Ruskin's application of the same techniques and ideas to the criticism of art and society reminds us, he does not shift abruptly from writing about painting to writing about political economy. — George P.Landow, The Victorian Web

Ruskin’s Evangelical Beliefs and Biblical Rhetoric

Why, in the 1840s, did Ruskin address socio-political questions, and where had he arrived in understanding those questions in his developing response to his contemporary world? His work of the 1840s and 1850s certainly moved from landscape painting to architecture and sculpture and his attempts, in both his published works and his private patronage of a section of the art market, to be an arbiter of individual artistic practice and public taste, to more ambitious attempts to legislate for a whole area of social artistic practice and public taste in architectural matters on which he had no patronal purchase. This extension of his activities was undoubtedly accompanied by his developing reservations about his Evangelical Christian commitment.

Having apologised in the Introduction to the The Seven Lamps of Architecture (complete text) for the inadequacy of the theses to be put forward, on the grounds that any attempt to pursue his architectural studies would have distracted him from the continuing enterprise of Modern Painters Ruskin offers what a modern sensibility must receive as a quite astonishing apology for his introduction of references to scripture into his previously published arguments. The astonishing quality of this apology, which quickly turns into a justification annihilating any apology, is that the original introduction of scriptural references is ‘an apparently graver fault’ than a distraction which means that he is unable to deal with the finer points of architectural theory and practice. Here is his justification:

I have been blamed for the introduction of its [i.e. scripture's] sacred words. I am grieved to have given pain by so doing, but my excuse must be that those words were made the ground of every argument and the test of every action. We have them not often enough on our lips, nor deeply enough in our memories, nor loyally enough in our lives. The snow, the vapour, and the stormy wind fulfil His words. Are our acts and thoughts lighter and wilder than these- that we should forget it? [8.24: my italics]

The final paragraph of the Introduction relates his use of scriptural idiom to the events of 1848, and the need for ‘every good man’ (the exclusion policy is clear, but who is included is another question) to acknowledge the principles which the volume will articulate.

It becomes clear, as he proceeds, that, while in the previous volumes most key principles were derived from scriptural authority, in The Seven Lamps much of the material with which he is dealing is also governed by scriptural authority. For example, his stated opposition to contemporary machine work in ‘The Lamp of Life’ concludes with a characteristic burst of conservative biblical thunder constructed around a quotation from James IV:14:

There is dreaming enough, and earthiness enough, and sensuality enough in human existence, without our turning the few glowing moments of it into mechanism; and since our life must at best be but a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away, let it at least appear as a cloud in the height of Heaven, not as the thick darkness that broods over the blast of the Furnace, and rolling of the Wheel. [8. 219-20]

Landow has pointed to the significance of Ruskin's employment of biblical quotations, references and idioms. In his chapter on ‘Ruskin and Allegory’, in which he comments on Ruskin's typology, he argues that the empirical approaches to language of Hobbes and Locke effectively removed the reference of language from metaphysics to psychology, and, in so doing, undermined for Evangelical Christians the linguistic foundations of allegory. However, as he further points out, the Evangelical Anglicans did not in any sense combat Lockean theories and those of the Scottish empiricists who followed his lead — Reid, Dugald Stewart and Adam Smith (all read by Ruskin). Rather, Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments is cited ‘approvingly’ by Wilberforce in his Biblical Christianity (1797) The Evangelical tactic for dealing with the implications of scientific theories, biblical scholarship, and comparative philology, was exemplified by one of the Ruskins' favourite preachers, Henry Melvill. In a passage from a sermon quoted by Landow: ‘The Bible is as actually a divine communication as though its words came to us in the voice of Almighty, mysteriously syllabled, and breathed from the firmament’ (Landow 352-56)

Landow is explaining the pressures undermining Ruskin's Evangelical faith, and it is in that context that he cites Melvill. His argument that the Evangelicals sought to privilege the Bible as Divinely communicated, and, therefore, beyond the reach of empirical science, is at the basis of Ruskin's early employment of biblical quotations, references and idioms. Constantly, at what he senses as crucial moments in his arguments, Ruskin reaches for his scriptural repertoire, as in the peroration to ‘The Lamp of Life’ where he seeks, as so often, to give his arguments a purchase on a metaphysical reality which transcends actual history. This in effect means that he does not so much offer an argument as proclaim an authoritative revelation. This kind of rhetoric will continue after he has lost his faith and will transcend analysis, interpretation, argument, counter-argument, controversy, and the other features of normal intellectual discourse, and, particularly, the Lockean anchoring of experience in sense data. Obviously such a procedure can work in Modern Painters 1 and 2 where he deals with a natural order luminous with Typical Beauty and its representations in landscape art - the rhetorical scriptural procedures of the text are authenticated by the subject of the text since both Nature and scripture are a divine creation. And, for Ruskin, that authentication is there in Turner's canvasses. The result, when he is dealing with painting, is undoubtedly a mystification in which the unremitting materiality of the natural phenomena about which he writes forces Ruskin into a language of the ‘immeasurable’, the ‘inexhaustible’ and the 'imperceptible’. However, when he comes to deal with architecture as a massive investment of public and private human resources, the sheer weight of human experience that it embodies and the impossibility, not necessarily recognised by Ruskin, He could not describe architecture and empty it of its interconnections to actual history. This makes it the more difficult to appeal to a transcendental reality.

I am not here implying that you can take paintings out of their historical context, but Ruskin does so in the first two volumes of Modern Painters as he shields them from any contamination by contemporary industrial modes of production and commodity values by insisting that artistic truths as offered by Turner are unique, and not the endless repetitions of a mass production. In this we have a very secure implicit basis for his later opposition to the products of the Victorian commodity culture.

He certainly tries to isolate the architectural heritage, though not contemporary building, from an actual history, and argues that the bases of great work in architecture are instinctual social practices, and mysterious structures of feeling and motive which are not subject to the processes of analysis and interpretation which would articulate them in a form appropriate for teaching to, and learning by, contemporary architectural workmen (8.195 and 209). For Ruskin, the greatest of all the works in our heritage is Giotto's Campanile, which had its genesis in Giotto's emergence from an anti-urban scriptural Wilderness (8.189).

