Introduction by George P. Landow, Professor of English and the History of Art, Brown University
Huxley's review of J. H. Whitehouse's Ruskin Addresses, which appeared in the September 5, 1919 Athenæum, does not so much evaluate these Ruskin texts of the editor's treatment of them as give Huxley an occasion to provide his own estimate of Ruskin, whose political economics and defence of the Pre-Raphaelites he praises but whose effect on British architecture he despises. Huxley is very much a child of his time in this review, and time and taste have passed him by, for contrary to what Huxley believed in the 1920s, scholars, critics, and laymen now increasingly see the various forms of Gothic revival architecture as major architecture and Ruskin as one of the best art thinkers of the age. Now that major figures in the modernist movement, such as Vincent Scully, are apologizing for the way modern glass- and concrete-box architecture has destroyed modern cities, Ruskin's enmphases on lush design have come to seem increasingly essential to a humane form of building.
Huxley apparently doesn't know much about either Ruskin's work on architecture or his actual complex, often contradictory influence upon art and design, so it is worth reminding ourselves that Ruskin's writings on architecture — Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, and "Traffic" — had three major effects — popularize gothic revival style, encourage functionalism in architecture, and encourage revival or development of local vernacular architecture from Hungary to New Mexico. Huxley only mentions the first and simplifies the nature of a complex movement. Furthernmore, one has to recognize the following about Ruskin's relation to the Gothic Revival:
Yes, Ruskin worked with the designer of the Oxford Natural History Museum, but in the end he felt it was a failure.
Ruskin had nothing to do with Keble College, a fine series of buildings built in the so-called Rogue Gothic style, and this style has about as much in common with either Venetian Gothic or the Museum as, say, Baroque with Romanesque!
Even though Ruskin held up Venetian Gothic as an example of a architecture suited to its place and time, he was appalled when British architects used it since England's climate and historical situation was so different — and he said so in print.
At the time Huxley was scorning Ruskin, his statements about form and function were inspiring modern architecture and design, such as the Bauhaus school in post-World War I Germany
Perhaps the first critic to refuse to distinguish between fine and applied art, Ruskin directly inspired the arts and crafts and modern design movements. Along with his follower Morris, Ruskin was universally regarded by modernist designers in the '20 as the father of them all.
THE name of John Ruskin, says the President of Magdalen, "is assuredly among the great Oxford names of any century, and is one of the very greatest of the last century, even though Oxford within that period turned out, in more senses than one, both Shelley and Gladstone." And in another place Sir Herbert Warren lays stress on this connection between Ruskin and the University by speaking of it as "his own Oxford." "His own Oxford" — the phrase is an apt one, for Ruskin stamped himself indelibly upon the place, and his spirit still lingers, visibly embodied in much nineteenth-century brick and mortar, in city and college. Let us give our spirits wing and hover a moment over the town that Ruskin and the ideas of which he was the mouthpiece made, at least in part, their own. From the castled steep of Norham Gardens in the north to the Mauro-Venetian-Gothic of the Meadow Buildings of Christ Church in the south we find Ruskin's traces everywhere. Flitting along the fringes of the Parks, our spiritual eyes are struck by something that is not Siena Cathedral so much as Keble. Opposite stands the Oxford Museum , complete with tower, carved windows and Glastonbury kitchen, as it rose, massive and horrifying, from the earth at Ruskin's bidding. A little further southward the striped hyena that is Balliol Chapel crouches in the shade of the most Scottishly Baronial tower that ever existed on either side of the Tweed. Terrible things are to be found in Merton and Exeter, and in the far, far north stands the more recently erected Church of St. Andrew, built of a spongy sausage-coloured brick, and faced with a veneer of stone, nearly half an inch thick, that creates an admirable illusion of solidity. A Norman barrel vault made of papier machŕ covers this place of worship. Peeping in, as we fly past, at the narrow pointed windows of a North Oxford house, we catch a glimpse of obscure cryptlike rooms which somehow are incapable of being made com-fortable, and we think, with a touch of sadness, of Ruskin's eloquent words, "Gothic is not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as that which can fit itself most easily to all service, vulgar or noble." Regretfully we remember the beauty and comfort of the rooms in Queen's or the New Buildings of Magdalen; we compare the calm simplicity of the Camera or the Judge's Lodgings with the tortured frenzy