Ruskin Museum
Coniston, Cumbria.
Who Was Ruskin?

Who Was Ruskin

The Ruskin Gallery

The Coniston Gallery

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John Usher Village

Outside the Museum

Herdwick Sheep

Donald Campbell

Coniston Geology

Coniston Coppermines

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Dry Stone Wall


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John 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.
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 work.
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 influence.

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."