His use of biblical idioms serves another connected purpose. It de-personalises Ruskin's arguments and he becomes no longer an author, an individual voice in a specific historical situation contributing to a general debate about architectural styles, a debate about practices and developments which he has already stigmatised as ‘confusion’ and ‘abuses’. Instead, he becomes a spokesman, a prophet, a ‘sage’ whose voice, scripturally sanctioned, is placed beyond and above the specific details of the architectural discourse and architectural institutions, and is articulating universalised principles. This empties his arguments at crucial points of any subjective element and places it beyond counter-argument.

Ruskin’s loss of faith is inextricably involved in his extension of his range of interests to include an engagement with the social problems of his day and it is possible to argue that ‘extension’ is more appropriate than ‘shift’ to describe the way in which his writings develop, and therefore to call into question those commentators who have sought to locate the genesis of his socio-political writings in psychological interpretations; family induced neuroses; fear of revolution; his Epiphanies; and a ‘Broad Sweep’ approach which argues for internal continuities underlying a ‘shift’ in his interests.

Psychological Interpretations

These distract and rarely illuminate. They include an extraordinary assertion by Larg that it was Ruskin’s failed marriage which inspired his social criticism; he was pressing ‘a suit for nullity against England’ instead of Effie (95). Townsend attributes his loss of Landscape Feeling from 1843-1856 to personal difficulties producing a mixture of ‘the ridiculous and the sublime; bombast, pseudo-philosophy, dogmatism, and Puritanism’ which ‘almost obliterate the finer moments of shrewd perception and magnificent cadences’, and claims that his ‘inability to organise, to avoid digressions, to take criticism, to reason things through’ can be assigned to his domineering parents, his frustrated love for Adele Domecq, disappointment in marriage, his fascination with young girls and insanity in old age (3-4). Such observations disparage Ruskin and thereby his work.

David Sonstroem offers another extreme example. Once Ruskin's personal sexual difficulties are understood, then his work deserves a respect that we have been slow to grant him (14-17). There is no break between the earlier art criticism and the social criticism, Sonstroem argues, but a shift from the ideal ‘Gothic’ man to the ideal father figure. Ruskin, who is concerned with manly ideals in contemporary society, worries about his own manliness and so projects manliness into mountain scenes and Gothic architecture, modifying Gothic manliness, underplaying its brutish elements, and softening it to accommodate ‘softer virtues of gentleness, generosity, affection and self-sacrifice’ which characterise the paternalistic figures featured in Unto This Last (41-42). He supports his argument from The Stones of Venice’ glass beads:

are formed by … drawing… glass into rods; these … are chopped up into fragments… the size of beads by the human hand …The men… sit at their work all day, their hands vibrating with a perpetual and exquisitely timed palsy, and the beads dropping beneath their vibration like hail. Neither they, nor the men who draw out the rods or fuse the fragments, have the smallest occasion for the use of any single human faculty; and every young lady, therefore, who buys glass beads is engaged in the slave-trade, and in a much more cruel one than that we have so long been endeavouring to put down. [10.197]

Sonstroem interprets the imagery to suggest ‘guilty masturbation leading to disease’, ‘sexual cruelty’, and a ‘strong suggestion of self-castration’ (15). In the Victorian era, the Mrs. Grundies, those self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals, certainly thought that masturbation would inevitably lead to disease (Baden-Powell thought it ruined a boy’s moral fibre and he founded the Boy Scouts movement partly to restore British youth to sexual health). But to extrapolate sado-masochist implications from the passage quoted is as absurd as reading sexual implications into ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ or ‘A Wise Old Owl’—  although, true, it has been tried with comical effect. Sometimes take things at their face value! Sometimes, as Freud advised, a cigar is just a cigar.

The absurdity of this approach to an important text itself needs questioning. Ruskin, without any sexual allusions, emphasises the workers' hands in a nightmarish reversal of his key emphasis on the importance of creative handwork in the productive process. He has chosen the making of glass beads precisely: the men do not operate machines, they operate as machines. However there are limits here. First, his choice of glass-blowing emphasizes his sedulously avoiding Britain’s industrial centres. His regular trips from London to the Lake District skirted round Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds which were visible to a traveller like Ruskin only as what he himself would label ‘The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’, the industrial pollution that corrupted people’s lungs and the atmosphere surrounding them, rather than their morals. It was the living and working conditions to which so many were condemned which created moral corruption.

Secondly, why should someone from what was at the time the world’s leading industrial power, choose glass-blowing rather operating the steam driven machines which were at the centre of British productivity? Perhaps Ruskin’s fascination with Italy causes him to look to Murano rather than Manchester for an industrial model. Perhaps he had never seen a British manufactory in action.

Thirdly, he isolates consumer demand, and sees an apparently straightforward relationship between demand and the productive process, so wrongly assigning the responsibility for human exploitation to consumer demand when in fact the forces creating such exploitation were far more complex.

Fear of revolution

Sonstroem's emphasis on manliness points to limitations in Ruskin's thinking that stem not from psycho-sexual distortions but from his social position. There is Ruskin’s mistaken notion that ‘contented manhood’ was the source of the greatness of Gothic building. This is Wordsworth mixed with mediaevalist fantasies derived from writers like Rio. The greatness of public buildings cannot be deduced from the assumed greatness of domestic architecture and the assumed state of mind of its inhabitants. Nor can the general quality of a people's life be deduced from the way in which their artisans chiselled their materials. However, Ruskin does offer a contrast between mediaeval buildings and the contentment which they apparently express, and the cheap-jack Victorian housing which he sees as symptomatic of a discontented manhood, and he clearly fears the transformation of the latter into a revolutionary manhood.

