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John Ruskin

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Illustration of John Ruskin by Jim GodfreyRuskin was a writer, critic and artist who did much to shape the aesthetic values of Victorian England. He had an almost messianic sense of the significance of art to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation


John Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 in London. His father was a well-to-do sherry merchant with a fondness for art. His mother was a stern and devout evangelical. Both parents lavished attention on their precocious and highly strung only child, but his childhood was isolated and education irregular.

In 1837 Ruskin entered Christ Church, enrolling as a gentleman-commoner and enjoying equal status with his aristocratic peers. However, he was uninspired by Oxford and never truly gained his independence, due in part to his mother lodging on the High Street and his father joining them at weekends. His greatest success came in 1839 when he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry. He was frequently ill though, and in the midst of exam revision in April 1840, he coughed up blood, leading to a long break from Oxford. When he eventually sat his exams in 1842 he was awarded an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree.


'There is no wealth but life'

Ruskin had begun to write poetry and prose at an early age, and by the time he left Oxford had already published articles on architecture and art. His first major work was ‘Modern Painters’ in which he championed JMW Turner as the supreme modern interpreter of ‘truth’ in landscape. Ruskin was a generous and passionate supporter of artistic talent (he was himself a very fine artist), and gave support to the Pre-Raphaelites in their early years. Though a success with the educated middle-classes, ‘Modern Painters’ was attacked by the critics who believed Ruskin lacked experience to make informed judgements.

In 1848 he married Euphemia (Effie) Chalmers Gray, though the marriage was not a success and remained unconsummated. (It is thought that Ruskin was repelled by the sight of her naked body). The marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of ‘incurable impotency’. Effie later married John Millais, one of the Pre-Raphaelites artists, to Ruskin’s mortification.

Ruskin’s interests now turned to architecture. Believing that all art expresses the spirit of its maker, he saw architecture as most fully expressing the spirit of a people. His two great books on the subject, ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’ (1849) and ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-53) became bibles of the Victorian Gothic revival, though once again he was attacked by the critics.

Ruskin was becoming concerned with social criticism as a way of transforming society, and in 1860 published a series of essays in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’, which he would later publish as ‘Unto This Last’. In them he denounced the dehumanizing ethic of the industrial capitalism of his day and his ideas would influence the thinking of many reformers in the nascent Labour movement. He also founded a drawing school in Oxford in 1871 to encourage artisanship.


'He only is advancing in life whose heart is getting softer...'

In 1869 Ruskin was appointed the first Slade professor of art at Oxford, a post he held with some interruptions until 1885. This was, however, a period of great turbulence for him. He had lost his religious faith and had become infatuated with Rose LaTouche, a girl thirty years his junior, whom he tutored in art. When she died in 1875, after more than fifteen years of courting, adoring and hoping, Ruskin was devastated and took solace in spiritualism.

An attack by him on the work of the artist James McNeill Whistler in 1887 led to a celebrated libel suit. Whistler won the case but was awarded only a farthing in damages and was bankrupted. The professional and emotional fallout from the case was to affect both men for the rest of their lives. Ruskin, who had experienced bouts of mental illness since his college days, suffered a complete loss of sanity a year after the court case, from which he never fully recovered. He was confined to his house at Brantwood in the Lake District where he lived for the rest of his life. He died of influenza on 20 January 1900, and is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church, Coniston.


At Christ Church, Ruskin tutored Alice Liddell and her sisters in drawing and painting. He is remembered by a modern floor plaque in the Cathedral which includes the quote ‘There is no wealth but life’, taken from ‘Unto This Last’. Strangely perhaps there is no portrait of him in college.