Is there a modern-day equivalent to John Ruskin, the Victorian writer, artist, art critic, social commentator, polymath and prissy aesthete? Brian Sewell might have ticked a couple of boxes, but he was no painter. The ubiquitous Grayson Perry, who has a political agenda and views on absolutely anything and everything, could be a contender, but lacks the scholarly gravitas. It seems that Ruskin was not only admired and reviled in not-unequal measures, he was also better known for two unconnected matters, that may or may not be true.
In the middle of this busy exhibition in the 18th-century gothic estate office built by William Waldorf Astor, there are two amusing boards, entitled Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin, assembled from his letters, lectures and books, which show him up as being a bit of a pompous prig. They include Iron Railings, ‘which always means thieves outside, or Bedlam inside’; The Houses of Parliament, ‘the most effeminate and effectless heap of stones ever raised by man’; Wagner’s The Meistersingers, (he may have a point there); Renaissance Buildings of Venice; Lawyers; Making Money; King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (can this be right?); Palladio; A Railway Station, ‘the very temple of discomfort’; The Railways Around Dieppe, as being ‘beastly, blockheady, loggerheady, doggish, loggish, hoggish-poggish, filthy, fool-begotten, swindler-swallowed abominations of modern existence’; Cycling, ‘or any other contrivance or invention for superseding human feet on God’s ground’; ‘Being Photographed; Victorian Church Statuary;The English Constitution; The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo’, which ‘I believe to be simply the most disgusting book written by man.’ Don’t sit on the fence, John, tell us what you really think.
He was a visionary, and championed art-for-all education and not just for the educated elite, the economy, rural revitalisation, and he founded the Guild of St George, which was primarily an attempt to revive a healthy rural economy, intended for the ‘iron workers of Sheffield’, in a somewhat patronising manner. The Ruskin Collection emerged from this and has been absorbed into Museums Sheffield, and they have loaned a large part to Two Temple Place for the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. Some of the issues he addressed are still with us, like pollution, grimy cityscapes and melting glaciers, and using art to make individuals happier through their understanding and respect of the landscape and environment. He was an excellent draughtsman and watercolourist, and recorded views of the Alps and Swiss lakes, as well as Venetian buildings and fauna he encountered en route. He was a great supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood including William Holman-Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, into whose arms his wife would run after their own marriage fell apart, and it was later annulled. He was also, however, the greatest supporter of J M W Turner, whose work he was captivated by and praised to the rafters.
Everybody knows about his unconsummated marriage to the beautiful 19-year-old Effie Grey, and the reasons for that. Not necessarily. In Marriage of Inconvenience, the author Robert Brownell maintains it wasn’t the pubes that put him off, or even his new bride having her period on their wedding night. There were other possible reasons that involved the fact that Ruskin had been duped into marrying her for his money (to save her father from impecunity), and he wanted shot of her. It is true that he claimed that on the wedding night he had discovered that his bride’s ‘person’ was ‘not formed to excite passion’. On the contrary, ‘there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it’. Maybe she had body odour, maybe she didn’t. We shall never really know what happened in a Scottish bedroom a hundred and seventy years ago.
What we did know about him, at least, until quite recently, was that on Turner’s death, as a Trustee to his estate, he burned all his erotic sketches on a bonfire, as he wanted to preserve the painter’s reputation. This is also under scrutiny. Ian Warrell, Turner expert at the Tate, has since done a massive amount of forensic research and pieced together the 30,000 sheets of paper torn from sketchbooks that were not destroyed at all, as put about by Ruskin himself, but are now safely stored at Tate. So, another Ruskin myth debunked. It looks as if the notoriously prudish Ruskin, who worshipped Turner, couldn’t actually bring himself to destroy his work. There are a sprinkling of Turners in the show, both drawings and watercolours, and one large oil, Venetian Festival, on loan from the Tate, but the majority of works are by Ruskin himself, on loan from the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University. One unexpected highlight, was a collection of minerals Ruskin presented to his People’s Museum, including purple amethyst, quartz, haematite, opal and other semi-precious stones and crystals. As this exhibition demonstrates so ably, there is more to Ruskin than pubes, a bonfire of the vanities and Whistler’s farthing for a far-flung paint-pot.
John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing
Two Temple Place
London WC2R 3BD
Until 22 April 2019