vol. 1, 1843; Vol. 2, 1846; Vol. 3, 1856; Vol. 4, 1856; Vol. 5. 1860)
  • The Scythian Guest; a Poem, 1849
  • The Seven Lamps of Architecturee, 1849  
  • The King of the Golden River, 1850 (a fairy tale, written in 1841)
  • The Stones of Venice, 1851–53 (3 vols)
    - 'Gotiikan olemus,' in Työ, talous ja sielu (suom. Hannu Poutiainen, 2021) (original title: The Nature of Gothic; a chapter from The Stones of Venice)
  • The National Gallery. Two letters to the Editor of the Times. By the Author of "Modern Painters", 1852
  • The Opening of the Crystal Palace Considered in Some of Its Relations to the Prospects of Art, 1854
  • Lectures on Architecturen and Painting, 1854
  • Giotto and His Works in Padua, 1854
  • Notes on Some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy (and the Society of Painters in Water Colours): 1855 (-59). By the author of "Modern Painters", 1855-59
  • The Harbours of England, 1856
  • Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery. Part I., 1857
  • The Elements of Drawing; in Three Letters to Beginners, 1857 (with illustrations by the author)
  • The Political Economy of Art: Being the Substance, with Additions, of Two Lectures Delivered at Manchester, 1857
  • Catalogue of the Sketches and Drawings by J. M. W. Turner, R.A. exhibited in Marlborough House in the year 1857-8. Accompanied with Illustrative notes, 1857
  • Cambridge School of Art. Mr. Ruskin's Inaugural Address ... Oct. 29, 1858
  • The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art and Policy, 1858 (lecture given at Tunbridge Wells)
    - 'Ruosteen ylistys,' in Työ, talous ja sielu (suom. Hannu Poutiainen, 2021)
  • The Elements of Perspective Arranged for the Use of Schools, and Intended to Be Read in Connexion with the First Three Books of Euclid, 1859
  • The Two Paths, 1859 (lectures)
  • Unto This Last, 1860 (in Cornhill Magazine)
    - 'Viimeiset tulevat ensimmäiseksi,' in Työ, talous ja sielu (suom. Hannu Poutiainen, 2021)
  • Selections from the Writings of John Ruskin, 1861 (with a portrait)
  • Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy, 1862–63 (in Fraser's Magazine)
  • The Queen's Gardens; a Lecture Delivered at the Town Hall, Manchester, on Wednesday, December 14, 1864
  • The Cestus of Aglaia, 1864-64 (in Art Journal)
    Sesame and Lilies, 1865 (lectures)
  • The Ethics of the Dust: Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallisation, 1866
  • The Crown of Wild Olive. Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War, 1866
  • The Political Economy of Art, 1867
  • Time and Tide, by Weare and Tyne. Twenty-five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland (Thomas Dixon) on the Laws of Work, 1868 (second edition)
  • The Queen of the Air, 1869
  • The Mystery of Life and Its Arts, 1869
  • Drawings and Photographs, Illustrative of the Architecture of Verona, Shown at the Royal Institution, Feb. 4th, 1870  (a catalogue)
  • Lectures on Art: Delivered before the Univesaity of Oxford in Hilary Term, 1870, 1870
  • Samuel Prout, 1870 (reprinted from The Art Journal)
  • Collected Works, 1871-80 (11 vols.)
  • Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, 1871–1884       
  • Munera Pulveris : Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy, 1872     
  • Afatra Pentelici, 1872  (lectures)
  • The Relation Between Michael Angelo and Tintoret, 1872 (seventh of the course of lectures on sculpture delivered at Oxford, 1870, 71)
  • The Eagle's Nest, 1872 (lectures)
  • Ariadne Florentina, 1872 (lectures)
  • The Nature and Authority of Miracle, 1873 (a paper read before the Metaphysical Society)
  • Love's Meinie. Lectures on Greek and English birds, 1873 (lectures 1, 2)
  • Val d’Arno, 1873 (lectures)
  • Mornings in Florence, 1875–77
  • Deucalion, 1875–83 (collected studies of the lapse of waves, and life of stones. pt. 1-8)
  • Theorem. Social Policy Must be Based on the Scientific Principle of Natural Selection, 1875 (a paper read before the Metaphysical Society)
  • Notes on Some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy: 1875, 1875
  • Proserpina, 1875–86
  • Letters to “The Times” on the Principal Pre-Raphaelite Pictures in the Exhibition of 1854. From the Author of "Modern Painters", 1876
  • Collected Works, 1876 (30 vols.)
