‘To dress the earth, and keep it’ — Works 29.137
uskin’s first bout of madness, though violent, did not last very long. By April 1878 he was able to write letters again, and he resumed production of books, articles, and lectures, and continued with his programme of action. He did not finally withdraw from public life until 1889. The last years left to him for work were broken by attacks of mania, and his proliferating schemes and projects were left confused and incomplete. But to the last an underlying coherence remains, carried by the structure of Ruskin’s imagery. These images are not only to be read in terms of literary or psychological significance; for Ruskin they were perfectly real. He was a materialist; for him meaning began in matter, and could only be properly expressed in matter. He saw an image in external reality, and read it iconographically, but he also took the symbol and tried to express its significance in a visible and tactile form, not just in pictures, but in things — buildings, institutions, and restored land. It was insufficient to create an image of kingship; it must also be translated into action, where the ‘moral significance of the image’ could be seen in practice.
Ruskin had long believed that action was the necessary outcome of thought. In the 1850s he had taught drawing at the Working Men's College in London, and there had been his involvement with the building of the Natural History Museum in Oxford. In 1854 he wrote that he was ‘rolling projects over and over’ in his head. He wanted to lecture workmen and craftsmen and schoolteachers and young men and women in general. He wanted to have prayer books handwritten again (having had the liturgy rewritten), and ‘explode printing, and gunpowder — the great curses of the age.’ He wanted to lend out Turner engravings and have thirteenth-century missals copied, and found Art Galleries and schools: ‘And as all this is merely by the way, while I go on with my usual work about Turner, and collect materials for a great work I mean to write on politics — founded on the thirteenth century — I shall have plenty to do when I get home’ (36.175-76). He was joking, [167/168] but what is remarkable is that he did eventually manage to do all these things.
The schemes, projects and buildings were the final expression of his arguments. The concentration on the physical in the later part of Ruskin’s life, the attempt to make his theories concrete in practice, is a continuation of the visual arguments which he had always used. But the argument was no longer held static in the picture frame; it was material, three-dimensional, it was ‘life,’ because it depended on people and land, not inanimate objects. Where Carlyle preached, Ruskin acted. Ruskin's favourite image of clear, sparkling streams as a symbol of the purified waters of life did not stay a literary idea on the printed page: he paid to have a stream cleaned at Carshalton in Surrey, as a memorial to his mother.
Some of the projects seemed absurd: employing street cleaners in St. Giles in London, setting up two retired servants in a shop to sell tea at honest prices. The road-building project for Oxford undergraduates at Hinksey has been treated as a joke, and not as the serious propaganda exercise it really was.1 Other work was more successful: the help given to Octavia Hill’s housing scheme, for example, or his almost single-handed revolutionizing of the system of bookselling. He also worked hard at other people’s projects — the committee to defend Governor Eyre in 1866, the Mansion House Committee to aid Paris during the Franco-Prussian war. When his artistic principles were challenged at law, by Whistler’s suit for libel in 1877, he was delighted by the prospect of a court-room drama which would enable him ‘to assert some principles of art economy which I’ve never got into the public’s head, by writing, but may get sent all over the world vividly in a newspaper report or two’ (29.xxii).
Ruskin felt a pressing need to be known by works as well as faith. His conscience was tried by the contrast between his own wealth and comfort and the miseries of industrial Britain. There was also the need for distraction from personal unhappiness, to release pain and frustrated emotion. As the contradictions in his private life became more extreme, work was one way of staving off madness. But action brought with it its own opposition, the contrast between what was aimed for and what was achieved. Two themes are in perpetual counterpoint: his view of himself as a man of action, and his desire to be free of responsibilities. In 1874 he described ‘the intensely practical and matter-of-fact character of my own mind as opposed to the loquacious and speculative disposition, not only of the British public, but of all my quondam friends. I am left utterly stranded, and alone, in life, and thought’ (28.14). And [168/169] yet later: I can only do what seems to me necessary, none else coming forward to do it. For my own part, I entirely hate the whole business; I dislike having either power or responsibility; am ashamed to ask for money, and plagued in spending it’ (28.22). This view of himself as a man alone and misunderstood contributed to the desire to speak through action. After outlining one of his more elaborate and impractical schemes for a utopian society, he concluded, ‘the day has come for me therefore to cease speaking, and begin doing, as best I may’ (28.423-26).
Not, however, that he ever actually gave in to the temptation ‘to try and do what seems to me rational, silently; and to speak no more’ (27.353). His output was prodigious, but the concentration on action also led to dissipation of energy. This is true of both schemes and writings: there were too many projects, too many decisions to be made; and since, in the end, Ruskin’s programme depended on a complete reordering of the system of knowledge, there were too many books to be written. But it would be a mistake to expect him to operate in a manner he specifically rejected. His own attitude to the success or failure of the schemes will become clear. And, in however distorted a form, his two most important projects survive: the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford, and the Guild of St. George.
In 1869 Ruskin was elected the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University. This was a new appointment, made under a bequest from Felix Slade, who had left money to found Professorships in Fine Art at Oxford, Cambridge, and University College, London. Ruskin’s appointment was a belated recognition of the position he had built up independently of any institution, and it undoubtedly helped to give form and purpose to his work. His attitude was, as it had always been, that ‘the teaching of Art. . . is the teaching of all things’ (29.86), and from his inaugural lectures in 1871 onwards he did not fail to set his specific art criticism in its social context. He might sometimes lull his audience with the vagaries of thirteenth-century Italian history — but then he would shock them by describing Oxford as a ‘dunghill’ (22.206), or accuse each of his gentlemen listeners of readiness ‘to kill any quantity of children by disease to increase his rents, as unconcernedly as he will eat any quantity of mutton’ (23.144). A sense of social mission gave him the courage to claim: ‘I am, I believe, the only person here in Oxford who says he has got something entirely definite to teach’ (22.507).
The function of the Professorship as Ruskin saw it was to establish ‘a practical and critical school of fine art for English gentlemen: practical, so that, if they draw at all, they may draw rightly; and critical, [169/170] so that, being first directed to such works of existing art as will best reward their study, they may afterwards make their patronage of living artists delightful to themselves’ (20.27). The critical aspect was catered for in the Professor’s lectures, the practical by the foundation of a drawing school. With this two-edged attack he hoped to awaken the interest of Oxford undergraduates ‘in a study which they have hitherto found unattractive, and imagined to be useless’ (20.193).