This fear is behind his call, in such works as Unto This Last for the Captains of Industry to exercise a benevolent paternalism and act as a stabilising, counter-revolutionary force. His image of paternal leadership is not primarily a projection into his social criticism of concerns with his own manhood or a paradoxical attempt to escape his father's influence and pay tribute to his father's chosen life-style. They are a key element in his visions of a capitalism which has been feminised and cares for a work-force which has been tamed.

Conner argues of Unto This Last that the work

was not… written from humanitarian motives. Ruskin was not fully aware of the appalling conditions which persisted in the manufacturing towns…his hatred of mass industrialisation was…aesthetic… Ruskin’s ideal was working man fulfilled in his work, docile and respectful to his employer. He did not believe in the power, or potential power, of working people as a class; ...Indeed his ideal of the relationship between classes runs parallel to his ideal of the relationship between the sexes. Both the workman and the woman must always be conscious that thinking is not their sphere…The first character of the good and wise man at his work [is] to know that he knows very little; - to perceive that there are many above him wiser than he. The workman should be like a trusting child, faithful, cheerful and humble. [137-38]

But that is a dream with a long ancestry. They are the qualities which Defoe’s Crusoe so welcomes in Friday.

Family induced neuroses

There is one approach which locates Ruskin’s growing engagement with socio-political issues in an identifiable set of circumstances, but removes it from a more relevant general historical context to a complex of personal neuroses. In The Darkening Glass Rosenberg argues that Ruskin’s father dissociated himself from the merchant class to which as a travelling salesman in sherry he belonged, and ‘espoused the taste and politics’ of the pre-industrial landed aristocracy, feeding his son images of that order in the novels of Walter Scott, and bringing him up in circumstances which sought to replicate that order, and ‘from these memories, from what outraged Ruskin in the England of his day, from what he clung to of the England of the past, emerged the most personal and potent of all critiques of nineteenth-century capitalism’ (107-109).

Two qualifications need to be made here. First, not even the most conservative of writers can overlook the most powerful critique of capitalism produced in the nineteenth century: Marxism, the international ramifications of which have crucially shaped modern history. Secondly, of course one cannot divorce a writer from his personal and social circumstances, and the very tight complex of familial relationships in which Ruskin as an only child was involved have to be important in his formation. But there is an implication in Rosenberg's comment that the personal origins of Ruskin's combative social criticism are in his being privileged. When Rosenberg turns to the circumstances preceding the production of Unto This Last he argues that he had to solve the tensions between himself and his mother's disappointment that he did not become a clergyman, and his father's disappointment that he did not become a bishop or the second Byron. Rosenberg comments: ‘Had Ruskin's life been less tortuously bound up in the lives of his parents and theirs less obsessively centred on their son, …. Ruskin might have turned to social criticism unburdened by the anxieties which attended his change of career’. However, Rosenberg takes his argument to the extreme, and locates the shift to social criticism in parental influence, claiming that ‘without that heavy, ultimately deranging burden, he would never have become a social critic at all’ (107-09). It has to be extraordinary to claim that Ruskin's family driving him mad was the main catalyst in his becoming an enormously influential social critic. Linking his personal problems to his assaults on contemporary social practices disparages not only his but also his social criticism. Ruskin's work, like that of many of his contemporaries, is, despite its limitations, a very sane attack on an economic and social madness that condemned millions to the most appalling misery.

Rosenberg places a bubble around a most important response to nineteenth century industrial capitalism and privileges it as something unique, but the personal battles are not to be confused with the battle itself. That was being fought by Ruskin in a tradition established by others. He criticises contemporary political economy as “a Lie wholly …. the Damnedest…. that the Devil, or Betrayer of Men, has yet invented. To this ‘science’, and to this alone ... is owing All the evil of modern days. I say All. It is the Death incarnate of Modernism ... the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind (17.Ixxxii). But then Thomas Carlyle called it the ‘Pig Philosophy’ (Carlyle 268, 270), and William Wordsworth ‘false as monstrous’ Wordsworth 285). Similarly, Southey and Cobbett had already put forward paternalistic models of society, and Ruskin's key notion of ‘contented manhood’ is clearly derived from Wordsworth.

Ruskin's indebtedness to other writers is well documented, notably by Sherburne, and yet even in his study in which Ruskin’s key statements on capitalism are traced to possible and actual sources in other writers, it is Ruskin's personal problems which permeate the commentary:

It is tempting to see the changes in Ruskin's outlook during the fifties only as superficial variations on the theme of his tortured relationship with his parents. His new view of man as ‘nobly animal, nobly spiritual’, his rejection of his mother's Evangelicalism, and his turn to a frequently vitriolic social criticism as the Pre-Ra can, once again, be viewed as strategies in his rebellion against his parents and their values. [70, 72]

Even where an overtly psychological approach is not being offered, critics have seen Ruskin's combative social criticism resulting from frustration. Wilenski suggests that it was his failure to become English Art Dictator in the 1850s (284); Sherburne attributes it to his failure as an art teacher (27/28); and Garrigan instances his failure to achieve architectural reform (144). On the surface all of these charges seem patently absurd. After all, in the 1850s many thought Ruskin was an art dictator, and as the Pre-Raphaelites and their many followers and imitators demonstrate, he was for many the art teacher. Furthermore, whether or not Ruskin managed to reform the lives of workers with gothic revival architecture, the gothic churches, town halls, and other structures in that style show his wide influences. Nonetheless, Ruskin may well have felt bitterly frustrated that his readers and listeners had not understood him.

Ruskin’s Epiphanies

Other interpretations have argued for a number of special moments, ‘epiphanies’, when he suddenly changed direction or took on new interests. The key year here is 1845 when he went abroad for the first time without his parents, and the key moments are (1) his discovery of twelfth-century architecture; (2) seeing fifteenth-century sculpture at Lucca; and (3) encountering the paintings of Tintoretto at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. Garrigan, despite the comment above, writes of ‘a combination of [these] artistic epiphanies, each succeeding more powerfully the next [sic]’ and marking ‘the real beginning of Ruskin's commitment to art and architecture (31). Sherburne argues that on the same tour, standing beside Jacopo della Quercia's tomb for Ilaria di Caretto, Ruskin discovered that ‘the human mind and body are under the dominion of the laws which govern the forms of nature’. This, he argues, ‘marks the real beginning of his social criticism, for, henceforth, he expects the same nobility in man as in nature’ (18).

