John Ruskin: a troubled genius who's still hard to pin down

John Ruskin around 1859
John Ruskin around 1859 Credit: Hulton Archive

Where does one begin with John Ruskin? A man of such overwhelming and wide-ranging talent was almost inevitably going to be drawn to madness, as he was. 

He not only revolutionised art criticism; he also developed a political creed and an idea of a way of life that linked art and nature. And he was such a brilliant poet that he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford.

He was at the centre of intellectual life in England in the mid-19th century, when that life was conducted in the crucible of public debate, outside the closed, still rather monastic, institutions of the old universities. 

The bicentenary of his birth, which falls next month, is to be marked by a major exhibition of his paintings, drawings and daguerreotypes at Two Temple Place, London, but it will also provoke re-evaluations of him as a man and of his work, though Ruskin, even after all this time, is harder to pin down than one might think.

Ruskin hated progress. His political ideas about the dignity of labour came from a man who confessed in his autobiography, Praeterita, to being “a violent Tory of the old school”.

The older he became, the more convinced he was that society should return to the soil and live a peaceful agricultural existence, as if the industrial revolution that had dominated the half-century before his birth had never happened. For him, such a society was based on essential, eternal truths – just as art, he believed, had value only if it was based on a Protestant ideal and exuded a moral sense.

Ruskin’s father was a wine merchant, and as a child young John travelled around Britain and Europe with his parents while his father was on business. It was a crucial element in his intellectual development. He had not only absorbed, by his teens, the paintings in the many art galleries he visited, but also came to form an idea of architecture and its relation to the civilisations that built it. 

South West Corner of the Doge’s Palace, Venice 1871  Credit: J. W. Bunney/Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

As far as painting was concerned, he believed its worth lay in its ability to represent nature. Certainly in the work of art criticism that made his name – the early volumes of Modern Painters published in the 1840s when he was still in his twenties – he championed the artists who embodied his vision: Turner, and the pre-Raphaelites.

Yet, for an art critic to have so ultra-orthodox an idea of the connection between morality, religion and art, led to Ruskin adopting what his own critics consider extreme positions.

He was obsessed with the notion that the Gothic was a representation of the godly and the classical an incarnation of decadence: and in The Stones of Venice (1851-3) – still the best architectural guide to the city ever written – he let rip.

The most glaring demonstration of his ideological rigidity comes in his denunciation of San Giorgio Maggiore, the late-16th-century church built by Palladio and most usually seen across the lagoon from St Mark’s Square. Regarded by most as a vista of sublime beauty, the church was denigrated by Ruskin as having been built to look good at a distance.

He venerated the Gothic because in its ornamentation and the demands it made on craftsmanship it encouraged skill and innovation, allowing the artisan to make an intellectual contribution to the development of his craft. In doing so, it became a better representation of nature, and the workman rose above the rank of mechanic, or slave. 

Ruskin's Study of Spray of Dead Oak Leaves 1879  Credit: © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

This, he felt, could not be true of those who followed classical templates. The two forms of architecture – gothic and classical – represented a competition between aspiration and standardisation. It followed that a society which embraced the classical did not merely lack godliness, it also lacked imagination. 

The Gothic revival pre-dated him, but he did more than anyone to promote it. His legacy is often considered to be the respect in which Turner is held, and the enduring admiration for the pre-Raphaelites: but it is really that the Victorian suburbs of Britain are filled with Gothic revival churches.

Yet there is far more to Ruskin than any of this begins to suggest. Perhaps the greatest influence in his life, other than his parents, was Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle is ignored today in a way Ruskin is not, which is a pity; because he was central to the Victorians’ understanding of themselves, and the Victorians remain central to an understanding of our society. 

But the line between genius and madness is a fine one. Ruskin had bouts of mental illness and went mad in 1889, dying a year later. His misfortune since is to have become widely known for his sexual problems, his unconsummated marriage and his later pursuit of an under-age girl. But if we think of him in that context alone, we do him a grave disservice.

When Ruskin’s complete works appeared after his death, they comprised 39 volumes. One can dip into them at random and be sure to find something stimulating: it is not merely the quality of his thought, but the fact that he could, unlike so many supposedly great Victorians, write. He was one of the greatest art critics in history, because he saw clearly and made those who read him see clearly too.  

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing is at Two Temple Place, London Jan 26 - April 22