The Ruskin School of Drawing was intended as a practical criticism of art education in Britain (see Macdonald). There were at that time two kinds of instruction available to the would-be professional: a fine art training in the Royal Academy school, or a design training in the government schools run by the Department of Science and Art. Outside the public institutions there existed private academies for amateurs, future drawing masters, and those who wanted to prepare for the Academy School; and Mechanics’ Institutes for artisans, or the more ambitious Working Men’s Colleges, such as the one in London where Ruskin had taught. Ruskin had long protested at the classicism of the cast room and life class of the Royal Academy; in the Edinburgh lectures of 1854 he had given a graphic account of the Pre-Raphaelites’ reception by their fellow Academy pupils when they tried to bring fresh ideas of truth to nature into their work (12.155-57). In 1863 he gave evidence before a commission investigating the Royal Academy. Asked to estimate the influence of the Academy School on the art of the country he replied: ‘Nearly nugatory: exceedingly painful in this respect, that the teaching of the Academy separates, as the whole idea of the country separates, the notion of art-education from other education.’ This was the key point, that art must not be an exclusive but an inclusive activity; and he sketched a scheme for the commissioners, treating art training in the context of a complete liberal education, ‘corresponding wholely to the university education’ (14.479-80). The Slade Professorship was the ideal opportunity to unite art, science and liberal studies.
Ruskin’s chief target, however, was the government design schools, known as the South Kensington system because of the location of the central school. He had been campaigning against the government schools since the 1850s, when he had attacked the concept of a separate industrial training in The Two Paths. Far more than the Academy, he felt that the government scheme, because of its wider influence on popular taste, had ‘corrupted the system of art-teaching all over England into a state of abortion and falsehood from which it will take twenty years to recover’ (29.154). Art training had first been instituted at public expense in 1837 with the purely financial motive of breaking the [170/171] monopoly of the Continental designs used by British manufacturers. In 1852 a civil servant, Henry Cole, who had made his reputation through his work as a Commissioner for the Great Exhibition of 1851, began a reorganization and massive expansion of the design schools. The course was run on strictly utilitarian lines, and adapted to teach schoolchildren and general students as well as designers and engineers. The system fed upon itself, since many of the pupils became art teachers in the proliferating provincial art schools. The course was numbingly rigid: ‘straight lines’, said Cole, ‘are a national want’ (quoted in Macdonald 228). Drawing was treated as though it could be learned like the alphabet, beginning with geometrical shapes on the diagrammatic flat, and then slowly advancing through painstaking copies of specially printed examples, to limited light and shade drawings of casts of ornament and sculpture. All progress was by competitive examination.
Ruskin objected to the government scheme for the same reasons as he objected to the fine art training of the Academy; it made no effort to involve the student in anything more than a technical method. Further, it not only separated the students from a general education; it separated the designer from the artist. Discussing his own proposals he consciously called all creative workers — ‘potters, weavers, metal and glass workers, sculptors and painters’ — artisans (21.xx). Since good design could only be produced by artists working in a noble society, the South Kensington system was training in a vacuum, cut off from art, and oblivious of the social context and moral obligations of design. In The Two Paths he had warned that good design was impossible ‘so long as you don’t surround your men with happy influences and beautiful things’ (16.341). What was true of design was true of all art, and the constant theme of the Oxford lectures became
you cannot, without the realities, have the pictures. You cannot have a landscape by Turner, without a country for him to paint; you cannot have a portrait by Titian, without a man to be portrayed. . . . I can get no soul to believe that the beginning of art is in getting our country clean, and our people beautiful. [20.107]
A government design school had been using part of the Oxford University Galleries (now incorporated in the Ashmolean Museum) since 1865. In September 1871 Ruskin announced that, having watched it at work for two years, he had become ‘finally convinced that it fell short of its objects in more than one particular: and I have, therefore, obtained permission to found a separate Mastership of Drawing’ (27.159). The University accepted his endowment of £5,000 and allowed him to take over the West Wing of the University Galleries. [171/172] The government art master, Alexander MacDonald, became first Ruskin Master of Drawing. This appointment may seem curious in the light of Ruskin’s views on South Kensington, but MacDonald, though government trained, had clashed with Cole during the ‘art-teachers’ revolt’ in 1863-64, and gave evidence of the restrictive conditions at South Kensington to a Parliamentary enquiry (Macdonald 219-20). Although driven down into the basement, the government course was continued as an evening class by MacDonald, and Ruskin was gracious enough to welcome the presence of this ‘elementary school for artisans,’ although he stressed that he was ‘not responsible for any methods of art-education relating to manufactures’ (21.165).
Ruskin’s school was a criticism of the Royal Academy and South Kensington, but it was not intended to do the work of either. Most emphatically its original purpose was not to produce artists. As its name indicates, it was a school of drawing, intended to sharpen the visual faculties of any student, as part of his general education. If Ruskin’s scheme has any precedent, it is in the tradition of the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century drawing masters such as had first taught Ruskin himself. But its purpose was more than either teaching an elegant pastime for gentlemen, or supplying a useful skill in technical drawing; he believed that visual perception in itself was as important as any of our intellectual faculties: ‘The facts which an elementary knowledge of drawing enables a man to observe and note are often of as much importance to him as those which he can describe in words or calculate in numbers’ (16.450). The concentrated coordination of eye and hand caused a completely different kind of understanding, the sort of understanding that his own practice of drawing had led him to. By drawing, students ‘actually obtained a power of the eye and a power of the mind wholly different from that known to any other discipline, and which could only be known by the experienced student — he only could know how the eye gained physical power by attention to delicate details’ (16.440). A perception so trained could at the very least take the student to the first order of truth, the truth of natural fact, and, though that was all that Ruskin hoped to achieve, by implication the right training of the eye and mind could lead him to discover the greater glories of the symbolic imagination.
Because Ruskin’s practical aim was limited, it is not surprising that the technical exercises he set were so basic. He had already produced two books of technical instruction, The Elements of Drawing (1857) and The Elements of Perspective (1859). He now produced a third, The Laws of Fésole (1877-78), for use both at Oxford and in the projected [172/173] schools of the Guild of St. George. Some of the first steps were ‘niggling’ (15.36), as he admitted, and as limited as those made at South Kensington, but whereas the government design student was kept pinned to the flat surface of the drawing-board, Ruskin wanted to apply the accuracy, once learned, to natural objects. He tried to steer his students between the twin errors of drawing things ‘mechanically and symmetrically together,’ as at South Kensington, and the picturesque ‘dash and scrabble for effect, without obedience to any law’ (15.344). The emphasis on careful copying may seem rigid and unenterprising now, but for Ruskin it was a method of practical criticism of the most basic kind, and one that he had used all his life. Students were encouraged to make precise copies from the examples in the teaching collection, without necessarily going on to a complete course of draughtsmanship: ‘It is of greater importance that you should learn to distinguish what is entirely excellent, than to produce what is partially so’ (21.71).
