Austen Saunders

A thinker of arresting and compelling grandeur

Text settings

John Ruskin is the greatest writer whom, today, an educated person can admit not having read without embarrassment. One professes ignorance of Shakespeare or Dickens with apology or defiance, but most of us still seem unaware that Ruskin is as essential as Chaucer or Milton to understanding ourselves within a world (for all its ills), of beauty and happiness. Hopefully The Worlds of John Ruskin will bring new readers to one of modernity’s most remarkable thinkers.

Ruskin first made his name with Modern Painters, a five volume work published between 1843 and 1860 which established Ruskin as the dominant art critic of the mid-19th century and is remembered chiefly for its passionate defence of Turner. He went on to become the principle champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, but his interests soon expanded to architecture, the subject of The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-1853).

It was principally in the course of writing these works (which constitute Ruskin’s contribution as a key theorist of the Gothic Revival), that he became convinced of the inseparability of artistic production and wider social circumstances. This was the impetus behind his later career as a self-proclaimed social prophet, a St George tilting at the dragons of the Victorian industrial world. Unorthodox tracts such as Unto This Last (1860) exposed Ruskin to widespread ridicule, but profoundly influenced figures including Tolstoy, William Morris, and Gandhi. Ruskin’s influence on the emergent Labour movement of the late 19th century can hardly be overstated.

Ruskin was, first and foremost, a prophet of joy. In politics he was driven by outrage at the drudgery to which modern methods of industrial production reduced millions, completely divorced from the satisfaction found in good work honestly done. For Ruskin a good society, like good art, is expressive and productive of the greatest joy. And joy can best be achieved through the employment of every individual in work which utilises their creative powers.

In a justly famous chapter from The Stones of Venice entitled ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ruskin outlined the manner in which he believed gothic architecture fulfils this role to the greatest possible extent and should therefore be considered the most moral form of architecture. Essentially, the key point is the freedom gothic architecture gives each individual workman. In classical architecture, the vast majority of workmen are engaged in copying, like machines, regular designs (like the capitals for columns which are all the same). However, a great gothic building (such as Lincoln Cathedral), is covered with thousands of sculptures each unique and produced by workmen free to exercise their own imagination.

For Ruskin, this makes the building better because, as he writes “we may, without offending any laws of good taste, require of an architect, as we do of a novelist, that he should be not only correct, but entertaining”. It also makes it more moral not (as detractors of Ruskin sometimes suggest), simply because gothic architecture happens to have Christian associations, but because it is a physical manifestation of the freedom that has been given each workman in recognition of their worth as men. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both”. Ruskin’s most important work was dedicated to the making of men in all their glorious freedom and happiness.

In The Worlds of John Ruskin, Kevin Jackson has produced a beginners’ introduction to Ruskin’s life and thought. It takes the form of a biography exploring Ruskin’s writings and thought chronologically, with brief thematic sections inserted on, for example, ‘Ruskin and Society’ and ‘Ruskin and the Natural World’. There is a commendable focus throughout on placing Ruskin within social, economic, and cultural contexts, although there is a limit to how sophisticated this contextualisation can be in a book of this short length. Tittle-tattle surrounding Ruskin’s often melodramatic life is sensibly handled - Jackson is doubtful, for example, whether Ruskin really was shocked to discover his wife had pubic hair. The book’s greatest strength is the inclusion of 165 colour illustrations, the vast majority of them drawings and watercolours by Ruskin himself. These are superbly reproduced and it is to be celebrated that we now have such an accessible record of Ruskin’s achievements as an artist in his own right.

The biographical form Jackson has chosen does have its drawbacks, though. Most importantly, it discourages sustained engagement with Ruskin’s individual works and arguments. His conclusions are summarised, but the depth of his thought is often left unexamined. This is perfectly understandable in an introductory work, but it is one of the peculiarities of Ruskin that his conclusions, when baldy stated, can appear unconvincing whilst the arguments by which he reaches them are irresistible. Jackson frequently asserts the power of Ruskin’s writing (declaring, for example, that The Stones of Venice “is magnificent, both for its evocation and analysis of particular buildings and for the brilliance of its overall argument”), but without illustrating the detail of this achievement. I can’t help but worry that he will leave readers unfamiliar with Ruskin with a sense of the arresting strangeness of Ruskin’s thought, but not its compelling power.

That said, The Worlds of John Ruskin is an eminently approachable introduction to a forbidding writer. The startling beauty of the illustrations alone should be enough to convince anyone of Ruskin’s vitality and Jackson’ final chapter gives good advice on further exploration. Hopefully many will follow it. For to discover Ruskin is to learn to see the world again; I defy you to read him without being stuck with gratitude to live in a world of such beauty and moral grandeur.