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John Ruskin: artist, critic, author and awful husband

The Victorian critic, social commentator and artist John Ruskin was born 1819. In 1848 Ruskin married the gorgeous, young, energetic Effie Gray (1828-97), a marriage that was annulled after six years because he was appalled by her desire for sex. And he was both censorious and destructive of JMW Turner's late works. So I might not have been prepared to see this year's exhibition (see below).

Yet I may have to rethink my previously antagonistic views of Ruskin as simply a rigorous religious zealot and anti-woman husband. In 2014, Ruskin's biographer Robert Hewison wrote that  a group of exhibitions celebrated the art of John Ruskin. They suggested that one of the C19th’s most influential thinkers really did have a second career. John Ruskin: Artist and Observer opened in 2014 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

The title of the Edinburgh exhibition asserted Ruskin’s status as an art­ist. This show of 130+ works drew on the principal Ruskin holdings at Oxford etc in Britain and also North America. The full-colour catalogue emphasised the aesthetic ap­p­roach of the show, with drawings arranged by subject matter. Rusk­in’s style underwent considerable development, from the picturesque convent­ions in which he was educated, to the perceptual precision of his Pre-Raphaelite years, to the looser gestures of his unstable periods.

Yet he exhibited few works in his lifetime, and treated his drawing essentially as a form of research. He created 100 drawings on his 1835 journey alone, but once he had captured what he wanted, he was content to leave off. Few works had the finish that would have been expected of a professional artist, which he was not.

Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851-3 
3 volumes on Venetian art and architecture

Ruskin’s daguerreotypes were a study in their own right. A catal­ogue raisonnĂ© of the 325 known examples, Carrying Off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, was published by the specialists Ken and Jenny Jacobson. Then in 2006 the Jacobsons discovered a cache of material that doubled the size of the collection!

In July 1946 Kenneth Clark (1903–83) was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. The post required him to give eight public lectures each year on the "History, Theory and Practice of the Fine Arts", particularly influenced by Ruskin. So it was not a surprise when Venetian study drawings were shown in the Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain in 2014, clarifying Ruskin’s influence on Clark’s notion of civ­ilisation and the ethics of capitalism.

In 2018 Hewison wrote ‘What would be the myth of Venice without the voice of John Ruskin?’ Gabriella Belli wrote in the catalogue intro­duction to the first ever monographic exhibition in Venice devoted to the man who owed as much to the city as the city owed to him. It was the place that Ruskin loved, and also despaired.

Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice was a three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture, the volumes being published between 1851-3. His writings did much to shape the way the city was perceived. The direct, physical encounter between Ruskin and the exhibition-viewer was even more powerful when the objects of his study were all around the Ducal Palace.

0n the ground floor, the original capitals and sculpture frag­ments from the palace were turned into an atmos­pheric dis­play of the Stones of Venice. For the main exhibition, the visitor climbed up to the Doge’s apart­ments where a sequence of rooms offered a spacious yet intimate setting.

The room devoted to St Mark’s and the Ducal Palace was the most impressive. Because en plein air photography was rare, the problem of displaying tiny reflective daguerreo­types had to be solved by photographing and enlarging them. The 100+ daguer­re­o­types that Ruskin made in Venice were a key part of his research, as were his worksheets of measurements and his notebooks that constructed his architect­ural chronology. Ruskin’s seeing the works of C16th Ven­etian painter Tintoretto had been a turning point, and both Tintoretto and Carpaccio were celebrated through Ruskin’s studies.

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, 
2014 exhibition, Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh

Hewison concluded that Ruskin was important in a wider context than simply that of artist and that his reputation extended beyond art-historical circles. A 100 years ago it was true that Ruskin fell far out of favour. But since the 1960s, his ideas and values have seen a remarkable revival.

OK Mr Hewison, I apologise. I already knew that William Morris was totally inspired by Ruskin when he produced The Nature of Gothic, especially Ruskin’s insistence on high quality hand labour. The famous William Morris & Co. wallpapers, textiles and other decorative arts rep­resented the finest flower­ings of the Arts and Crafts movement that Ruskin inspired. What I did not know was his influence on other artists and writers.

n’s Guild of St George, founded by Ruskin, maintains Ruskin’s inst­ructive museum collection in Sheffield and promoting his ideas. The Guild is partnering with Museums Sheffield to pres­ent a sig­nif­icant exhibition called John Ruskin: the Power of Seeing. After ending in London this April, the exhibition will move to the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield from May to Sept 2019.


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