The plan was for a ‘grammar-school of art’ with two classes, one for the exclusive use of undergraduates, the other a general class, or ‘lower school,’ for the use of ‘young people residing in Oxford or its neighbourhood’ (21.xx). Each had its own room and its own collection of teaching examples. These, whose surviving component parts are still in the University Galleries (in the Print Room of the Ashmolean), are the last direct link we have with Ruskin’s purely visual argument. The collection is Ruskinian in a way that no book or individual drawing can be; sadly, like most Ruskinian schemes, though the intention is clear, the practical result is a seemingly incoherent jumble.
In all, there were four separate collections, each example in a sliding frame, kept in cabinets similar to those he had originally designed to hold the Turner sketches catalogued for the National Gallery. The Standard Series was planned as four hundred examples representing the best art of the Western tradition: Greek sculpture and arts, Gothic sculpture and arts, the schools of painting in general, and modern works. In fact only fifty examples were ever arranged, and the system became muddled with the Reference Series, whose basic purpose was to serve as an accumulating collection of the examples referred to by Ruskin in his lectures. Considering the wide range of topics covered by the lectures it is not surprising that it had a much looser arrangement. Although the old masters were illustrated with the intention of improving the student’s judgment, they were not designed to teach the history of art. That was a matter for the History Schools: ‘I would no more involve the art-schools in the study of the history of art than the surgical schools in that of the history of surgery’ (16.451). [173/174]
The actual technical instruction was supported by two further series, an Educational Series for the undergraduates and a Rudimentary Series for the general class. The Educational Series began with exercises in flower drawing, then worked through Greek design, Gothic art and architecture, then landscape, zoology, ornament, etching and engraving, followed by sections on foliage, and clouds, rocks and water. The Rudimentary Series was more basic, beginning with heraldry (as did The Laws of Fésole), Greek and Gothic design and then on to landscape, birds, plants and trees. Notes and instructions were supplied with the catalogues of each series.
When Ruskin finally presented his collection to the University in 1875, the deed of gift required that ‘The Master of Drawing shall make, and shall at all times keep perfect and complete, one or more catalogue or catalogues of the Ruskin Art Collection,’5 but it was wishful thinking to expect that the scheme would stay in order. None of the collections was ever complete, nor were the examples very rigidly arranged. Ruskin was operating similar schemes with the Museum of the Guild of St. George, and Whitelands College in Chelsea, and he had contacts with a dozen other schools. The result was that examples tended to circulate round England. The Oxford collection suffered particularly in 1887 when Ruskin withdrew at least 111 drawings after falling out with the University, leaving the collections in a muddle that has remained to this day. Regrettably, the Ruskin collection has not been kept separate from the University’s general holdings. The examples are no longer in their original frames and the cabinets have been sold. The requirements of space and security have necessitated this, but it is unfortunate that the original sequences, which form such an important part of the argument, have been broken up.6
Daguerrotype and drawing by Ruskin used in the School of Drawing. Left: A Courtyard at Abbeyville. Ruskin re-uses a photograph originally taken to illustrate the subject matter of Prout (14.588) as a drawing exercise. Ignoring the original picturesque context (p. 48), he selects a detail so that when the student 'has learned to draw these leaves as the photograph represents them, he will know how to admire the imaged leaves carved at the side of them'” (21.294). Right: Sketch of Leafage. The selected detail sketched with a single wash. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Drawings by Ruskin used in the School of Drawing continued. Left: The Same Leaves, Farther Carried. The two upper groups only, leaving the highlights blank. Right: Completion of the Same Study. The series of washes is completed by the use of body colour white. “These three exercises are examples in execution only; and whatever is in them must be got, by the student who copies them, with that quantity of work and no more.” [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
The examples themselves come from a bewildering variety of sources, in widely different forms. The two most important groups are drawings by Turner and Ruskin himself; Ruskin had already made a gift of some of his best Turner water-colours to the University in 1861, and these were included in the Deed of Gift of the whole teaching collection in 1875. Twenty-seven Turner sketches and water-colours are listed, plus a large number of engravings and Liber Studiorum plates.7 From 1879 to 1906 the Drawing School also had Turner water-colours on loan from the National Gallery. Ruskin’s own drawings come from all stages of his career, early vignettes in the style of Turner’s for Rogers’s Italy, Proutish architectural drawings, leaves torn out of notebooks, copies of other paintings, and demonstration studies specially done for the school. There are fourteen drawings by Prout, plus litho-[174/175]graphs, eight by William Hunt, eight by Burne-Jones, Dürer engravings and woodcuts, and leaves from illuminated MSS. Besides the original drawings and engravings there are reproductions of the old masters in every medium available at the time: individual copies commissioned by Ruskin from the artists he employed specifically for this purpose, Arundel Society chromo-lithographs, engravings, and black-and-white photographs. There is also an important collection of architectural photographs. Finally there is a miscellaneous assortment of plates cut out of books like Gould’s Birds, Sowerby’s Botany, Hornemann’s Icones Florae danicae, and Lenormant and De Witte’s Elite des monuments céramographiques.
Since this was a teaching collection, it did not matter to Ruskin very much whether the example he chose was a Turner drawing or a photograph; the only value was its visual context. See, for instance, the reconstruction of the second section on heraldry in the Rudimentary Series (21.174-77): a Turner, seventeenth-century wood-cuts, a Ruskin drawing of 1845, two photographs, and a Prout. The juxtapositions are sometimes surprising, and were meant to be. The student, ‘Having had his attention directed in the last thirteen pieces to the simplicity of Greek outlines and the parallel simplicity of Greek execution and of modern processes rightly founded on it [three photographs, seven Ruskin studies of ceramics, a study of Greek sculpture by the Drawing Master, MacDonald, and two William Hunts], he will, I hope, be at first considerably startled and shocked by the petty, crinkly, winkly, knobby and bumpy forms of Albert Dürer’ (21.184), and a series of Dürer engravings follows. These jumps and juxtapositions are the visual equivalent of the jumps and juxtapositions in Fors Clavigera, and the juxtapositions he perceived in life.
