Michael W. Brooks. John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press. 1987.

John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby, editors. The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1987. [This review first appeared in Albion (1988-89): 122-24.]

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write this review on Thanksgiving Day 1987, and the Bradley-Ousby edition of the Ruskin-Norton letters and Brooks’s fine study of Ruskin’s influence upon architecture are books for which one readily gives thanks. These are, in short, the kind of volumes that one delights to review—interesting, well conceived, useful, and, above all, competent. With Ian Ousby, John Bradley, one of the deans of Ruskin scholarship and the person who introduced high standards for editing Ruskin’s letters, has re-edited the particularly valuable correspondence of the Victorian sage with his close friend and confessor, Charles Eliot Norton, America’s first art historian.

At present, two schools of editing dominate Ruskin scholarship, both of which quite properly attempt to present Ruskin’s often chaotically punctuated sentences as close as possible to the form in which they appear in manuscript and in this way remind readers that they read materials not intended for publication. The two schools, one of which is represented by John Bradley and the other by Helen Gill Viljoen and Van Akin Burd, differ on the matter of annotation, for whereas Bradley, whose notes resemble those found in most scholarly editions of correspondence, advocates providing only that kind and amount of information immediately relevant to the matter at hand. Van Burd and Viljoen practice annotation of a novel density and abundance. The late Helen Gill Viljoen, who has fame among Ruskinians for having worked her entire career on an exhaustive definitive biography of Ruskin and only managing (much in the manner of Tristram Shandy) to arrive at his birth in the single volume she produced, probably knew more about the details of Ruskin’s daily life than any other scholar ever has or will. Her copious over-annotation in The Brantwood Diary (1971; review) frequently makes her edition resemble a work of experimental fiction more than a scholarly edition, in part because it manages to reveal a coherence and connection in Ruskin’s most disturbed and telegraphic jottings and in so doing blurs the borders of sanity and madness, coherence and incoherence, sense and nonsense. Probably the best justification of such bizarre editorial presentation lies in the fact that Viljoen and, after her, Burd have such a full knowledge of Ruskin’s life and acquaintances that one wishes that knowledge to be recorded somewhere, anywhere. As grateful as one is to have such factual knowledge at hand for future use, one also has to admit that Bradley’s rather more moderate conception of editorial annotation makes for an edition that is generally more easy and more enjoyable to use.

Unlike some of the materials presented by Burd and Viljoen, these presented by Bradley and Ousby have an obvious major value, since Ruskin confided at length in Norton and since both had extraordinarily interesting things to record. Restoring passages that Norton had excised and adding his own letters, the editors have provided us with the most interesting and useful of all the many volumes of Ruskin’s correspondence. The letters are surprisingly intimate and revealing, particularly given the fact that Norton and his family seem to have spent a good bit of their later years burning Ruskin’s letters in a misguided attempt to protect him from prying eyes—misguided because Ruskin, who defended Froude for revealing the details of Carlyle’s private life in his biography of the master, had little sympathy with contemporary late Victorian and Edwardian assumptions that biographers and editors should idealize their subjects at the expense of truth and destroy documentary evidence whenever it interfered with such falsifying idealization. One cannot but wonder what all those destroyed letters contained, but one should be properly grateful for those that have survived since they have so many points of interest for the student of Ruskin’s ideas and style.

Like Bradley and Ousby, who have done far better in this second editing of the Ruskin-Norton letters. Brooks does far better with materials some of which others had presented, or tried to present, earlier. In John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture Brooks has provided by far the best book on its subject. After chapters on Ruskin’s developing ideas of architecture that site them amidst contemporary discussions of proportion and ecclesiology—that is, amid purely technical as opposed to ideological contexts—Brooks includes interesting introductory remarks about Ruskin and nineteenth-century architectural prose. Two chapters next define Ruskinism in architecture in terms of Ruskin’s ideas of “mass, color, ornament, and the treatment of the workman” (p. 75) and then demonstrate how its popularity derives from the way “Ruskin’s visual enthusiasms are integrated into a quiet un-Ruskinian concept of style” by contemporary architects (p. 98). Chapters then follow on Woodward and Ruskinian gothic, the struggle for a truly Victorian gothic in the 1850s, and the triumph and simultaneous dispersal of Ruskinism in the next decade. Skillfully juggling an essentially chronological organization with one based on a complex array of topics. Brooks in the last third of his study includes discussions of Ruskin’s relation to the architectural profession, the split between Ruskinism and Liberalism, and the way Ruskin’s social gospel, which emphasized the workman, created an influential new form of Ruskinism later in the century. Chapters on Ruskin’s influence in America and the guild movement close the volume, almost all of whose chapters boast clear, concise presentations of complex materials.

The book’s greatest strengths lie in its wealth of primary material, much of it in the form of illustrations drawn from contemporary architectural publications, and its ability to define precisely what Ruskin meant and how he relates to the contemporary context. These virtues derive in part from Brooks’s fine awareness of the fact that both Ruskin and his contemporaries continued to develop in a complex interrelationship throughout the period under study. In short, this much-needed, excellent book, which manages to convey enthusiastic appreciation of Ruskin’s accomplishments without overemphasizing them or pointing out his shortcomings in the contemporary context, has finally given us an adequate discussion of its complex subject.

Since the reviewer’s credo requires pointing out at least one flaw in each book under consideration, I have to admit that this generally excellent work does have a few. First of all, although Brooks has obviously admirably mastered Ruskin’s own works as well as Victorian writings about architecture and the abundant art historical secondary literature, he tends to neglect almost all recent work by literary historians, something perhaps unexpected from a professor of English. In particular he makes no mention of important relevant work on The Stones of Venice by Hewison, Helsinger, and Sawyer among others. At times, even when he cites particular works, he does not always seem to remember what is in them. For example, his entire discussion of Ruskinian imagery in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (text), good as it is, never takes note of the fact that the passages he discusses draw upon commonplace interpretations of the Book of Leviticus that Ruskin recorded in elaborate detail in childhood sermon notes—something discussed at length in one of the books Brooks cites. A final criticism, though one directed at the book’s editor as much as at its author: because Brooks most unfortunately fails to index material he includes in his notes or to include a bibliography, he makes locating or checking cited materials unnecessarily difficult. Nonetheless, annoying as these minor shortcomings may be, they do little to detract from the usefulness of this fine study of Ruskin and Ruskinism in Victorian architecture.

Last modified 6 May 2019