Rosenberg claims that Ruskin's discovery of Tintoretto ‘struck him with the force of a revelation’ and that Modern Painters:2 is ‘a testimony to his new-born love of Italian art; Tintoretto and Fra Angelico nearly usurp the place of Turner and nature’ (3). Hewison goes slightly further, describing Ruskin's discoveries as ‘a disturbing experience … the necessary personal experience enabling him to understand the inner workings of the creative imagination’ (69). But Fitch goes much further: ‘Ruskin was swept away by the magnitude of what he saw into a new and deeper life, from the art-life of 'Innocence' to that of 'Experience'. He must become an interpreter of the heights of human art’. (91)

Ruskin's own later accounts of his experiences in edition of of Modern Painters’ and (notably in the Epilogue to the 1883 edition) and Praeterita’ from 1886-1889, encourage a need to establish such key moments. But the epiphanic approach is as unhelpful as the psychological theorising. Ruskin is creating his own Wordsworthian spots of time, and, given his reverence for the poet and his Evangelical upbringing, intense revelatory moments became a desired element in his autobiographical account. However, such moments have to be examined in the context of the complex process whereby ideas, theories and attitudes develop in a given set of circumstances. Instead, Ruskin abstracts and presents isolated moments and relies for their significance on a residual Evangelicalism which substitutes Inspiration and Revelation for personal development. Such accounts do not operate within history but outside of it. (Rosenberg.3; Hewison.69; Fitch.91). It is a retrospective reordering into starkly defined but simplified key moments of a development subject to many factors and belonging to a specific historical context.

Ruskin was at Lucca from the 3rd. to the 12th. May, and at Venice from September the 10th to October the 14th, during his 1845 tour. There is a contrast between the later recollections and that year’s correspondence. For instance, in the Epilogue to Modern Painters 2 he records that what he found at Lucca had struck him dumb with ‘admiration and amazement’, and that ‘then and there on the instant’ he began, ‘in the nave of San Frediano, the course of architectural study which brought under accurate law the vague enthusiasm of my childish taste, and has been ever since a method with me, guardian of all my other work in natural and moral philosophy’ (4.3).

In Praeterita he offers the following account of the impact on him of the architecture in Lucca:

‘I found myself suddenly in the presence of twelfth-century buildings, originally set in such balance of masonry that they could all stand without mortar and in material so incorruptible, that after six hundred years of sunshine and rain, a lancet could not now be put between their joints. Absolutely for the first time I now saw what mediaeval builders were, and what they meant. I took the simplest of all facades for analysis, that of the Santa Maria Faris- Portam, and thereon literally began the study of architecture. (35.350)

The other key moment at Lucca is his encounter with Quercia's statue of Ilaria di Caretta. In his 1874 lectures at Oxford on The Aesthetic and Mathematic Schools of Art in Florence he claims that the study of the statue had ‘forced’ him to ‘leave [his] picturesque ‘mountain work for what was entirely true and human’ (23.240), and in the same year he repeated the claim in Letter 45 of Fors Clavigera: Thirty years ago, I began my true study of Italian, and all other art, - here, beside the statue of Daria di Caretto, recumbent on her tomb. It turned me from the study of landscape to that of life, being then myself in the fullest strength of labour, and joy of hope (28.146). In the 1883 Epilogue he returns to the subject and reinforces his earlier claim. He records that, standing beside the statue, he ‘partly then felt, partly vowed, that [his] life must no more be spent only in the study of rocks and clouds’ (4.347). But by the time he comes to deal with the same experience in Praeterita he presents his initial response to the statue as a moment of discovery in which he sees the connection between his study of the difference between

‘violent and graceful lines’ in the ‘accurate study of tree branches, growing leaves, and foreground herbiage’ and his ‘purest standards of breathing womanhood….here suddenly, in the sleeping Daria, was the perfectness of these, expressed with harmonies of line which I saw in an instant were under the same laws as the river wave, and the aspen branch, and the stars' rising and setting; but treated with a modesty and severity which read the laws of nature by the light of virtue’ (35.349).

Clearly the epiphanic moments are being slightly reworked and it is instructive to tum back to the Founding Moments recorded in the letters from 1845. Seven are to his father from Lucca, dated from the 3rd to the 12th of May (Shapiro: Nos. 23-29). There is extravagant praise for the statue of Ilaria (p.55), but no suggestion that Lucca produced any key moments. Rather he contrasts two orders of experience: fine examples of architectural work (pp.49; 54); fine sculpture (pp.51 and 55); and mountain scenery (pp.50, 54, 56). This contrasts with bitter complaints about the deterioration in architectural works (pp.51, 54, and 55) and invectives against the vicious character of the locals (pp.50,52,and 57- 58 ). He condemns the destruction of beautiful art and architecture through neglect and vandalism, especially on the part of the French occupation forces (pp.52 and 56-57), and expresses an urgent need to record what is still there before it too is destroyed (51).

However, the remaining key experience on the 1845 tour, the discovery of the power of Tintoretto, as recorded in Praeterita and the Epilogue to Modern Painters 2 is supported in his letters home, but he reworks the experience. Ruskin already knew Tintoretto’s work before he set off for Italy, and on July 10th, he sent his father a list arranging Italian painters by class. Tintoretto is seventh in the third class, ‘The School of Painting as such’, below the second class, ‘General Perception of Nature human & divine, accompanied by more or less religious feeling.The School of the Great Men.The School of Intellect’, headed by Michelangelo. Fra Angelico heads the first class, ‘Pure Religious art. The School of Love’ (144 - 145)


On September 23rd. Ruskin was in Venice with Harding and visited the Scuola di San Rocco. Two letters record the impact on him of Tintoretto. In the first he is ‘overwhelmed’, ‘taken aback’, glad that he has avoided disgracing himself in future by speaking lightly of a painter whom he now regards as greater than Titian. Harding, by contrast, is ‘crumbled up’ by the experience (210). The second letter records an even more intense experience: ‘I have had a draught of pictures today enough to drown me. I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret. Just be so good as to take my list of painters, & put him in the school of Art at the top, top, top of everything ... and put him in the school of Intellect, next after Michel Angelo (211 - 212).