A reconstruction of part of the Rudimentary Series, a series of examples of heraldry as simple exercises in drawing and as symbols of leadership. Left: A Frontispiece (at Farnley Hall). J. M. W. Turner. 1815. An example of Turner's early heraldic work. Right: Coat of arms from “Insignia Sacrae Caesareae Maiestatis”, 1629. . “To be used for early pen-practice (21.175).” [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
It was consistent both with Ruskin’s belief in the value of drawing for learning and with his insistence that art should have some object greater than itself that his examples were chosen with a double purpose; for beyond being practical exercises they were intended to have further value by being presented as two series, ‘one illustrative of history, the other of natural science’ (20.35). The sheet illustrating the quarterings of a shield, specially printed for the Drawing School, is an exercise in straight lines and curves, but he also used it in a lecture, ‘The Heraldic Ordinaries’, where the quarterings are read as symbols in a broad scheme of moral history (22.280-84). The use made of botany typifies the multiform nature of Ruskin’s mind. The flower paintings in the Rudimentary Series are elementary exercises in outline and flat wash, but simultaneously they are intended to be lessons in botany and [175/176] mythology: not orthodox botany and mythology, but an imaginative re-creation in terms of the symbolism of The Queen of the Air.
Reconstruction of part of the Rudimentary Series continued. Left: Study of the Marble Inlaying in the Front of the Casa Loredan, Venice. Right: The Twelve Heraldic Ordinaries. Originally engraved for use in the schools of the Guild of St George. Ruskin later included it in the heraldry exercises at Oxford. He analyses the symbolism at 22.280-84.[Click on image to enlarge it.]
It would be easy to dismiss the late scientific writings as foolish and irrelevant ramblings written as a distraction from pain and incipient madness — but Ruskin’s intentions become much clearer in the context of the Drawing School. True, there is an element of play in the fanciful renaming of plants and reordering of ornithology. But the writings are important not just because his private obsessions force their way through, but because they demonstrate how consistent his interpretation of reality was. The flower exercises in the Drawing School are one more example of the operation of the orders of truth: at the level of fact they are studies in accurate delineation, at another level the amaryllis, the iris, the asphodel and the lily have symbolic meaning, as Christ’s lily of the field, the Christian fleur-de-lys, the Greek flower of immortality and the Annunciation lily. Moving beyond interpretation into an actual re-ordering of botanical terms, Ruskin names them ‘Drosididae’ — Dewflowers, which he associates with the rush plant, and from which he says they are developed. ‘I do not mean that they are developed in the Darwinian sense, but developed in conception . . . great orders of plants and living creatures are formed in subtle variations upon one appointed type’ (21.242).
If we treat Ruskin’s science in orthodox terms, then it is no more than a hopeless rear-guard action against Darwinism. The character of science was changing as the descriptive and classificatory methods Ruskin had been brought up with gave way to experiment and analysis; Darwin’s theory was a dramatic example of the process by which the scientific world picture had gradually broken with the religious. Ruskin still tried to maintain the certainties of the eighteenth century: ‘In the earlier and happier days of Linnaeus, de Saussure, von Humboldt, and the multitude of quiet workers on whose secure foundation the fantastic expatiations of modern science depend for whatever good or stability there is in them, natural religion was always a part of natural science’ (26.338-9).
After all the twists and turns in Ruskin’s religious belief, it is clear that he was not returning to the natural theology of William Buckland; but he was being consistent with the view of nature which he now realized had been the key idea in Modern Painters 2.8 Such a ‘natural theological’ view cannot be separated from the means with which he approached nature, that is, his own perception. He had defined the difference between himself and the scientist long before in The Stones of [176/177] Venice: ‘The thoughtful man is gone far away to seek; but the perceiving man must sit still, and open his heart to receive. The thoughtful man is knitting and sharpening himself into a two-edged sword, wherewith to pierce. The perceiving man is stretching himself into a four cornered sheet, wherewith to catch’ (11.52). This distinction between analysis and contemplation shows an attitude that seems more Eastern than Western.
Ruskin’s late writings on botany, ornithology and geology are based on a re-ordering of knowledge designed to show the connections between things, rather than the differences, and synthesizing separate branches of knowledge into ‘grammars’ for the schools of the Guild of St. George. His original idea had been to link up the various observations of the natural world in Modern Painters; but fresh studies gradually took over. Geology was covered by Deucalion, which appeared in parts spasmodically between 1875 and 1883. Ornithology, Love’s Meinie, was produced between 1873 and 1881, and botany, Proserpina, between 1875 and 1886. None of these series was ever completed. He argued that ‘no existing scientific classification can possibly be permanent’ (26.418), and therefore proposed his own. This involved renaming individual and family groups of birds and plants according to their habits and external characteristics, but the names themselves referred to their mythological and literary associations. The system depended ‘on its incorporation with the teaching of my new elements of drawing, of which the first vital principle is that man is intended to observe with his eyes, and mind; not with microscope and knife’ (25.xxx).
This was the ‘science of aspects’ of Modern Painters, now interwoven with his later mythopoetic outlook. Myth gave the natural fact a moral context, unifying the physical image with its eternal significance; myth gave a validity which the divisive analytical speculations of material science could not. ‘The feeblest myth is better than the strongest theory: the one recording a natural impression on the imaginations of great men, and of unpretending multitudes; the other, an unnatural exertion of the wits of little men’ (26.99). Theory was dangerously close to the introspection he had always shied away from.
In spite of polemical outbursts against scientists, Ruskin’s true relationship with them was more subtle, and he hoped that they could work in parallel, not in opposition. (For their part, official bodies like the Geological Society, the British Museum and the British Institution were happy to accept his scientific contributions.) The educational system proposed for the Guild of St. George was intended as a balance of art and science, and in preparing his scientific ‘grammars,’ he in-[177/178]tended to ‘accept every aid that sensible and earnest men of science can spare me, towards the task of popular education’ (28.647). The same parallel was to exist at Oxford: ‘Admit that, in order to draw a tree, you should have a knowledge of botany: Do you expect me to teach you botany here? Whatever I want you to know of it I shall send you to your Professor of Botany and to the Botanic Gardens, to learn’ (22.232). Science was permitted on the premises of the Drawing School; he intended to have ‘some simple and readable accounts of the structure of things which we have to draw continually. Such scientific accounts will not usually much help us to draw them, but will make the drawing, when done, far more valuable to us’ (22.214). His plans for an elementary school in 1884 included a ‘sufficient laboratory’ (29.484).
The ‘science of aspects’ was the true subject to be learnt at the Drawing School, and in the end this and the unacceptable analytical science were bound to conflict. ‘This faculty of sight, disciplined and pure, is the only proper faculty which the graphic artist is to use in his enquiries into nature’ (22.209), but the analytical scientist probed and dissected, and here Ruskin felt psychologically as well as intellectually threatened. Consistent with his principles of form in Modern Painters 2, he argued that art was concerned only with external appearances:
The study of anatomy generally, whether of plants, animals, or man, is an impediment to graphic art. . . in the treatment and conception of the human form, the habit of contemplating its anatomical structure is not only a hindrance, but a degradation; and farther yet, that even the study of the external form of the human body, more exposed than it may be healthily and decently in daily life, has been essentially destructive to every school of art in which it has been practised. [22.222]
Ruskin’s psychological prejudices are plainly at work, and his fear of penetrating the surface of things (perhaps a sexual fear), whether expressed as a horror of introspection or of the anatomist’s knife, leads him to argue that ‘the artist has no concern with invisible structures, organic or inorganic’ (22.241), coming close to contradicting the organicism of his architectural theories.
