The lecture Ruskin delivers in the Town Hall of Bradford in response to being summoned as an authority in architecture is a masterwork of carefully assembled argument, all the stronger for its inherent intention of being spoken aloud and thus benefitting from the advantage of an oral delivery.

Ruskin relies on a metonymy — the Exchange as symbolic of England — that gradually builds upon itself to transform into a complex deductive argument relying on the symmetric property. If all that common is inherently holy, Ruskin posits, then all that is holy can be found in the common space. Architecture, then, is holy by way of being a part of that common space; and it is common by way of being holy. Ruskin then allows this basic argument to spill over into the qualification of the relationship between architectural works and the laity: if the building was given shape and rise by the common man for a common purpose, then it is fundamentally more a house of God than any building created for that particular purpose of religion could ever be. The rhythm of this piece, breathless and fraught with seemingly impulsive interjections, is perhaps Ruskin’s strongest tool in persuading his audience of the infallibility of his argument.

But, before I press them farther, I must ask leave to explain one point clearly. In all my past work, my endeavour has been to show that good architecture is essentially religious — the production of a faithful and virtuous, not of an infidel and corrupted people. But in the course of doing this, I have had also to show that good architecture is not ecclesiastical. People are so apt to look upon religion as the business of the clergy, not their own, that the moment they hear of anything depending on 'religion,' they think it must also have depended on the priesthood; and I have had to take what place was to be occupied between these two errors, and fight both, often with seeming contradiction. Good architecture is the work of good and believing men; therefore, you say, at least some people say, 'Good architecture must essentially have been the work of the clergy, not of the laity.' No — a thousand times no; good architecture has always been the work of the commonalty, not of the clergy. What, you say, those glorious cathedrals — the pride of Europe — did their builders not form Gothic architecture? No; they corrupted Gothic architecture. Gothic was formed in the baron's castle, and the burgher's street. It was formed by the thoughts, and hands, and powers of free citizens and soldier kings. By the monk it was used as an instrument for the aid of his superstition; when that superstition became a beautiful madness, and the best hearts of Europe vainly dreamed and pined in the cloister, and vainly raged and perished in the crusade — through that fury of perverted faith and wasted war, the Gothic rose also to its loveliest, most fantastic, and, finally, most foolish dreams; and, in those dreams, was lost.

Ruskin’s use of specific examples, calling on “the baron’s castle, and the burgher’s street,” makes his theoretical explanation accessible to the most common of his listeners in the Town Hall. His techniques of captivating the audience, however, do not interfere with the authoritative tone of the lecture. The inclusion in the very basis of his argument of what “some people [may] say,” and his simple rebuttal — “No — a thousand times no” — raises him to the status of educator and sets his audience in its place: as pupils.


1. Ruskin begins his lecture with an admission of his indifference to his listeners’ most pressing question: the impending construction of the Exchange; “I do not care about this Exchange of yours,” he declares. Does this rhetoric maneuver establish him as a credible speaker and maintain his presumed status as a revered figure of authority? If not, does Ruskin salvage his credibility in the following lines?

2. Ruskin allows for counterarguments in his spoken thesis, predicting his audience’s impulses aloud: “For, observe, while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting on. 'Nay,' you say, 'they have all their chance.' Yes, so has every one in a lottery, but there must always be the same number of blanks.” How does the dynamism of his address posit Ruskin as a true sage?

3. Carlyle treats counterargument much differently, barking out at his critics in “Hudson’s Statue”: “Fools, you should be quiet infidels, and believe!” Which author’s approach to acknowledging criticism is more powerful in establishing credibility? Which is more advantageous to securing the intended audience’s concurrence?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 3 March 2011