  • Guide to the Principal Pictures in the Academy of Fine Arts at Venice. Arranged for English Travellers, 1877
  • Abstract of the Objects and Constitution of St. George's Guild, 1877
  • St Mark's Rest, 1877–84
  • Laws of Fésoles, 1877–78
  • Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds, 1879 (fourth edition)
  • A Joy for Ever: (And Its Price in the Market), 1880
    Arrows of the Chace: Being a Collection of Scattered Letters, Published Chiefly in the Daily Newspapers, 1840-1880, 1880 (edited by an Oxford pupil; with a preface by the author)
  • Elements of English Prosody for Use in St George's Schools, 1880
  • The Bible of Amiens, 1880-85
  • Love's Meinie: Lectures on Greek and English Birds, 1881
  • Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers, 1882
  • The Art of England, 1883  (Lectures given in Oxford, by John Ruskin ... during his second tenure of the Slade professorship. Second edition)
  • The Ruskin Birthday Book, 1883 (a selection)
  • The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, 1884 (two lectures delivered at the London Institution, February 4th and 11th 1884) 
  • The Pleasures of England: Lectures Given in Oxford, 1884–85
  • On the Old Road, 1885 (edited by A.D.O. Wedderburn)
  • Readings from Ruskin. Italy, 1885 (with an introduction by H. A. Beers)
  • Selected Works, 1885 (8 vols.)
  • Præterita, 1885–1889 (Outlines of scenes and thoughts perhaps worthy of memory in my past life)
  • Frondes Agrestes: Readings in "Modern Painters", 1886 (8th ed.)
  • The Eagle's Nest. Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, etc, 1886
  • Art and Life: A Ruskin anthology, 1886 (compiled by Wm. Sloane Kennedy)
  • The Crown of Wild Olive. Four Lectures on Industry and War, 1889 (third edition)
  • The Poems of John Ruskin, 1891 (edited with notes, biographical and critical, by W. G. Collingwood)
  • Collected Works, 1891-92 (with introductions by Prof. C.E. Norton)
  • Three Letters and an Essay on Literature, 1883 (by John Ruskin. 1836-1841. Found in his tutor's desk. Edited by H. P. Dale)
  • Ruskin: Rossetti: Preraphaelitism: Papers 1854 to 1862, 1899 (arranged and edited by William Michael Rossetti)
  • Letters of John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, 1905 (2 vols.)
  • The Complete Works of John Ruskin in 39 volumes, 1903-1912 (the Library Edition, edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn) 
  • Collected Works, 1907 (15 vols.)
  • The Ruskin House Edition, 1907 (4 vols.)
  • The Gulf of the Years. Love Letters from John Ruskin to Kathleen Olander, 1953 (edited by Rayner Unwin)
  • The Diaries of John Ruskin, 1959-59 (3 vols., sel. and ed. Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse)
  • Ruskin Today, 1964 (edited by Kenneth Clark)
  • The Winnington Letters: John Ruskin's Correspondence with Margaret Alexis Bell and the Children at Winnington Hall, 1969 (edited byVan Akin Burd)
  • The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin: Together with Selected Related Letters and Sketches of Persons Mentioned, 1971 (edited by Helen Gill Viljoen)
  • The Ruskin Family Letters: The Correspondence of John James Ruskin, His Wife, and Their Son, John, 1801–1843, 1973 (2 vols., edited by Van Akin Burd)
  • The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, 1982 (edited by George Allan Cate)
  • The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton, 1987 (edited by John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby) 
  • Christmas Story: John Ruskin's Venetian Letters of 1876-1877, 1990 (edited by Van Akin Burd)
  • A Tour to the Lakes in Cumberland: John Ruskin's Diary for 1830, 1990 (edited by James S. Dearden)
  • Selected Writings of John Ruskin, 2009 (edited by Dinah Birch)
  • John Ruskin's Correspondence with Joan Severn: Sense and Nonsense Letters, 2009 (edited by Rachel Dickinson)  
  • John Ruskin's Continental Tour 1835: the Written Records and Drawings, 2016 (edited by Keith Hanley and Caroline S. Hull)
  • John Ruskin, 2019 (edited by Richard Lansdown)

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