Ruskin’s psychological objections to analytical science, identified primarily with anatomy, are linked to his horror of death, symbolic or actual. He could not object to the sciences of healing and helping, but he fought
against the curiosity of science, leading us to call virtually nothing gained but what is new discovery . . . the insolence of science, in claiming for itself a [178/179] separate function of the human mind which in its perfection is one and indivisible, in the image of its Creator, and of the perversion of science, in hoping to discover by the analysis of death, what can only be discovered by the worship of life. [22.529]
Ruskin feared that anatomy could destroy the student’s healthy love of life: ‘Cut dead bodies to pieces till you are satisfied; then come to me, and I’ll make shift to teach you to draw even then — though your eyes and memory will be full of horrible things which Heaven never meant you so much as a glance at’ (22.232).
Horror of anatomy also came out in his critical judgments; comparing Michelangelo unfavourably with Tintoretto (and profoundly upsetting the University, which was very proud of its collection of Michelangelo drawings), he blamed Tintoretto’s downfall on the influence of Michelangelo’s study of anatomy (22.407-08). When he resigned from his second period as Slade Professor of Fine Art in 1885, he gave as his reason the decision to permit vivisection in the University laboratories.
Ruskin’s scientific method should be treated as an alternative theory of knowledge: the number of facts to be known is small (since we can only know a small number of facts); the purpose of new discoveries is to reinforce what was already known, bringing things together and illustrating their similarities, not their differences. Ideally, all knowledge could be brought together into one great pattern, the sort of pattern he tried to create in the lecture ‘The Iris of the Earth’ (1876). This was Ruskin’s synthesizing process in action, as he drew on colour theory, etymology, history and mineralogy to illustrate ‘the symbolic use of the colours of precious stones in heraldry’ (26.165). In the Laws of Fésole the system also includes botany and astrology (15.424-31). The object of this theory of knowledge was moral, and in that sense it was practical, in that it availed towards life. Knowledge no longer compartmentalized into subjects or disciplines could truly become an end in itself, for through it we may unify the physical and spiritual expressions of our existence.
On 1 January 1874, Ruskin sat down to write an account of a lecture he had given at Oxford the previous November on Florentine Art. He told how, just before going into the University Galleries to give the lecture, he was disturbed by coming across a small ragged girl playing with a top: ‘She was a very nice little girl; and rejoiced wholly in her whip, and top; but could not inflict the reviving chastisement with all the activity [179/180] that was in her, because she had on a large and dilapidated pair of woman’s shoes, which projected the full length of her own little foot behind it and before’ (28.14). Passing on into the University Galleries, he gave his lecture.
But all the time I was speaking, I knew that nothing spoken about art, either by myself or other people, could be of the least use to anybody there. For their primary business, and mine, was with art in Oxford, now; not with art in Florence, then; and art in Oxford now was absolutely dependent on our power of solving the question — which I knew that my audience would not even allow to be proposed for solution — ‘Why have our little girls large shoes?’ [28.14]
More than thirty years before, Ruskin had been forced to reconsider his approach to art because of the realization that he had treated a half-starved girl ‘more as picturesque than as real’ (L45.142); now he was using a ragged girl to make English society ask itself the same question about the relationship between art and social reality.
Such a campaign had to be fought outside as well as inside Oxford. At times his duties there seemed a hindrance to his social work; and he was not above using his obligations to Oxford as an excuse for the chaotic manner in which he carried it out; but the question, ‘Why have our little girls large shoes?’, firmly ties the two aspects of his campaign together. At Oxford he would address the future leadership of the country; in a series of monthly public letters he would address the public at large, letters that had to be written for one good reason at least: ‘that you may make no mistake as to the real economical results of Art teaching’ (27.18).
This was the scheme of Fors Clavigera, published by Ruskin every month from January 1871 until the series was broken by his collapse in 1878, and then produced intermittently between 1880 and 1884. He had first experimented with the form in Time and Tide (1867), subtitled Twenty-five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland, when a series of letters addressed to the cork-cutter Thomas Dixon had been reprinted first in newspapers and then as a book. In Fors Clavigera Ruskin addressed himself to all ‘the workmen and labourers of Great Britain,’ although it is clear that he meant anyone who worked with head or hands (in the same way as Carlyle and F. D. Maurice appear in Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work). The choice of title was satirizable like so many of his others, but Ruskin protested, ‘I am not fantastic in these titles, as is often said; but try shortly to mark my chief purpose in the book by them’ (22.315). Fors was chance, guided by the hidden hand of Fate. Clavigera meant that chance carried a club, a nail or a key — my own [180/181] interpretation is ‘Chance, the fate that hits the nail upon the head,’ but the title contains a multiplicity of meanings (see 27.xix-xxii). One source of the image was an Etruscan mirror case he had seen some time in the 1860s depicting Atropos, the Greek Fate, about to drive a nail into a beam with a hammer, and so becoming ‘the symbol of unalterably determined, or fixed, fate’ (27.xix). The hammer and nail also had a Biblical association, not with the instruments of the Passion, but with the Jael of the Old Testament, who murdered Sisera by driving a tent nail through his head. This half-hidden association of Fors with death was the closing image of the last letter before he went mad in 1878 (29.379).
The title and form of Fors Clavigera were a justification of his method, the all-embracing view that gave complete freedom to work from the broadest generalities to the minutest of particulars, or draw from the most trivial incident a lesson of universal significance. The theme of Fors Clavigera was itself and its author, free of any limitations of predetermined form or subject matter. Its shape was a product of chance: ‘By the adoption of the title “Fors,” I meant (among other meanings) to indicate this desultory and accidental character of the work’ (29.315).
But the juxtapositions chosen by chance were in reality no accident; they demonstrated the inner workings of Fate, and each was a lesson of the utmost significance. Fors Clavigera was structured by the sensibility of its author and by what he saw and felt from day to day. It is both a journal and the beginnings of an autobiography; material used in Praeterita first appears here. The letters were a means of recording the progress of projects, and the place to plan new ones. Above all, they were a means of avoiding the dead hand of analytical system, which must exclude for the sake of artificial clarity: ‘Fors is a letter, and written as a letter should be written, frankly, and as the mood, or topic chances, so far as I finish and retouch it, which of late I have done more and more, it ceases to be what it should be, and becomes a serious treatise, which I never meant to undertake’ (29.197). The letters also allowed Ruskin more than one voice, though his readers had to be reminded of the ‘passages of evident irony’ (28.650) in which his more Swiftian attacks appear. He could be gentle or whimsical, funny, instructive, admonitory, or he could release gouts of black anger.