Interestingly, Ruskin treats Tintoretto as if he were Turner:

As for painting, I think I didn't know what it meant till today - the fellow outlines you your figure with ten strokes, and colours it with as many more. I don't believe it took him ten minutes to invent & paint a whole length. Away he goes, heaping host on host, multitudes that no man can number - never pausing, never repeating himself - clouds & whirlwinds & fire & infinity of earth & sea, all alike to him (212).

The account of this experience given in the 1883 Epilogue is consistent with the two letters. In the second letter, Harding feels like a ‘flogged schoolboy’; in the Epilogue like a ‘whipped schoolboy’. Ruskin's claim that he ‘could do nothing at last but lie on a bench & laugh’ is reproduced in the Epilogue's claim that the experience so took it out of himself and Harding that they ‘couldn't stand’. And where in the first letter he contrasts Harding's reaction, ‘crumbled up’, with his own, ‘encouraged & excited by the good art’, he continues that contrast in 1883, but reconstructs an exhilarating moment into a key moment: ‘When we came away, Harding said that he felt like a whipped schoolboy…. I felt only that a new world was opened to me, that I had seen that day the Art of Man in its full majesty for the first time’. (3.354). His account in Praeterita develops further to suggest that his encounter with Tintoretto was the founding moment of his future work: ‘Tintoret swept me away at once into the ‘mare maggiore’ of the schools of painting which crowned the power and perished in the fall of Venice’ (3.357).

If we accept all that Ruskin has to tell us of his development, we are faced with a career determined by many different epiphanies. His first glimpse of the Alps at Schaffhausen in 1833 gave him a vision of heaven and ‘a blessed entrance into life’, and ‘fixed’ his destiny. In 1837, at Catterick Bridge in Yorkshire he lost the purely childish love of nature, a capacity which was never to return (35. 218 - 219). In 1841, in a visit to Vesuvius, he has a vision of volcanic destructiveness as a visible hell which neatly contrasts with the earlier vision of a visible heaven at Schaffhausen (35. 288-289). In 1842, while drawing an aspen tree at Fointainebleau, he experiences ‘an end to all former thoughts’, and ‘an insight into a new sylvan world’ (35.314 - 315). He was, in fact, engaged in a drawing exercise suggested by J.D. Harding, at that point his drawing master. But there had been a rehearsal for this epiphany previously that year when he had drawn a piece of ivy on the road to Norwood near his London home. He records that once he had drawn it, he was able to conclude that ‘no one had ever told me to draw what was really there !’ (35.311). As Hewison points out, however, this claim by Ruskin for epiphanic experience in 1842 is dubious. His diary for that year was not available to him when he was writing about what had happened at Fontainebleau - and the diary describes his stay at Fontainebleau as ‘an unprofitable a week as I ever spent in my life’. He does, however, hint at a change of attitude: ‘But I got some new ideas in my evening walk at Fontainebleau’ ( Evans and Whitehouse.223). Neither the drawing at Norwood nor that at Fontainebleau has been positively identified, and we may question how it was that a sketching exercise in the manner of Harding could have wrought such a change. What is stranger, Harding himself is said to have had a similar experience. In an article on Harding which appeared in 1880 there is a description of him in some confusion at the beginning of his career as to what he should do. (Ruskin was in similar circumstances in 1842.) The article records that Harding was sketching some trees, and suddenly realised that the trees obeyed laws in their growth, and if he could discover these laws, he would get at the truth he so desired (W. Walker:1880). There is a remarkable similarity between these accounts, which makes one wonder whether Ruskin either saw this version or had heard it from Harding himself.

Ruskin's epiphanies are privileged moments appropriate to nature, art, and religion, but inappropriate to the loss of his Evangelical faith, and growing awareness of social problems. He presents the first as the result of a long process, and denies any revelatory moment, but he identifies the culminating moment of his religious disenchantment as his first view in 1858 of Paul Veronese'sSolomon and the Queen of Sheba glowing in the afternoon light:

‘Of course that hour's meditation in the gallery of Turin only concluded the processes of thought which had been leading me to such end through many years. There was no sudden conversion possible to me, either by preacher, picture, or dulcimer. But that day, my evangelical beliefs were put away, to be debated of no more’ (35.496).

Limits on Ruskin’s understanding of social matters

As to social problems, his account is circumspect as he points to a specific set of circumstances, i.e., the behaviour and attitudes of the Domecq daughters and their French aristocratic husbands on their visits to London:

‘the way in which these lords … of lands both in France and Spain, … and their wives ... spoke of their Spanish labourers and French tenantry, with no idea whatever respecting them but that, except as producers by their labour of money to be spent in Paris, they were cumberers of the ground … gave me the first clue to the real sources of wrong in the social laws of modern Europe; and led me necessarily into the political work which has been the most earnest of my life. [35.409]

He began by celebrating a privileged, universalised and eternalised order of natural experience and its greatest artistic representations, hermetically sealed from the real world not only of the art market but a world dominated by an order of utilitarian motives which he rejects; and from here he moves on to a confrontation with an actual history only partially recognised because, even in the 1880s, Ruskin's extremely privileged position means that he cannot draw out the connections between: 1. The peasants and tenantry whom the Domecq clan regarded as the ‘cumberers of the ground’: 2. The Domecqs enjoying the proceeds of their tenants' labour in their clearly expensive life-style; 3. The activities of Telford in the U.K. wine and sherry import trade; 4. The activities of John James Ruskin in promoting Telford's imports - a highly profitable enterprise from which Ruskin himself derived his own privileged position, and from the proceeds of which John James was able to subsidise the publication of his son's earlier works as well as allowing him to dispense artistic patronage. The limits on Ruskin's insights mean that such connections are not fully made, for then he would have had to surrender the fortune which represented the labour of those ‘cumberers of the ground’, and he would have had to experience their straitened circumstances. Instead, he maintained his identity with the classes whose practices he was attacking and whom he offended with his articles in the Cornhill Magazine.

