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Alarms and Excursions

Sean Sheehan

Ruskinland, by Andrew Hill, Pallas Athene, 305 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1843681755
To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, by Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Quercus, 230 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-178476981
The Worlds of John Ruskin, by Kevin Jackson, Pallas Athene, 160 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-1843681489
Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin, by Emma Sdegno, Marsilio, 176 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-8831790000
Giotto and His Works in Padua, by John Ruskin, David Zwirner Books, 182 pp, £8.95, ISBN: 978-1941701799
21st-Century Oxford Authors: John Ruskin, by Richard Lansdown (ed), 464 pp, £90, ISBN: 978-0198816560
The King of the Golden River, by John Ruskin, 63 pp, £14.95, ISBN: 978-0500651858

Celebrity art critics are not known for publicly taking a stand with radical political movements and the popular image of the Victorian John Ruskin hardly upsets such a generalisation. He comes to mind more readily for his support of the gothic revival in architecture, the championing of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, rhapsodising over Italian artists like Tintoretto and falling head over artistic heels in love with Venice (while dismally failing in interpersonal love).

Or does he come to mind at all? Few writers have suffered such a catastrophic fall in popularity. He has become as unfashionable as his sideburns and were it not for 2019 being the bicentenary of his birth he would remain off most thinking people’s radar. Even if he maintains a lowly place on your reading list, the chances are that a bookshop or library will not have any of his books on their shelves.

In our own time the urgent alarms of Extinction Rebellion can no longer be comfortably sidelined as the hectoring of extremists but when Ruskin spoke in a not dissimilar vein his warnings were dismissed as cranky. The occasion was the first of two lectures in London in 1884, when Ruskin was the most famous cultural critic of his age. He was four days from his sixty-fifth birthday and the title of his talk, “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”, had a literal as well as metaphorical and prophetic meaning. For over ten years, precise observations of cloudscapes and the weather had increasingly alerted him to the effects of industrialisation: “For the sky is covered with grey cloud; – not rain-cloud, but a dry black veil, which no ray of sunshine can pierce … And everywhere the leaves of the trees are shaking fitfully … to show the passing to and fro of a strange, bitter, blighting wind.”

This was written in 1871 and as the evidence of undesirable change mounted he grew increasingly concerned and furious at his country’s indifference to what was happening. For evidence of what the UN calls a “direct existential threat to humanity and life on earth”, Extinction Rebellion can point to the scientific evidence; Ruskin in his lecture used limelight to project giant painted diagrams to illustrate how clouds – “once golden and ruby … Tyrian crimson and Byzantine purple … vermillion against green blue” – were changing as a result of polluting smoke. A storm front of an apocalypse.

Andrew Hill’s book Ruskinland provides readers with helpful signposts for finding their way around the great mass of the workaholic’s writings. It benefits from the professional research of its author, a management columnist at The Financial Times, and offers an informative and sympathetic overview of Ruskin and the rich hinterland of his interests. He draws attention to “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” for the prescience of Ruskin’s ecological consciousness but is too quick in describing the lecture as “nine-tenths Old Testament prophecy”. Behind the religious idiom and apocalyptic tone is Ruskin’s urgent demand for transformative change. His angry call for a realignment of our values anticipates the tone of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the dire premonitions of Extinction Rebellion. He knows that environmental changes are harmful (“Blanched Sun, – blighted grass”) and his lecture concludes with the need to take personal responsibility even when there is no guarantee of recovery. The tone is not presumptuous but invitational: “You may not be able to say to the winds, ‘Peace; be still,’ but you can cease from the insolence of your own lips, and the troubling of your own passions. And all that it would be extremely well to do.”

Ruskinland makes a good case for the relevance of his subject. Hill shows how Ruskin propagated ideas of the modern welfare state and how his scathing criticism of free market economics in Unto This Last directly influenced the first wave of socialist-minded Labour MPs entering parliament early in the twentieth century. With neoliberalism in the ascendancy, it is time to return to one of its first critics.

Suzanne Pagence Cooper, in To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, also draws attention to his social conscience – giving up his post as Slade Professor of Fine Arts after discovering that new science labs at Oxford would be used for animal testing – and an activism that has him climbing up scaffolding to argue with a French demolition team he saw taking sledgehammers to sculptures on an ancient church. Well aware of Ruskin’s current obscurity (the only thing that many people now know about him, she acknowledges, “is that he never had sex with his wife”), she successfully demonstrates that he can help readers to experience and observe life in interesting and useful ways. Cooper does this without being evangelical or overly earnest and frankly admits that mass tourism makes her reluctant to revisit Venice, or to see again the Primavera in Florence or the Giotto frescoes in Padua – places that Ruskin put on the art world map – any time soon.

What she champions is Ruskin’s insistence on looking closely and patiently and his reminder to readers to “remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance”. This is the essence of his writing about art and for Pagence Cooper reading Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice was a life-changing experience, allowing her to think she could become an art historian and making its realisation her vocation in life. Alongside this personal sense of obligation to Ruskin is her awareness of a need to train ourselves to discriminate in a world where we are constantly bombarded by visual hits.