The social criticism in Fors Clavigera is more disordered and more violent than in earlier works, and attacks a wider range of targets, but it never loses touch with the theme of exploitation and destruction of which the modern city becomes the most powerful symbol. London, its skies blacked by smoke, feeds off the countryside, producing nothing; the relationship between town and country is [181/182]
more fantastic and wonderful than any dream. Hyde Park, in the season, is the great rotatory form of the vast squirrel-cage; round and round it go the idle company, in their reversed streams, urging themselves to their necessary exercise. . . . Then they retire into their boxes, with due quantity of straw; the Belgravian and Piccadillian streets outside the railings being, when one sees clearly, nothing but the squirrel’s box at the side of his wires. [28.136]
London (which of course had greatly expanded in Ruskin’s lifetime) is a physical expression of the system by which the idle rich live off the noble poor: ‘All social evils and religious errors arise out of the pillage of the labourer by the idler: . . . first by the landlords; then, under their direction, by the three chief so-called gentlemanly "professions,” of soldier, lawyer, and priest; and, lastly, by the merchant and usurer’ (29.294-95).
Exploitation enables the rich to make wars for which the poor pay with their lives and labour. The fundamental elements of profit in the capitalist system, rent and interest, are denounced as ‘stealing’ (28.670), and Ruskin’s condemnations of usury, to which all capitalist transactions are finally reduced, become more and more extreme. The lawyers and the Church play their part in this grand system of waste; the clergy ‘teach a false gospel for hire’ (28.363), and the bishops betray their religion, ‘first by simony, and secondly, and chiefly, by lying for God with one mouth, and contending for their own personal interests as a professional body, as if it were the cause of Christ’ (28.514). An economic system based on exploitation means not simply the overproduction of useless goods, but ‘over-destruction (28.695), the waste of lives and resources that could be put to more creative uses than supplying London,
this fermenting mass of unhappy human beings, — news-mongers, novel-mongers, picture-mongers, poison drink-mongers, lust and death-mongers; the whole smoking mass of it one vast dead-marine storeshop, — accumulation of wreck of the Dead Sea, with every activity in it, a form of putrefaction. [28.137]
The Guild of St. George was Ruskin’s counter-image of harmony and plenty. From the very beginning of Fors Clavigera he talked of the practical reforms this society would carry out. The Guild existed as an image, as a moral contrast to the city of dreadful night in which people were living; and Ruskin would have had it exist in reality, just as London all too painfully already existed. The Guild was to be organized as the exact opposite of capitalist society. Its main occupation was to be [182/183] agriculture and education, and, as part of the educational work, the preservation and accumulation of beautiful objects. Its organization was strictly hierarchical, based on elective monarchy in the manner of the Doges of Venice. An aristocracy of members would elect a master who would be in sole charge of the running of the Guild, the appointment of officers, and the admission of members, but who could be deposed by a majority vote (28.649). The Master was to be assisted by Marshals; below them came landlords, land agents, tenantry, tradesmen, and hired labourers; while outside the Guild there would be an ‘irregular cavalry’ of friends (28.424). In contrast to the bishops of the Church of England there would be an episcopal system by which Bishops of the Guild oversaw and were responsible for the moral and physical welfare of every member — and acted as a kind of police force in financial matters (28.513-14).
Not all members of the Guild would work full time on the Guild’s schemes, for it was not intended to be a retreat from the world, but rather ‘a band of delivering knights’ (28.538). Ruskin had originally wanted to call it the St. George’s Company, after the mercenary companies that fought in Italy in the sixteenth century, but a Company that specifically did not make money was unacceptable to the Board of Trade (28.628-29). There were to be three classes of members of the Guild: ‘Companions Servant’ who worked mainly for the Guild, with some private interests; ‘Companions Militant’ who worked full time, such as agricultural workers; and ‘Companions Consular’ who gave one-tenth of their income to the Guild, but carried on with their normal occupations following St. George's principles (28.539). Besides the Guild itself there was perhaps to be another inner grouping, the Company of Mont Rose (27.296).
Because the destructive capitalist system created nothing but a National Debt, it was the purpose of the Guild to establish a ‘National Store.’
The possession of such a store by the nation would signify, that there were no taxes to pay; that everybody had clothes enough, and some stuff laid by for next year; that everybody had food enough, and plenty of salted pork, pickled walnuts, potted shrimps, or other conserves, in the cupboard; that everybody had jewels enough, and some of the biggest laid by, in treasuries and museums; and, of persons caring for such things, that everybody had as many books and pictures as they could read or look at; with quantities of the highest quality besides, in easily accessible public libraries and galleries. [28.641]
Since labour was the only source of value, the National Store could only [183/184] be accumulated by manual labour on the land, and not just on good land, but by bringing into cultivation land that lay idle or waste. This concern to improve the land was a socialized restatement of the nature-worship of Modern Painters, which ‘taught the claim of all lower nature on the hearts of men; of the rock, and wave, and herb, as a part of their necessary spirit life; in all that I now bid you to do, to dress the earth and keep it, I am fulfilling what I then began’ (29.137). The steam engine, symbol of destructive resource-consuming energy, was forbidden on St. George’s land, except for rail communication and heavy water-pumps; although the adaptation of machinery to the natural energies of wind and water, producing electricity, was to be encouraged. Finally, since rent was capitalistic usury, the rents on St. George’s farms would be reduced with every improvement made by the tenant, and the whole of it applied directly or indirectly to the benefit of the tenants.
Land and farms meant people, and so a comprehensive system of education was necessary. The children of the Guild’s labourers or Companions Militant would be taught in
agricultural schools, inland, and naval schools by the sea, the indispensable first condition of such education being that the boys learn either to ride or to sail; the girls to spin, weave, and sew, and at a proper age to cook all ordinary food exquisitely; the youth of both sexes to be disciplined daily in the strictest practice of vocal music; and for morality, to be taught gentleness to all brute creatures, — finished courtesy to each other, — to speak truth with rigid care, and to obey orders with the precision of slaves. [27.143]
The children would be taught with the aid of teaching examples such as those in use at Oxford, and with grammars of natural science, history, music and literature.