The Broad Sweep Approach

Proponents of this approach argue for internal continuities underlying the shift in his interests, and this allows them to argue that Ruskin is applying established principles to new areas. However, this requires a clear demonstration of an organic unity which depends upon shaping his work into patterns which avoid the incoherence, contradiction and inconsistency which are evident in the details.

In considering why Ruskin extends his work to social criticism, it essential to ask what kind of understanding of social problems he was achieving in the 1850’s. Undoubtedly, his growing awareness of the workman’s plight was a key element. In ‘The Victorian Web’, Landow argues that this was a pre-condition of Ruskin's turning to social problems: ’Ruskin's application of the same techniques and ideas to the criticism of art and society reminds us, he does not shift abruptly from writing about painting to writing about political economy’. In fact, as early as the chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in The Stones of Venice he had indicted modem society for alienating and dehumanizing its workers by forcing them to perform mechanical, soul-destroying tasks. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture he wrote that ’the right question to ask …is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment - was the carver happy while he was about it?’ (8.218) and in The Stones of Venice’ wrote that ‘All art is great, and good, and true, only so far as it is distinctively the work of manhood in its entire and highest sense; that is to say, not the work of limbs and fingers, but of the soul, aided, according to her necessities, by the inferior powers’ (11.201).

Rosenberg also emphasises the plight of the workman, but argues for a complex realignment of values and interests in which Ruskin's religious faith and his response to nature are weakening, while his social conscience strengthens:

His study of architecture convinced him that all the arts of the nineteenth century would remain barren until its artisans had been freed from the monotony of the machine. The temper of his mind was also changing. His belief in the divinity of art and nature began to yield to his knowledge of the waste and tragedy of life ... In Modern Painters 1 and 2 Ruskin looked at the peaks of mountains and saw God; in Modern Painters 3, 4, and 5 he looks at their bases and sees shattered rocks and impoverished villages. The face of the Creator withdraws from creation and in its place man emerges as a tragic figure in the foreground of a still potent, but flawed, nature’ (3, 22, and 33-34).

But how sympathetic was Ruskin to the plight of the workman, and what was the nature of his social conscience in the 1850s?

Several commentators suggest that one constituent element was his encounter with social discontent and economic misery during his 1848 European tour and the effect on him of the ‘revolutions’ of that year. But as well as looking at his responses to major events, some consideration might be given to examples of how his conscience operated when faced with people less fortunate than himself. During his 1845 tour, he wrote to his parents from Switzerland after a mountain walk: ‘As I came back to my soufflé and sillery, I felt sad at thinking how few were capable of having such enjoyment, and very doubtful whether it were at all proper in me to have it all to myself.’ (Shapiro.153). This priggish and self-indulgent confession of a guilty frisson sits oddly with his fulminations throughout the 1845 tour against the peoples of Italy and France. He clearly would not extend to the modern Italians the same privileges which he enjoys. He has already withdrawn from them any recognition of a basic humanity. They are people about whom he states that even to recognise them as human costs him an ‘exercise of the most deep Christian humility’ (ibid:153)! He also shows a whimsicality which is continued in the diary for the following year: ‘I began to wonder how God should give me so much for so little self-denial.’ (Evans and Whitehouse.322). The obvious needs to be stated. The reference to God overlooks, conveniently, his own social circumstances as the only son of a very successful travelling salesman in sherry.

On August 1st. 1847, Ruskin recorded a conversation with the ‘old man of the baths’ in Derbyshire:

‘Again I felt ashamed of myself Here is an old man, whose life has been spent in no more exciting pleasures than can be derived from pumping water into glasses and bath…. never stirring out of his melancholy passages and rooms: …. and yet healthy and happy and not unintelligent. And this man, with no motive, no prospect, no hope, no pleasure, does not seem gluttonous, nor given to wine, nor to any indulgence; while I, with every hope, every power, every right pleasure at command, have yet no inconsiderable difficulty in restraining myself from merely sensual pleasures! I thought of this with great shame, and will continue to think of it; it should do me good’ (Evans and Whitehouse.355).

This records some sympathy, but reveals limits to Ruskin's social conscience. He is close to treating the old man not as what he is but as a reminder of the uneasy conscience with which his own affluence is accompanied, and, ultimately, the emphasis is on the personal, presumably spiritual, benefit which he will derive from the encounter. And Ruskin's analysis is short-sighted. The old man has no temptations to vice; he has not, presumably, the financial freedom to provide the temptations.

On the 20th. August, Ruskin wrote from Dunbar to W.H. Harrison:

‘Still there is a certain amount of spleen, or what else it may more justly be called, mingled with my present feelings which I cannot shake off. I cannot understand how you merry people can smile through the world as you do. It seems to me a sad one - more suffering than pleasure in it and less of hope than either· at least if the interpretations set by the most pious people on the Bible are true, and if not, then worse still. But it is woeful to see these poor fishermen toiling all night and bringing in a few casks of herring each, twice a week or so, and lying watching their nets dry on the cliffs all day; their wives and children abused and dirty, scolding, fighting and roaring through their unvarying lives. How much more enviable the seagulls that, all this stormy day, have been tossing themselves off and on the crags and winds like flakes of snow, and screaming with very joy. Certainly there must be something very wrong about man when this is so; he could not be the unhappy animal he is but by his own fault. [8.xxvii]

There are certain interesting features here. Previous confessions of an uneasy conscience are created and mediated through his sense of the distance between his own affluence and others' poverty. But here those uneasy feelings have merged into a gloomy Calvinistic view of a fallen world, a general condition of which the poor fishermen are an example ( Evans and Whitehouse.355). However, the analysis refers the question of human misery to a universalised human nature which prevents any examination of specific socio-economic causes and circumstances. Further, the concluding sentences suggest that the natural world over which man has no control lives on as a law to itself. The juxtaposition of the images of the poor fishermen and the seagulls creates an odd suggestion that the seagulls are mocking human drudgery in the ironic demoniacal effect of ‘screaming with very joy’ because while, for Ruskin, the unconscious instinctive life of the birds is enviable, what is truly enviable for the fishermen would be the freedom from harsh material necessity enjoyed by Ruskin. If the observation amounts to anything significant, he is actually using fishermen and seagulls as objective correlatives for his own Calvinistic gloom.

