John Ruskin celebrates the 200th anniversary of his birth next month, and if you’re one of the millions who know that the great Victorian critic and polymath is still massively important, but aren’t quite sure why, this celebration in 200 objects looks a great place – certainly on paper – to find out.
Ruskin has always struck me as a bafflingly paradoxical character. A south-London sherry merchant’s son, he taught Victorian society through his books and lectures with a magisterial sternness and a brilliant prose style in which every word was inflected with the evangelical Christianity in which he was brought up.
While his belief in the integration of art, craft and everyday life fed into great modern art movements such as the Bauhaus, when you examine him in detail he seems marooned in a world of High Victorian moralising that – to anyone of a certain age – probably feels profoundly alien today. He championed Turner, but didn’t like the more abstract late work, which we now esteem most. He detested industrial capitalism, and inspired the socialistic Arts & Crafts Movement, but declared himself a Tory and – simultaneously – a communist (and didn’t actually vote).
Presented in a landmark Victorian mansion on the banks of the Thames, the show’s exhibits are drawn largely from the Ruskin Collection in Sheffield – in his time the world’s greatest industrial hub – where he created a, still extant, museum for the elevation of the local workers. Ruskin’s own drawings and watercolours, and those of his many assistants, form the backbone of the show, with a focus on his two great obsessions: nature and old buildings.
Considering he wasn’t an artist per se, Ruskin’s efforts are amazingly proficient. A tiny study of a fragment of brick shows an intense, quasi-scientific scrutiny almost worthy of Dürer, while his topographical watercolours look to his idol, Turner. The best, with views of mist drifting in Alpine valleys, nearly rival the man himself (though not quite, as a group of actual Turners on loan from Tate make clear).
These pieces were intended, though, not so much as works of art, but as teaching aids, and the show is good on the way Ruskin was perceived by his audience, as both a semi-divine oracle and a figure of fun, like some much-loved and much-lampooned TV pundit of today – a Victorian cross between Magnus Pyke and Brian Sewell say – his lectures were attended as much for his eccentric delivery as for his words of wisdom. Ruskin was spectacularly opinionated, and his views on everything from bicycles to Venetian renaissance buildings – “amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hand of man” – are amusingly showcased in a section called Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin.
Having made his name with his monumental defence of Turner, Modern Painters, Ruskin turned his attention to architecture, which he saw as the “enduring expression of a nation’s life and character.” In the gothic architecture of Venice – the city that became his great obsession – he venerated “the brilliant, hand-crafted work of artisans whose anonymity and collective endeavour seemed the very embodiment of moral practice”.
If these words are sadly the curators’ rather than Ruskin’s own, the show communicates his determination to recreate the socially integrated, craft-led culture of the middle ages in the industrial hot house of 19th-century industrial Britain, through projects such as the St George’s Museum outside Sheffield, where he intended the city’s workers would find happiness and fulfillment in the contemplation of beautiful objects.
The exhibition gives a fair impression of the museum’s contents, though there’s no attempt to replicate the mad eclectic pile-up of the original, seen in a wall-filling photograph. The collections of semi-precious stones, watercolours of birds, plants and landscapes, by a range of eminent Victorian artists including Edward Lear and GF Watts are interesting rather than riveting, and they have to fight for your attention with the opulence of the surrounding building.
While the show certainly recreates the atmosphere of Ruskin’s time, its tight focus misses many of the wider implications of his work. If his ideas can now sound absurdly utopian, even patronising to their supposed beneficiaries – principally the workers and lower-middle classes – they had a huge take-up from these very people. Through his encouragement of adult education and idea of “art for all”, Ruskin, more than anyone, was responsible for the idea that everyone has a right to be creative – a notion that, to this day, is probably more pervasive here than in any other country.
Indeed, quintessential Victorian though he was, Ruskin feels, in one respect, oddly more relevant now than, say, 50 years ago. The high-minded youth of today, the so-called “new puritans”, who want to see an improving message in everything, seem to me very Ruskinian. I doubt the prudish Ruskin could have coped with their current obsession with gender-redefining but, in them, his moralising spirit seems alive and well.
Until April 22. Tickets: 020 7836 3715; twotempleplace.org