John Ruskin: Bicentenary 2019  

Ross Hunter

Portrait of Ruskin by pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais.

John Ruskin: artist, critic, social philosopher, inspiration. Born 8 Feb 1819 (!) London; died age 80, 20 Jan 1900, Brantwood, Coniston, English Lake District.

“Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become.”   

Ruskin wrote over 250 works, and was a prolific artist. He initially focused on art and literary criticism, and history, but also science, geology, ornithology, the environmental effects of pollution, mythology, travel, political economy and social reform. 

‘Study of rocks and ferns’

So what? Why is he interesting to anyone in Russia?  Ruskin is as relevant today as in the C19th.  Philosophically and view on life, close to, and sometimes directly influencing, Tolstoy & Kropotkin. A very early realisation of environmental damage due to industrialisation. A key influencer of social democracy, equality, craftsmanship; and of the Arts & Crafts Movement, The Pre-Raphaelites, The Garden City Movement and New Towns, the purpose of the modern Olympics, the importance of pan-European understanding and culture, and the need to protect ordinary people from the ravages on unfettered capitalist greed. Not a bad CV.

Not an easy person to pigeonhole, either. He had plenty of faults, contradictions and failings, especially in his personal life. His trenchant criticisms could make or break an artist. He also hated short quotes out of context (which I have to ignore). But like Tolstoy or Gandhi, the overriding legacy is overwhelmingly positive and creative.

JMW Turner painted the view over the Lune Valley from Kirkby Lonsdale church in 1822. Ruskin, a huge admirer and advocate of Turner, declared the panorama to be “the finest view in England”. It is not bad. If you are in the area, let us know, and we will show it to you, being only ~3km from home. 

“The teaching of Art…is the teaching of all things.

Ruskin’s effects were immense. Among many others, these include influencing: the elevation of Turner’s reputation, The Arts and Crafts Movement and William Morris’s work, The National Trust and the preservation of key public spaces, and even the creation of the modern Olympics, which were originally intended to have a cultural and aesthetic dimension.  Of particular interest in Moscow will be his support for John Kenworthy’s colony which was briefly a refuge for the Doukhobor, the Russian exiles (who later moved to Canada) and combined Ruskin’s and Tolstoy’s ideas and ideals.  He founded schools of art at both Oxford and Cambridge, the latter now bearing his name as Anglia Ruskin University. He wrote and drew prodigiously on Venice’s history, art and architecture. 

There is no wealth but life.”  

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”

He was a Christian Socialist, before that term was invented, and argued forcefully for the dignity of labour, the need for fair wages, and promoted working men’s involvement in politics, leading to the formation of the British Labour Party, and later the revolutionary welfare state. Atlee and Beveridge acknowledged their debt to him. He was an early critic of raw Darwinian laissez-faire capitalism and its vicious effects. Tolstoy and Kropotkin had matching views. We could do with more compassionate progressive thinkers today.

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.”  

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”  

“In order that people may be happy in their work,  these three things are needed: they must be fit for it;  they must not do too much of it;  and they must have a sense of success in it.” 

Even more ahead of his time, when he visited the Alps, he was not only in awe of the mountains and the glaciers, drew them and photographed them, but could see (1884) that industrialisation was damaging the natural world. 150 years later, it is incredible that so many people remain in denial of the obvious.  Compare his painting of The Mer du Glace, (here) with modern photos.

Painting: ‘Amboise’

There will be many celebrations and tributes in 2019. Perhaps the most important is “Ruskin, Turner & The Storm Cloud”, at York Art Gallery 29 March – 23 June  and Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal  11 July – 5 October. See: . If you can, visit his house, Brantwood, near Coniston, in the heart of the beautiful English Lake District, and the Ruskin Museum in Coniston. Also: “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing”, on now at Two Temple Place, London, with over 190 exhibits revealing how Ruskin’s influence is still felt.

“A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.”  

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

Ruskin’s View, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, England.