Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the greatest Victorians; his range
of interests and achievements were quite staggering. He was an artist, art critic, amateur geologist,
a teacher, writer, social critic and philosopher. He thought that it was
fundamental to make links between all subjects and disciplines - for
example, science and religion; nature and art. Somehow he could always see
the whole picture. Leo Tolstoy said that Ruskin was: "one
of those rare men who think with their hearts."
From the moment that Ruskin was born, his father, John James, and his
mother, Margaret, invested all their hopes and ideals in his future. John
was the precious child of their middle age. They were strict with him - he
was chastised if he disobeyed - and yet in other ways they over-protected
and indulged him. Through his youth they were responsible for allowing him
a limited experience of mankind and little chance to mix with his peers.
His mother took charge of his early education at home. Her religious
fervour (she was an Evangelical Christian) meant that she was naturally keen to
instil Biblical knowledge and Christian principles into her son. They
would read the Bible together from Genesis through to Revelation and then
begin all over again. The main effects on Ruskin were that he actually
became the 'good man', the man of conscience, and also that he saw the
natural world to be 'as full of God's words as the Bible'. During his
early years, therefore, he was cocooned in a kind of structured paradise.
However, the continued, mostly unquestioning obedience to his mother and father was
to lead to problems of guilt and repression later in his life. His
relationship with his parents would remain intense until their deaths.
John James, a hard-working wine and sherry merchant with the firm of
Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, diluted his son's religious teaching with
literature - notably Byron and Walter Scott. His ambitions for his
son meant that he was prepared to spend money on tutors for Art and the
Classics, and to buy him a place at Oxford University. John James
would have liked his son to be a poet; Margaret thought he could become
Archbishop of Canterbury. They were both well aware that they had a
budding genius for a son. The three of them went travelling through Britain and Europe, during which time
Ruskin kept diaries and made sketchbooks. He described his first views of
the Alps as a kind of revelation - he felt that God, the natural world and
his future life were all set before him in those awesome surroundings.
SIGNS OF GENIUS.
John Ruskin eventually found his niche when adverse criticism of Turner
came to his attention. (Ruskin had first met Turner's work when he was
given a copy of Samuel Rogers' 'Italy', complete with Turner vignettes;
later, he and his father became collectors of Turner's
paintings.) The denunciation of Turner's new true-to-life style prompted
Ruskin to write in defence of the 'master', and when this work - the first
of five volumes of 'Modern Painters'
- gained critical acclaim, his
future as an author was assured.
In these books Ruskin celebrated, in an inspirational style of writing,
the wonders of nature. He opened our eyes to how truthfully and faithfully
it could be represented through Art (by Turner - and, after much
study, some of the Italian masters.) Subsequently he wrote 'The
Seven Lamps of Architecture' about values based on what he saw
as the great age of craftsmen in the Middle Ages - the Gothic styles.
Then, in his work 'The Stones of Venice', he demonstrated
how some of the most important buildings of the past were the unique
products of healthy, happy workers and individual, skilled craftsmen. He
believed that it was crucial to describe, preserve and restore such wonderful Architecture.
He became an enthusiastic art teacher and lecturer, first at the Working
Mens' College in London, (where he met some Christian Socialists, and also
Dante Gabriel Rosetti), and later in Oxford, where he became the first
Slade Professor of Fine Art and set up the Ruskin School of
Drawing. He did not aim to make everyone an artist, he said, but
simply a better person through the discipline of learning to draw. He wrote in support of the Pre-Raphaelite
artists, since he felt that their imaginative and romantic representations
of natural themes displayed kinds of moral truth on a par with Turner's
MISSIONARY and PROPHET.
At the onset of middle age, Ruskin decided that it wasn't enough simply
to interpret the world creatively, however masterfully he was able to do
it. His travels had brought home to him the injustices in the world - poverty,
ignorance, unemployment, war, famine. He needed to work on people so that
they would redress the balance. His calls to arms were inspirational, and
would not be out of place today. Speaking to civic leaders in Bradford
Town Hall, April 1864, Ruskin said, "I know that even all this wrong
and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty, each of you striving
to do his best; but unfortunately not knowing for whom the best should
be done. All our hearts have been betrayed by the plausible impiety of
the modern economist, telling us that , 'To do the best for ourselves is
finally to do the best for others.' Friends, our great Master said not
so; and most absolutely we shall find that this world is not made so. Indeed,
to do the best for others is finally to do the best for ourselves."
He always emphasized in his writings and lectures that we all need a moral
code to live by. The world was changing; the Bible was open to question.
Because he was convinced that life was sacred, Ruskin was concerned that
we shouldn't 'throw the baby out with the bath-water.' He viewed
Darwin's idea of the 'Survival of the Fittest' (ie everyone out for themselves)
as a parallel to the political economy of the time. People used this new
idea to justify their behaviour. Ruskin said that it would lead to dishonesty
and a 'rage to be rich.' He also wrote of the 'Goddess of Getting-On' -
a deity worshipped by those having no faith in true values. Things were
changing so rapidly that Ruskin feared no-one had time to think, or take
stock of the situation.
Ruskin was determined to put people - and their individual needs, gifts
and contributions - above the march of progress as expressed in
terms of the profit motive. He said, "THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its
powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is richest which
nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is
richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost,
has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his
possessions, over the lives of others." (From the work 'Unto this
Last', which also inspired Gandhi).
Ruskin knew that philosophers and thinkers of the past, such as Plato, had
come to ethical and moral judgments not unlike the fundamentals of
Christianity. He also saw the two 'new' ideals of Capitalism and Communism
as opposite extremes - the former unfair in its methods, the latter
unworkable in practice. Ruskin esteemed the notion of a workmanlike,
personalised Christianity above any general politics.
His vision was of a world where everyone saw the need to become a better
person, and where governments would work to support healthy, educated,
motivated human-beings caring for each other and for the rest of the
world. Leaders should be elected for their wisdom and integrity so that
they had no need to abuse their positions of power.
Ruskin said, "He only is advancing in life whose heart is getting
softer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living Peace."
Ruskin formed 'The Guild of St George' with the idea of supporting
worthwhile small-scale enterprises. Self-sufficiency, fulfilment in work,
preserving local crafts - these things Ruskin knew were ignored by the
capitalist system. He gave his name to many schemes - Ruskin Pottery, Ruskin
Lace, etc - and also provided the capital for land, materials and investments
to help set such things in motion. His ideals were brought down to earth
at times, but the Guild of St George still exists today in Sheffield -
supporting worthwhile education projects.
It is clear that he was a man before his
time when we realise that the following important issues were highlighted
in several of his books and lectures, and addressed in many of his letters:- National
Health Service; Minimum wage; Old Age pensions; Education for Women;
Retraining the unemployed; National Trust; Public Libraries & Art
Galleries; pollution and
global warming; erosion; artists in the community. 'Ruskin College',
Oxford, was so named by the Trade Unions; members of the first
Parliamentary Labour party claimed that Ruskin was their greatest
RUSKIN'S THIRTY-NINE VOLUMES OF WORK CONTAIN NINE MILLION WORDS.
His correspondence ran to TWENTY THOUSAND letters; his sketches, drawings
and paintings would also run into the thousands.
A recent biographer, Tim Hilton, speaking on the BBC 'Omnibus'
programme in 2000, said of Ruskin:-
"No-one apart from Ruskin, in the 19th Century, gives so complete and
various an account of the continuing life of the mind - a mind that, as
if propelled by electricity, runs down the pen and sprints across the page...
It is absolutely unique, and something for which he should be treasured."