The educational system extended into the Companions’ homes, for each was to have a Bibliotheca Pastorum, a cottage library of standard volumes edited and published by the Guild (28.20). There would also be a standard collection of works of art available in reproduction for each house. The final expression of the National Store would be a series of Museums and Parks for delight and study. The theme of the Guild was peace and justice, which flowed from God through the kingly authority in man and down to the very last creature, ‘and so out of the true earthly kingdom, in fulness of time, shall come the heavenly kingdom’ (29.295). It is an echo of the conclusion to Modern Painters.
Such is the Guild of St George as it might be in its ideal state; Ruskin never made such a summary. As I said, the Guild is a counter-theme to [184/185] capitalism in Fors Clavigera; his ideas about its organization were liable to change according to the needs of the argument. For instance, at one stage he says that all boys and girls will have to learn Latin; at another, to stress the need for purely visual learning, he suggests it may not be necessary for them to be able to read at all. Schemes for the Guild are woven into and out of other subjects, and appear almost accidentally. Apart from a generalized ‘statement of creed and resolution’ (28.419-20), and the articles under which the Guild had finally been registered with the Board of Trade, there were no guidelines for the Companions to follow — except the whole body of Ruskin’s work: ‘For the defence of our principles, the entire series of Letters must be studied; and that with quiet attention, for not a word of them has been written but with purpose’ (28.650). And that threw the reader back to the projected image.
The Guild’s practical existence was very different from the empires he at times envisaged. Although he announced its foundation in 1871 and started a St. George’s Fund with £7,000 of his own money, the Guild did not come into existence legally until 1878, or have its first official meeting until 1879, when Ruskin was too ill to attend. The original membership of the Guild lists only thirty-two names (30.86), and none of them gave one-tenth of his income. After seven years’ work the land holdings of the Guild consisted of twenty acres of woodland at Bewdley in Worcestershire, a group of eight cottages at Barmouth in Wales, thirteen acres of land at Totley, near Sheffield, three-quarters of an acre at Cloughton near Scarborough, and a small cottage with some adjoining land at Walkley, also near Sheffield, which held the one museum of the Guild of St. George. There was little cultivation, and there were no schools.
The one point where the ideal and the actual did meet was in the Guild Museum. In November 1875 a small stone cottage and a plot of land were bought at Walkley. This was to be the Guild’s first educational museum, ‘arranged first for workers in iron, and extended into illustration of the natural history of the neighbourhood of Sheffield, and more especially of the geology and flora of Derbyshire’ (28.395). The ‘poetic’ reason for choosing Sheffield was the association of agriculture (the purpose of the Guild) with ploughing, ploughing with steel (and also sculpture): steel being the main industry of Sheffield. The practical reason was that a former pupil at the London Working Men’s College, Henry Swan, lived in Walkley and invited Ruskin to meet a group of local working men interested in his ideas. His reception encouraged him to plant ‘the germ of a museum.’ While the agricultural [185/186] projects hardly prospered, Ruskin’s individual talents were suited to establishing a museum. Museums had in fact been a long-standing interest, going back to his hopes for the curatorship of a ‘Turner Gallery’ showing the Turner bequest (13.xxvii-xxix). He had put his energies into helping the foundation of the Oxford Natural History Museum, had criticized the administration of the National Gallery, and had attacked the exhibition policy at the Crystal Palace. The teaching collection at Oxford was a parallel scheme to the educational purpose of the Guild. The Guild museum was to be the three-dimensional manifestation of his arguments: ‘the consummation of all that hitherto has been endeavoured in my writings, must be found in the completion of the design of the St. George's Museum’ (30.51).
The design was never to be completed, but its purposes are clear from what was done. This was not to be a great museum, the grand expression of the National Store, but a local educational institution. Such museums were not for entertainment, but they were for recreation, so that
persons who have a mind to use them can obtain so much relief from the work, or exert so much abstinence from the dissipation, of the outside world, as may enable them to devote a certain portion of secluded laborious and reverent life to the attainment of the Divine Wisdom, which the Greeks supposed to be the gift of Apollo, or of the Sun, and which the Christian knows to be the gift of Christ. [28.450]
Since the Museum was to serve Sheffield he planned to create a school of metalwork, but this was later abandoned, with some bitterness (30.70), and the flora and geology of Derbyshire were absorbed into the general natural science studies.
Like the teaching collection at Oxford, the Museum synthesized art, science and history. Sculpture was to be given prominence, as ‘the foundation and school of painting,’ and because casts were more effective than copies of paintings; but the casts were to be integrated with the display of relevant drawings and prints, and would also act as instructional examples such ‘as may best teach the ordinary workman the use of his chisel’ (30.55-56). The choice of paintings and prints related to themes of national history and literature, as did the display of books and illuminated manuscripts. A collection of minerals acted as an introduction to natural science, and at the same time, like the examples of botany and zoology, led back into the world of art. Ruskin’s scheme for a new building for the Museum in 1881 envisaged a two-storey structure seventy feet long with an apsidal end, and a front porch like [186/187] the door of the baptistry at Pisa (Scott, 33-34). The building was to be faced with marble. Originally Ruskin suggested Derbyshire marble, but the architect pointed out that it would not stand the weather, so Italian marbles were considered instead. Each floor was to have a gallery and a study room, a Public Library and students’ reading room on the ground floor, an art gallery and jewel-room above. Other plans included a separate curator’s house (also faced with marble) and a hostel and an inn for visitors.
The Guild Museum was multiform and multipurpose: it was a collection of beautiful objects, whether painting, drawing, illumination or minerals, so linking art and nature; it was illustrative of cultural and moral history; and it was a school of drawing and painting, an education for the hand and eye. It was also a synthesis of word and image, for each item in the collection, book, painting, sculpture or mineral, related to the publications of the Guild of St. George.11 The examples of Venetian art and architecture commissioned from Ruskin’s copyists carried out the obligation of the Guild to record and preserve the art of the past, and had their literary context in St. Mark’s Rest and the Guide to the Principal Pictures in the Academy at Venice. Similar studies and examples linked Florentine artists with Mornings in Florence; the Cathedral and streets of Amiens reflected The Bible of Amiens. These guidebooks in turn related to Ruskin’s work at Oxford, and the scheme for a series of local histories Our Fathers Have Told Us. Behind all these was the idea of a cultural history first explored in The Stones of Venice. The natural science collection related to Deucalion, Proserpina, and Love’s Meinie, and complemented the studies of landscape that made it natural to include studies from Turner that stretched back to Modern Painters. Man’s relationship with his surroundings found its political context in the translation from Xenophon’s Economist for the Guild Library, and its visual context in The Laws of Fésole. The aphorisms of The Laws of Fésole and the musical discipline of Rock Honeycomb and The Elements of English Prosody conveyed the educational aims of the Guild for which the Museum was a visual focus.
