John Ruskin, 200 years old this year, was not a man of few words. His epic 39 volumes of published writings total about 9 million words (yes, somebody has worked that out). Last term I had Ruskin on my reading list and I found myself swept up in his angry, brilliant Victorian prose. His combination of righteous prophetic zeal, ridiculously long sentences and muddling contradictions meant he didn’t go down too well with my fellow art historians. But even when I disagreed with his arguments I couldn’t help but forgive him. His language betrays the obsessive, meticulous mind of a visionary, somebody who looked at the world with an intensely sharp eye and digested what he saw with a fearsome intellect.
At the core of Ruskin’s thinking is a staunch belief that the source of all beauty is nature, and that natural beauty is necessary for the enrichment of the human soul. He wanted people to appreciate the glorious details of nature and to fully soak them in, believing that this would make them better people. In Modern Painters, a five-volume work of art criticism written over 2 decades, Ruskin penned his most well-known quotation: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way…to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.” Just the simple act of looking can be a door to profound enlightenment.
This is what made Ruskin a genius – his great capacity for careful and slow looking, a skill that we are losing today. The pale eyes that glare out at us from his famous black-and-white photograph, all shirt collar and sideburns, are the eyes that fixed themselves tenaciously to the finest details of the natural and manmade world. His watercolours are a testimony to his extraordinary vision. They often show indiscriminate patches of the natural world in their full glory: meticulously detailed studies of ivy on tree bark, mossy rocks, a seaside crab, a withered oak leaf. These watercolours were created with immense patience and are brimming with almost child-like delight. They are so important because they tell us, 200 years on from Ruskin’s birth, of the rich rewards brought by careful observation – the quiet thrill of absorbing oneself in nature.
His drawings and paintings of architecture, too, are visionary. The great champion of the Gothic revival, Ruskin produced stunning images of the buildings he loved, which capture their delicate intricacy and delight in their complexity. His watercolours from his time in Venice treat the buildings with the same reverential devotion as do those of trees and flowers. For Ruskin, the only true architecture was that which had come from human hands and human hearts. Buildings should be the organic produce of loving workers, people who enjoy their work and cooperate towards a common goal. It was an unattainable ideal in the modern age of industrialism, but its core respect for universal human creativity and the value of individual labour remain significant today.
Ruskin’s writings and drawings remind us to look carefully, to think deeply, and to keep hold of our ideals even in the face of great change.
Study of Oak Leaves: http://www.leicestergalleries.com/19th-20th-century-paintings/d/john-ruskin/11096
Study of a velvet crab: https://www.ashmoleanprints.com/image/411048/john-ruskin-1819-1900-study-of-a-velvet-crab
Study of a shell: http://ruskin.ashmolean.org/collection/8979/object/14520
Photo of Ruskin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ruskin
Study of rocks and fern: https://www.abbothall.org.uk/exhibitions/john-ruskin-watercolour-gallery