The account is further complicated by Ruskin's concerns with how a painter responds to others' misery. In an additional chapter for Modern Painters 2 Ruskin wrote the following:

‘Unless a painter works wholly to please himself, he will please nobody; - he must not be thinking while he is at work of any human creature's likings, but his own. He must not benevolently desire to please any more than ambitiously - neither in kindness, nor in pride, may he defer to other people's sensations. All alone here, on my inch of earth, I paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself. Let who will get good or in from this - I am not concerned therewith. Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it, woe be to me if I paint as other people see or like. This is the first law of the painter's being ruthless and selfish - cutting him entirely away from all love of his fellow-creatures, till the work is done (2.388).

By contrast, the person to whom Ruskin often appeals, the ‘ordinarily good man’ is free

to spend his summer evenings on his lawn, listening to the blackbirds or singing hymns with his children. Not so the painter who cannot learn from this kind of activity. If you are a painter, you must be in the wildness of the midnight masque- in the misery of the dark street at dawn - in the crowd when it rages fiercest against law - in the council-chamber when It devises worst against the people - on the moor with the wanderer, or the robber - in the boudoir with the delicate recklessness of female guilt - and all this, without being angry at any of these things - without ever losing your temper so much as to make your hand shake, or getting so much of the mist of sorrow in your eyes, as will at all interfere with your matching of colours; never even allowing yourself to disapprove of anything that anybody enjoys, so far as not to enter into their enjoyment. Does a man get you must be ready to pledge him ... Does a man die at your feet - your business is not to help him, but to note the colour of his lips, does a woman embrace her destruction before you, your business is not to save her, but to watch how she bends her arms. [2.388-89]

This additional chapter on ‘A Painter's Profession as Ending Irreligiously’ was written after The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters 4 .

Yet, more than ten years earlier he was questioning such a model of painterly practice. He was in Parma on his solo 1845 Italian tour. His father had written expressing disappointment at the feebleness of his latest attempt at verse, ‘Mont Blanc Revisited’. Ruskin accepts his father's verdict and offers the following as the explanation:

I do not think I have lost the power. I have only lost the exciting circumstances. The life I lead is far too comfortable & regular, too luxurious, too hardening. I see nothing of human life, but waiters, doganierie - & beggars. I get into no scrapes, suffer no inconveniences - and am subject to no species of excitement except that (???) from art. which I conceive to be too abstract in its nature to become productive of poetry unless combined with experience of living passion

Unlike similar statements on his own comfortable life-style, this is not a prelude to a contrast with others' misery. Rather, he develops his concern with the impact on his work of his comfortable routines and his artistic and literary ambitions:

I don't see how it is possible for a person who gets up at four, goes to bed at 10, eats ices when he is hot, beef when he is hungry, gets rid of all claims of charity by giving money which he hasn't earned - and those of compassion by treating all distress more as picturesque than real - I don't see how it is possible for such a person to write good poetry.

The connection between his own comfort and others' misery is in the word ‘picturesque’, for the letter continues with the following anecdote, omitted, interestingly enough, by the editors of the Library Edition (2.xxxiv):

‘The day Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna - sleeping like a corpse - possibly from too little food. I pulled up immediately - not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom - and gave the mother money - not in charity, but to keep the flies off it while I made a sketch. I don't see how this is to be avoided, but it is very hardening’ (Shapiro 42-43.).

The ‘broad sweep’ overlooks the detailed complications. For instance, the sympathy extended to the old man at the baths and to the fishermen is not extended to others during the tour abroad with his parents in 1849, a year after the European tour which, for some commentators, marks the real beginnings of his social conscience. The diary entry for April 30th. contains this embarrassing piece of selfishness consistent with the earlier confessions quoted above:

It is deserving of record that at this time, just on the point of coming in sight of the Alps, for the first time in three years - a moment which I had looked forward to, thinking I should be almost fainting with joy, and should want to lie down on the earth and take it in my arms - at this time, I say, I was irrevocably sulky and cross, because George had not got me butter to my bread at Les Rousses. (Evans and Whitehouse 374).

In an entry for May 3rd., he records, almost in the same breath, the straitened economic circumstances of a peasant whom he had met, and the size of a quantity of Globularla Cordifolia he had found:

Walked a little about the town and tried to draw gentians at … no it was up to the hill that looks towards Aix, with my father and mother - we had a chat with an old man, a proprietor of some land on the hillside, who complained bitterly that the priests and the revenue seized everything. and that nothing but black bread was left for the peasant; he seemed stirred by a strong spirit of animosity against priests. In coming down, by a roundabout way to avoid cliff edge, I was struck by the enormous quantities of the globularia Cordifolia and their large size; they were as thick as daisies. There is something fine in the harmony of their subdued colour with the grey limestone rocks (374-75).

On June 19th. he was at Chamonix, and writes rather callously that he set off to see the beds of calcaire ‘with Couttet carrying my things all the way, poor fellow.’ (ibid.392). Joseph Marie Couttet was a Chamonix guide whom the Ruskins first employed in 1844. If, as Shapiro suggests, this man was born around 1791, then on the 1849 tour he must have been in his very late fifties, nearly twice the age of his young master. (n.3).

