Patrick Conner. Savage Ruskin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1979. Pp. xiv, 189. $14.95. This review originally appeared in the American Historical Review (June 1980): 630-31.
his poorly conceived study of minor elements in Ruskin’s art and architectural criticism has a few useful insights for the devoted Ruskinian but little to offer those with a more general interest in Victorian culture and society. According to Patrick Conner, who has not done his homework very well, his book “is the first to investigate Britain’s most influential art critic as a critic—not as a theorist, but as a judge of paintings, architecture and society” (p. xi). In fact, Savage Ruskin, three-quarters of which is devoted to anecdotal biography, has little to say about Ruskin as critic or painting or society; when it does discuss Ruskin’s criticism, it concentrates upon what Conner terms “the remarkable method which he evolved (initially inspired by other writers) for interpreting pictures and buildings themselves as ‘personalities’, with a whole range of human attributes, which would then be praised or denounced almost as if they were actually people” (pp. xii-xiii). Conner makes an interesting though hardly major point here, but he fails to test it sufficiently. One wonders why, for example, he has not examined the anthropomorphic elements in Ruskin’s satiric imagery, social criticism, and writings on myth. Oddly enough, although the author seems unaware of the fact, his valuable discussions of traditional and contemporary conceptions of expression, anthropomorphism, and the like—which constitute the high point of this study—concern themselves almost entirely with art theory. Furthermore, Conner, who has considerable difficulty in working with the details of Ruskin’s text, seems unaware of recent discussions of Ruskin’s critical procedure. Richard L. Stein, for example, valuably explains in The Ritual of Interpretation (1975) how the critic relies upon fictionalized “fables of perception,” and other recent work has examined how Ruskin employed word painting to manipulate political attitudes and the religious associations of a Protestant audience.
Conner’s notion that anthropomorphism explains all of Ruskin cannot carry an entire full-length discussion of his subject, so he devotes approximately three-quarters of his slim volume to relating anecdotal biography derived from the usual secondary sources. Claiming that Ruskin’s biography can explain his critical judgments, Conner consistently fails to demonstrate such connections—even when earlier authors, such as John Rosenberg, have already done so successfully—and, consequently, the book wanders for long passages without any obvious direction or point. Another oddity is that despite the announcement that he will discuss Ruskin as critic of society, and despite his adoption of a biographical organization, Conner then devotes 90 percent of his volume to the first decade or so of Ruskin’s career.
Nonetheless, although Conner has considerable difficulty in interpreting Ruskin’s writings, he often provides concise, useful summaries of backgrounds in art and architectural theory. His brief discussions of A. F. Rio (a particularly crucial figure to the Victorians), the backgrounds to The Seven Lamps of Architecture (text), and theories of expression are useful and of interest. Unfortunately, his concluding chapters on Ruskin’s later life, relation to the Pre-Raphaelites, and writings on political economics demonstrate that he is embarrassingly uninformed about these subjects and recent scholarly investigations of them.
Last modified 4 May 2019