Again, the reality falls short of the ideal. The collection of the Guild was built up in a haphazard manner, as at the Drawing School, and only the mineral collection and some of the pictures were actually catalogued by Ruskin.
The Museum of the Guild of St George. Photograph c. 1876. The earliest known photograph, of the upper room of the cottage at Walkley, Sheffield, shows the crowded conditions and the variegated materials displayed. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The upper room of the cottage in which the collection was originally kept (the curator lived in the same building) was too small for all the exhibits to be kept there, even after a gallery was added in 1884. Part of the material was kept elsewhere, or joined the floating collection circulating between Oxford, Sheffield and [187/188] other points of call. Ruskin’s gradual loss of control of his affairs affected the Guild like everything else, and the Museum, like the Guild, was held in suspended animation between his collapse in 1889 and his death in 1900. On the other hand, the Museum did attract people’s interest, and Sheffield Corporation were sufficiently interested to be prepared to give £5,000 towards building a new museum in 1882. The proposal fell through because of a lack of further finance and Ruskin’s refusal to relinquish full control of the collection. In 1890 the Museum was finally re-opened in larger premises on Corporation property at Meersbrook Park, when Ruskin was no longer in a position to object. This gave more room for display, but the arrangement of the rooms only dimly reflected his original ideas. The collection, like that of the Drawing School, is now dismantled, although Reading University, to which the Guild has loaned the collection, is taking steps towards its restoration. [Editor's note: For recent efforts to reimagine Ruskin in Sheffield, see, outside the Victorian Web, The Guild of St. George.]
I have characterized the later period of Ruskin’s life as one of increasing oppositions, and nowhere is that opposition more extreme than within the scheme for the Guild of St. George. On the one hand he was ‘thinking out my system on a scale which shall be fit for wide European work’ (28.424), and on the other he was proposing to promote this scheme with the aid of ‘about thirty persons — none of them rich, several of them sick, and the leader of them, at all events, not likely to live long’ (28.638). I have tried to show that image and reality were unified, because they expressed the same moral argument; but there remains a disparity between the utopian dreams and the pathetic results achieved.
No one knew Ruskin’s limitations better than himself. He was truly ‘the most practical of men’ because his ideas issued in practice, in physical action, but he freely admitted that he saw himself only as a ‘makeshift Master’ until some better leader came along (29.197). The fact that no one did step forward dramatized his position and almost made a virtue of his weaknesses: ‘Such as I am, to my amazement, I stand — so far as I can discern — alone in conviction, in hope, and in resolution, in the wilderness of this modern world’ (18.423). The multiplicity of his self-imposed duties was a further excuse for practical failure. It was not wholly his fault, he wrote in 1887, that the programme outlined in his inaugural lectures at Oxford remained unfulfilled, for he had been distracted by other interests, especially the Guild, which had caused his Oxford friends to distrust him (20.13-14). But his obligations to Oxford likewise excused him from concentrating [188/189] on Guild work. The mind whose all-embracing view made it possible to conceive such important schemes was also a threat to them, since the need to show the relevance of everything to everything else distracted him into a series of seeming irrelevances.
Was then Ruskin serious about the Guild? He curtly told the readers of Fors Clavigera in 1875:
If those of my readers who have been under the impression that I wanted them to join me in establishing some model institution or colony, will look to the third paragraph of Letter I [in which he proposes a National Store], they will see that, so far from intending or undertaking any such thing, I meant to put my whole strength into my Oxford teaching; and, for my own part, to get rid of begging letters and live in peace. [28.236]
And yet the gift of £7,000 and the time and money devoted to the Museum, plus his complaints of having to stand alone, show that he did intend the Guild to survive, as indeed it does. The problem is one of method, the sort of problem he encountered when writing his drawing lessons in The Laws of Fésole.
I had intended to write it separately for the use of schools; but after repeated endeavours to arrange it in a popular form, find that it will not so shape itself availably, but must consist of such broad statements of principle as my now enlarged experience enables me to make; with references to the parts of my other books in which they are defended or illustrated. [28.407]
So it was that Fors Clavigera ‘contains not a plan or scheme, but a principle and tendency’ (28.227).
As a principle, the Guild of St. George exists on every page of Fors Clavigera, in the Museum, and in every muddled and unfinished scheme; its justification is to be found in the whole body of Ruskin’s work, because it is the summation of that work. But even as a principle its exact constitution or description was unnecessary, since its purpose was action and its medium, people: ‘The ultimate success or failure of the design will not in the least depend on the terms of our constitution, but on the quantity of living honesty and pity which can be found, to be constituted’ (28.436). The translations from Plato’s Laws which appear in Fors Clavigera link Ruskin’s designs with those of Socrates, who gave practical advice to the dictators Dionysius II and Hermias (Plato 16-17), but whose projected Republic was ‘impossible even in his own day’ (29.242). It was in this context that Ruskin could say that his advice was ‘not, in any wise, intended as counsel adapted to the present state of the public mind, but it is the assertion of the code of Eternal Laws, which the [189/190] public mind must eventually submit itself to, or die’ (29.198). As a principle the Guild of St. George had to be greater than himself: ‘it would be a poor design indeed, for the bettering of the world, which any man could see either quite round the outside, or quite into the inside of’ (28.235).
The reason for the apparent failure of the Guild is Ruskin’s fundamentally religious, as opposed to political attitude: ‘I do not, and cannot, set myself up for a political leader’ (29.197). Political change is brought about by short-term inducement and compromise, and only touches the conditions, not the motivations, of men. The change that Ruskin tried to effect involved genuine conversion, brought about by persuasion or example, and it was essentially as an example that the Guild was intended. He did not care if it only started in ‘two or three poor men’s gardens. So much, at least, I can buy myself, and give them. If no help come, I have done and said what I could, and there will be an end’ (27.96). Ruskin’s belief in his cause is religious because it is based on faith, and faith can allow no compromise.
In spite of all his warnings of revolution, Ruskin could not finally advocate it. His model of society is authoritarian, but based on love and moral righteousness, not force. A religious attitude meant that he could not impose change through political action; instead, it had to be brought about by evangelical conversion, hence the emphasis on education, a secular equivalent to missionary work. His example, and his image, was St. George:
It is enough for us that a young soldier, in early days of Christianity, put off his armour, and gave up his soul to his Captain, Christ: and that his death did so impress the hearts of all Christian men who heard of it, that gradually he became to them the leader of a sacred soldiership, which conquers more than its mortal enemies, and prevails against the poison, and the shadow, of Pride, and Death. [27.481]
Ruskin could only hope that his own life would do the same.