Ruskin always travelled with pencils and sketchbooks, recording points of interest and noting the slightest of variations in the material that caught his aesthetic attention. The exactitude of his written observations, from watching clouds to the patterns of leaves or colours of stone in a building, prefigure (and probably influenced) those of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his diaries and journals. In addition, there are his own drawings and watercolours and Kevin Jackson’s The Worlds of John Ruskin distinguishes itself with a wealth of colour images, well over a hundred and fifty, evidence of Ruskin’s keen eye and power of minute observation. The plural in the title refers to Ruskin’s interdisciplinary interests and Jackson outlines them using a biographical approach.

Ruskin was twenty-six when, in 1845, on his third trip to Venice but seeing the paintings of Tintoretto there for the first time, he wrote excitedly to his father and urged him to put the artist he called Tintoret “at the top, top, top of everything”. On first walking into La Scuola Grande Di San Rocco, today’s visitor is still likely to feel some of the astonishment that gripped Ruskin. Tintoretto spent more than twenty years decorating the Sala Superiore (“Upper Hall”) and he was given free rein by his patrons. He could express himself freely and was less bound by the need to compete with his rival Veronese. Beginning with magnificent ceiling paintings and aware of the prestige he could achieve, Tintoretto offered to paint the sala’s walls for a modest annuity. The result, an astonishing torrent of exuberant inventiveness and extravagant theatricality, was a revelation for Ruskin and caused him to completely rethink the completion of his Modern Painters work: “I have been quite upset in all my calculations by that rascal Tintoret – he has shown me some totally new fields of art and altered my feelings in many respects.” His focus on landscape painting now shifted to the religious painters of the Old Masters and Emma Sdengo, in Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin, sees Turner – who had studied Tintoretto – as priming Ruskin’s discovery of “that rascal Tintoret”.

Sdengo’s book is invaluable for including the text of Ruskin’s guide to the works of Tintoretto in Venice. It first appeared as an appendix to the third volume of The Stones of Venice in 1853 and its detailed commentary and completeness – supplemented in this edition by colour reproductions of the paintings – earns it a place in the Venice traveller’s wheelie. Space should also be found there for Giotto and His Works in Padua, a compact edition (with colour prints) of Ruskin’s guide to the frescoes in the fourteenth-century jewel box that is the Scrovegni Chapel (half an hour by fast train from Venice).

The guides to Tintoretto and Giotto are a mere tip of the iceberg when considering Ruskin’s hyperactive writing output. His collected works fill thirty-nine volumes in the edition edited by Cook and Wedderburn between 1903 and 1912 and a set of these in fine condition is currently available for £13,500 on AbeBooks (and freely available online from Lancaster University). Oxford University Press has now published an invaluable selection in their “21st Century Oxford Authors” series, divided into three chronologically based sections: “The Aesthete”, “The Prophet” and “The Activist”.

The first section has generous and varied excerpts from his two big books on art and picks out the best, like “The Nature of Gothic” chapter from the second volume of The Stones of Venice. Also here is a noteworthy letter missing from the collected works – his prolific correspondence has filled ten new volumes in addition to the two in the collected works and hundreds more lie buried in archives – like his one to The Times in 1851 in response to the newspaper’s criticism of the Pre-Raphaelites Millais and Hunt. Ruskin’s voice was important in defending these painters against a remarkably hostile British art establishment, even though the Pre-Raphaelite movement fizzled out and went nowhere of interest. John Berger’s remark about writing, “One does not look through writing onto reality – as through a clean or dirty windowpane”, applies equally well to painting and although Ruskin’s art criticism is supremely responsive to shape, colour and texture, he fell into a reductive empiricism when praising the Pre-Raphaelites. The limitation of this aesthetic is ironically revealed in his Times letter when he applauds the depiction of lilies in Charles Alston Collins’s Convent Thoughts: “I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant, Alisma Plantago … [and] I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn.” In the hugely helpful annotations, the editor points out that the water plantain (Alisma plantago-aquatica) does not feature at all in the painting (though he doesn’t credit Elizabeth Deas for first making this known).

The section which follows, “The Prophet”, is the shortest: a miscellany that covers a range of topics from commodity capitalism and “the inhumanity of mercenary commerce” (in Essays on Political Economy) to the need for the education of girls. The final section, “The Activist”, is a carefully honed reminder of Ruskin’s many-mindedness: “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” is here, excerpts from Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain and from his autobiography, Praeterita. In one of the longest extracts in the section, there are two lectures on birds, entitled “The Swallow” and “The Chough”, that are testimony to the sundry – let’s not say magpie-like – nature of his interests and the fluency and fluidity of his thinking. “The Chough” is extraordinary in this respect, “perfectly unquantifiable” as the editor correctly describes it, being a lecture that blends the ornithological with the metaphorical via etymology, Greek myth, Shakespeare, the Bible (his linking of Psalm 55 with a bird related to the chough is as astonishing as it is revealing ) and, by way of conclusion, contemporary French art.

As to whether Ruskin would support Extinction Rebellion were he living in our times, a children’s story he wrote should settle the matter. “The King of the Golden River” is a folksy fairy tale imbricating ethical behaviour with environmental conservation, utopianism with the Grimm brothers, and though first published in 1851 a splendid new edition – with engaging illustrations by Quentin Blake – is as timely as it is enjoyable to read even for those over the age of twelve.

EM Forster was not paying a compliment when he called Ruskin “the voice in the gondola” and he got it wrong by using the singular. There are many voices and they are worth listening to.

1/7/2019

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).

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