of the Meadow Buildings. But we must not think of these evil Palladian things. Founded on pride and luxury, they have not the moral purity of Gothic buildings. Ruskin gives us the choice of being good and living in Keble or living in Magdalen New Buildings and being bad. For ourselves, we have no hesitation. We are for Palladio and the primrose path. Oxford as the nineteenth century left it, Oxford as it was moulded and fashioned by the ideas of which Ruskin made himself the apostle, is a terrible warning to us to be very cautious about listening to prophets, especially in matters of art. For Ruskin was a prophet, and possessed the prophet's elequence and power of making men believe in him; and though in some things, as Mr. Mackail and the other gentlemen who delivered the addresses reprinted in the present volume pointed out, he possessed the prophet's insight, he cannot be said to have been entirely infallible in his judgments about art. The unfortunate thing was that when he gave vent to such utterances as the one about the goodness and reasonableness of Gothic architecture that we have quoted, people believed in him and acted upon his suggestions as promptly as, and indeed much more promptly than, they ever acted upon his political teachings. The nineteenth century rejoiced in sham medieval architecture (we may note it here as a curious fact that Ruskin disapproved of what is almost the only original and interesting piece of neo-Gothic ever carried out in this country, the Houses of Parliament), but it was so much scandalized by the teachings contained in Unto This Last that Thackeray and George Smith were compelled to discontinue its publication in the Cornhill. Our fathers would not stand such nonsense as this:
No agitators, no clubs, no epidemical errors, ever were or will be fatal to social order in any nation. Nothing but the guilt of the upper classes, reckless and merciless, ever overthrows them. Of such guilt they have now much to answer fo — let them look to it in time.
They did not look to it in time or at least not in nearly such good time as they looked to the erection of Gothic dwelling-houses in which everything, from beauty to com-fort, was sacrificed at the shrine of the author of "The Stones of Venice." Under the stern compulsion of circumstances, and moved as well, to some extent by the generous gospel of Ruskin himself, they have looked to it a little since those words were written sixty years ago. Mr. Whitehouse, in his lecture on "Ruskin as a Pioneer Force in Modern Life," has briefly summarized the social reforms advocated by Ruskin and carried out by the State since the writing of "Unto This Last." Educational reform has advanced, as yet, it is true, but a little way along the lines that Ruskin suggested. Old-Age Pensions have followed, somewhat tardily, after Ruskin's pronouncement in 1857 that "it ought to be quite as natural and straightforward a matter for a labourer to take his pension from his parish because he has deserved well of his parish as for a man in higher rank to take his pension from his country because he has deserved well of his country."
It was Ruskin who first suggested that income tax should be graduated, and that super-tax should be imposed. And there are a hundred other details in the grand scheme of his Utopia which have already been embodied in the fabric of the State, while the startling and revolutionary theories which he advanced half a century ago have become the commonplaces of our political thought. There have been many makers of Utopian schemes. Ruskin used the epithet proudly, blaming his fellow-countrymen for the ignoble sneer with which they generally uttered the word; but there are very few whose Utopias have in any detail come true, or have, like Ruskin's, remained a permanently fruitful ideal. In politics his influence has been entirely for good. In art his prophetship was, as we have already seen in the case of the Gothic revival, a mixed blessing. It is true that by his art criticism he put a stop to a good many academical horrors. (Sir E. T. Cook quotes from an early Punch this "pathetic lament from an Academician":
I paints and paints,
Hears no complaints
And sells before I'm dry,
Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in,
Then nobody will buy.)
It is true that he encouraged and supported the one living school of English painting that existed during the nine-teenth century, the Pre-Raphaelites. But against this we may set the Oxford Museum and all that it portended, and, with all due respect to Mr. Henry Wilson, by whom one of the addresses in the present volume was delivered, we may also set nearly all the "arty-crafty" products that have issued from post — Ruskinian workshops during the last generation. In theory and in ancient practice Gothic architecture is an admirable thing; so is handcraft. But in modern times these theories, anciently fruitful in such exquisite practice, have given birth to monsters. Why? Human wit is at a loss to find out the reason. The monsters have simply happened. It is not Ruskin's fault so much as his sheer misfortune.
Athenæum September 5, 1919
Last modified 22 September 2005