Fifty years ago the celebrated historian G. M. Young wrote an essay entitled “The Greatest Victorian.” Before choosing Walter Bagehot he considered other possible laureates, conceding that “on Ruskin’s claims one must pause carefully and long.” For Ruskin had “evolved, and forced his world to accept, a new set of axioms as the basis of all future political science in England.”
And that, of course, was only half of John Ruskin’s achievement. What made him famous throughout Europe in his twenties was Modern Painters (1843-60), a vast (eventually five large volumes), learned, wide-ranging, highly personal, gorgeously written disquisition on art, aesthetics, botany, geology, weather, water, and anything else that crossed the author’s mind. When he followed, in his thirties, with The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53), he became a national institution. “He teaches,” George Eliot wrote admiringly, “with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet.”
But no prophet, Hebrew or otherwise, ever wrote such prose. Ruskin’s long, opulent, musical sentences cast a spell. Here is part (!) of one sentence from The Stones of Venice, in which Ruskin describes the Piazza San Marco:
“ … beyond those troops of ordered arches there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away; -- a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of colored light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory, -- sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and, in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels, sceptred, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside them, interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it faded back among the branches of Eden, when first its gates were angel-guarded long ago … “ [ Sound of reviewer snapping his fingers to awaken readers.]
In his forties, Ruskin changed registers. In addition to being England’s foremost art critic he became its foremost social critic. He had always thought deeply about the relation between morality and art – his chapter on “The Nature of Gothic” from The Stones of Venice, in which he argued that the measure of a civilization is the degree to which, as in the building of the Gothic cathedrals, it encourages imaginative work by everyone capable of it, is Ruskin’s best-known writing and a classic of world literature. Taking this line of thought further, he came to believe that art is to society what health, strength, grace, and poise are to the individual: not subsidiary or ornamental but essential aspects, organic expressions, of the self. Ricardo, Mill, and other political economists had abstracted too narrowly when defining human welfare and motivation. As a result, the “science of maximizing wealth” was really a pseudo-science based on impoverished conceptions. No society could claim to be prosperous which was full of stunted people doing stultifying work.
Unsurprisingly, Ruskin’s “Tory Communism” was less reverently received than his discourses on art. But like Carlyle’s and Dickens’s, Ruskin’s indictment of industrial society was too eloquent to be ignored and played a large part in humanizing 19th- and 20th-century capitalism.
Tim Hilton’s two-volume John Ruskin is a fine scholarly biography but not, perhaps, the best possible introduction to its subject. It is a bit too English: muffled, plodding, dry, containing a very complete inventory of Ruskin’s movements, activities, and associates but not conveying a very vivid sense of why his contemporaries worshipped or scoffed at him. There is much discussion of sources and documents, and copious extracts from everyday correspondence, but too few flashes of Ruskin’s rhetorical lightning, too few snatches of his grand sonority. Above all, there is not enough of Ruskin the social critic. Hilton, an art historian, may not have felt up to reconstructing Ruskin’s idiosyncratic critique of the politics and economics of his (and our) time. A pity: this is a sermon we need to have preached to us at every opportunity.
Hilton is, however, very good on Ruskin’s life. It was a peculiar life, the epitome of Victorian respectability but with some bizarre touches. Ruskin was born in 1819, the only child of a wealthy wine merchant. He travelled extensively with his parents, falling in love early with the English countryside, the Swiss Alps, and European architecture. He shared his father’s passion for landscape painting, especially that of J. M.W. Turner. When Turner’s work was ridiculed by some critics, the young Ruskin began writing a reply, which turned into Modern Painters.
Ruskin may have bonded a little too closely with his parents. In 1847 he married a distant relative, Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray. The marriage was unconsummated and after six years was annulled on grounds of impotence. Thereafter Ruskin was mainly attracted to adolescent girls. One of them, Rose La Touche, became an obsession. Her parents forbade their marriage, and she died a few years later, leaving Ruskin not merely bereaved but mentally disturbed.
The last third of Ruskin’s life (he died in 1900) was checkered. There was great writing: the marvellous, unclassifiable Fors Clavigera, a long series of monthly “letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain,” and an exquisite, unfinished autobiography, Preterita. There were good works, on which he spent nearly all of his large inherited fortune. But there were also bouts of madness and a final decade of senility. Hilton keeps the years marching by, with affectionate but unsparing detail.
When Ruskin died, one of his admirers wrote: “My grief is healthy and full of consolations, for I realize what a trivial thing death is, when I see how intensely this dead man lives, and how I admire and listen to his words, and seek to understand and obey him.” That was Proust, who didn’t have many such heroes.