Why John Ruskin, Born 200 Years Ago, Is the Man of the Moment

LONDON — Time hasn’t been kind to the reputation of John Ruskin. Two hundred years after his birth, hardly anyone today remembers Victorian England’s pre-eminent art critic and social philosopher for his books. Instead, his main claim to fame is his ill-starred wedding night, during which unspecified “circumstances” in the “person” of his beautiful young wife, Effie Gray, repelled the religious-minded Ruskin. The marriage was never consummated.

The subject of a 2014 movie and a fair amount of inconclusive scholarly research, his miserable six-year marriage with a woman almost a decade his junior was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency.” (Soon after, Gray married the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, by whom she had eight children.)

Ruskin would seem to be an eminent Victorian way out of step with our times.

But are his ideas due for a comeback? The 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth is being celebrated in Britain and beyond with a yearlong program of exhibitions, conferences and other events that will highlight the progressive influence he once exerted — and might continue to exert — on culture and society.


John Everett Millais portrait of Ruskin, painted 1853–54.CreditAshmolean Museum,University of Oxford

Ruskin was appalled by the way industrialization dehumanized workers, stifled creativity and polluted the environment. Using lectures and open letters, he encouraged workers to improve their lives through self-education. He founded a drawing school in Oxford (now known as Ruskin College), and he created one of Britain’s first regional museums, in Sheffield, in northern England. His watercolors, inimitably capturing the delicacy of a single flower or a gothic facade, celebrated the beauty of both divine and human creation.

But for Ruskin, the pen was always mightier than the brush. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer. The official Library Edition of his works runs to a forbidding 39 volumes. Of this prodigious output, only “Unto This Last,” his ferocious critique of laissez-faire capitalism, and his autobiography, “Praeterita,” remain readily available in print.

“He’s a dazzling intellectual and an enormously great writer, but other things in his life have got in the way,” said the scholar Clive Wilmer, referring to the current fixation with Ruskin’s sexuality. Mr. Wilmer is master of the Guild of St. George, a charity Ruskin founded in Sheffield in the 1870s to give practical application to his utopian ideas.

The appropriately Victorian venue of Two Temple Place in London is currently showing almost 200 artworks and objects from the Guild’s eclectic study collection. Including original Ruskin drawings, medieval manuscripts, minerals, daguerreotypes, metalwork and plaster casts, they form the centerpiece of the comprehensive bicentennial exhibition “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing.”

In an 1884 lecture to the London Institution, Ruskin out against “plague wind,” tainted with soot from a steel factory.CreditHoughton Library,Harvard University

“It’s a cluttered treasure box,” said Louise Pullen, curator of the Ruskin collection at Museums Sheffield. “It was a people’s collection, something that would make the lives of workmen and everyday people better.” Ruskin wanted them to “stop, look and appreciate” beauty in art and nature, she said. “He thought that was the key to well-being.”

The exhibition, as well as “Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud: Watercolors and Drawings,” focusing on Ruskin’s visionary environmentalism and opening next month at the York Art Gallery in northern England, aims to highlight the thinker’s enduring relevance.

Robert Hewison, author or editor of more than a dozen books on Ruskin, said in an interview that Ruskin was the first major literary figure to write about pollution and climate change.

In an 1884 lecture to the London Institution, “The Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century,” Ruskin spoke of a “Thunderstorm; pitch dark, with no blackness — but deep, high, filthiness of lurid, yet not sublimely lurid, smoke-cloud; dense manufacturing mist.” He was describing a new meteorological phenomenon he called the “plague wind,” tainted with soot from a nearby steel factory, observed at his home in the Lake District in northwest England.

“Study of Spray of Dead Oak Leaves,” a watercolor by Ruskin from 1879. Ruskin was a talented artist in his own right.CreditGuild of St George,Museums Sheffield

“This and his observations on glaciers are something that make him a justified prophet,” Mr. Hewison said. “Pollution was emblematic of the corruption in contemporary capitalism, the destruction of nature by man and his greed.”

Quoting Ruskin’s “Unto This Last,” Mr. Hewison added, “He famously wrote ‘there is no wealth but life,’ and his attack on liberal economics could just as easily be a critique of neoliberalism now.”

But the evangelical density of Ruskin’s prose can intimidate. “It’s a barrier,” Mr. Hewison said. “You can look at his drawings to get a sense of the man he was and what he was interested in. He drew as powerfully as he wrote.”

Ruskin’s watercolor studies of the natural world and architecture, often used to illustrate his books or lectures, are remarkable for their intensity of feeling and observation. More than 40 of these drawings will be included in the York Art Gallery show, alongside a dozen works by Ruskin’s hero, the painter J. M. W. Turner. Others are currently on display in the exhibition “Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal,” at the Houghton Library at Harvard, as well as at Two Temple Place.

“Santa Maria Della Spina, Pisa; East End,” a watercolor by Ruskin from 1846-1847.CreditCollection of the Guild of St George/Museums Sheffield

But can watercolors really compare to what Ruskin achieved with words? Take “The Stones of Venice,” his 1851-1853 account of the rise and fall of the Italian city as a political and artistic power. In the stand-alone chapter “The Nature of Gothic,” he eloquently extolled the collaborative dignity of medieval architecture, establishing the ideological foundation of the Arts and Crafts movement, and of thousands of neo-Gothic buildings across the world.

Ruskin’s 1864 lecture “Traffic,” in which he tells a planning committee in the industrial English city of Bradford of the contempt he feels for their proposed wool exchange building because it would be a symbol of the exploitation of human labor, still has the power to jolt.

“He holds our feet to the moral fire. He makes us disconcerted,” said James Spates, the co-coordinator of a Ruskin conference and exhibition this December at The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. “My belief is Ruskin is a spot-on critique of modern America, and is relevant now as he was then.”

What would Ruskin have made of “post-truth” politics, of the richest one percent owning almost half of the world’s wealth, of a plastic-strewn planet where climate change may be beyond repair?

Maybe we should go back to him: He saw it coming.

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