John Ruskin was one of the most influential writers and social reformers of the 19th century.
Starting his career as an art critic, Ruskin championed the radical, late works of the painter, J M W Turner, and played a crucial role in shaping his reputation as perhaps the greatest of British artists. He later came to the rescue of the Pre-Raphaelites when their early work was vilified. Ruskin was also an exceptionally accomplished artist in his own right.
As the leading proponent of the Gothic Revival, Ruskin helped change the face of Victorian architecture (though not always in ways that pleased him), and by championing the creative freedom of the craftsman he inspired William Morris and the other leading lights of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Ruskin’s eloquent denunciations of the cruel excesses of Victorian laisser faire capitalism and his impassioned calls for radical social and economic reform extended his influence even further. His many devotees around the world have included Tolstoy, Proust, Gandhi and William Beveridge – the architect of the British Welfare State.
But the art critic and the social reformer were two sides of a single coin. At a time when more and more people are troubled by the ethical inanity of our business and political leaders, Ruskin’s ideas about the true nature of wealth (‘There is No Wealth But Life’) and the vital importance of social justice and cooperation are more resonant than ever.
Sadly Ruskin is now often remembered rather for the failure of his marriage (which almost certainly had nothing to do with his ignorance of female anatomy) and his attack on the painter Whistler, than his many great and enduring achievements. Philip Hoare’s response to the recent film about Ruskin’s marriage (Effie) is well worth reading.
Online: for a good overall introduction, visit Wikipedia (which includes an extensive bibliography) or, for a brief biographical sketch, visit the Brantwood site. Professor Jim Spates’ blog ‘Why Ruskin’ offers a highly informative and accessible insight into Ruskin’s sometimes complex thought and shows how relevant his ideas still are today. See also the various social media listed under ‘Associated Links’.
Reading: If you want to get a flavour of Ruskin’s work, try Selected Writings by John Ruskin, edited by Dinah Birch, or Unto This Last and Other Writings, edited by Clive Wilmer. For those who want to know more about the man, Tim Hilton’s two-volume biography is outstanding.
The complete 39-volume Library Edition of Ruskin’s works can be downloaded free of charge from the Ruskin Library and Research Centre. Brantwood maintains a list of second-hand books by and about Ruskin that are stocked in its shop.