The tour of 1854, begun under the shadow of his divorce, suggests a development in his attitude towards his own affluence and others' poverty. On May 11th, in Amiens, he describes an afternoon walk near the Somme. He strongly emphasises rotting timber, dead leaves and foul water, and one comment is certainly more mature and sober than earlier attempts to respond to economic misery:

All exquisitely picturesque, and as miserable as picturesque. We delight in seeing the figures in the boats pushing them about the bits of blue water in Prout's drawings, but, as I looked today at the unhealthy face and melancholy, apathetic mien of the man in the boat, pushing his load of peats along the ditch, and of the people, men and women, who sat spinning gloomily in the picturesque cottages, I could not know not how many suffering persons must pay for my picturesque subject, and my happy walk.’ (Evans and Whitehouse. 493)

Such an insight might well be developed into a radical critique of his own social situation and the impact of his own class on the lives of those below them, and it certainly was later to be developed into a limited though very angry assault. But, for the moment, such development is hampered by his insistence on attributing misfortune to ‘mistakes’ which originate in post-lapsarian human nature rather than specific social practices. The diary entry for July 18th, 1854, quotes from Herbert:

‘Why should I feel another man's mistakes
More than his sicknesses or poverty?’ [499]

Ruskin's answer is that a man wishes to be cured of illness, is ashamed of his poverty, but is proud of his mistakes which are contagious. He confesses to William Ward (Feb. 5th.1855) that he is more oppressed and amazed by foolishness and absurdity than any other human misfortune (36.185); and in a letter of the 9th January, 1852, to his father from Venice, he says that, like Ruskin senior, he is ‘sick of the folly of mankind’, and that the ‘great misery’ is that ‘so much misery is mere folly; that so much grievous harm is done in mere ignorance and stupidity, evermore to be regretted as much as the consequence of actual crime ... The more I watch the world, the more I feel that all men are blind and wandering’ (Bradley 129-30).

Perhaps his paternalistic attitudes, even more than his Calvinistic inheritance, prevent the development of a radical critique of contemporary society. A diary entry for late 1858, by contrast with what he is declaring in his published works and lectures, is quite whimsical but it does exemplify the limitations created by the paternalism which he habitually exercises in an unproblematical manner:

‘December 3rd 1858. Lovely day. At Crystal Palace. Exquisite sky all day long and precious sunset. Little boy of eleven or twelve sauntering up lane at back of garden, eyes fixed on ground, face and hands black, torn apron. Dialogue:

R. Isn't the sunset beautiful tonight, my boy?

B. What is it, please, Sir? (Looking up in a state of bewilderment question equivalent to ‘What's your will ?’) R Look how beautiful the sky is.

B. (Looking) Yes, Sir - white-like. R Isn't it more like gold and silver than anything white?

B. Yes, Sir. (Smiling a little).

R. And do you see those colours to the left in that thin cloud? (N.B. Solar halo).

B. Yes, Sir. (More eagerly). R Then why were you looking only at the ground when I came up ? What were you thinking of?

B. They shut me down in the coal cellar, Sir. R Who did?

B. My mate, Sir. R Why? Or do you mean by accident?

B. No, Sir, for a lark. He put his finger in my eye, and I didn't like it.

R. So you came down here to sulk. Well, it wasn't right of him. Have you any more work to do this evening?

B. No, Sir; I’m a'goin' home. R When do you begin work?

B. Five, morning.

R. And have you done your work already? (It was about 3 afternoon).

B. Yes, Sir.

R. But you haven't got it done every day so soon?

B. No, Sir - Sometimes we're out till ten or eleven at night. (Colloquy closed by present of sixpence). [Evans and Whitehouse 537-38)]

This mini-drama neatly encapsulates Ruskin's concern with the function of nature (and art) in enriching lives oppressed by the progress of the Industrial Revolution, but the gesture which directs the young boy to look at the sky and then hands him a sixpence is quite paternalistic. And the capitalisation of ‘Sir’ is symptomatic of the way in which Ruskin positions the boy in relationship to himself (ibid.).

Select Bibliography

Bradley, John Lewis, ed: Ruskin's Letters from Venice:1851-1852 .Greenwood Press Publishers: Westport, Conneticut:1978.

Burd, Van Akin,ed: The Ruskin Family Letters - The Correspondence of John James Ruskin. His Wife, and their son, John. 1801 - 1843: in two volumes Comen University Press: Ithaca and London: 1973.

Cook, E.T., and Wedderburn, A. The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition in thirty-nine volumes : George Allen: London: 1903-1912..

Evans, Joan, and Whitehouse, John Howard The Diaries of John Ruskin:1848 -1873: Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1958.

Evans, Joan, and Whitehouse, John Howard: The Diaries Qf John Ruskin:1835 •1847: Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1956.

James, Sir William, ed: The Order of Release: The Story of John Ruskin. Effie Gray and John Everett Millais told for the first time in their unpublished letters: John Murray: London: 1948.

Shapiro, Harold. I, ed: Ruskin in Italy - Letters to His Parents 1845 . Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1972.

Conner Patrick: Savage Ruskin. MacMillan: London: 1979.

Fitch, Raymond E: The Poison Sky - Myth and Apocalypse in Ruskin. Ohio University Press: Athens, London:1982.

Ganigan, Kristine Ottesen Ruskin on Architecture - His Thought and Influence. University of Wisconsin Press: 1973.

Hewison,Robert: John Ruskin The Argument of the Eye. :Thames and Hudson: London:1976.

Landow, George. P: The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin: Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey: 1971.

Landow, George P. ‘J. D. Harding and John Ruskin on Nature's Infinite Variety.’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 28 (1970), 369-80.

Landow, George P.’Ruskin and Baudelaire on Art and Artist.’ University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (1968): 295-308.

Landow, George P. Ruskin as Victorian Sage: ‘The Example of ‘Traffic’. The Victo- rian Web.

Larg, David: John Ruskin Peter Davies: London: 1932.

Rosenberg, John D: The Darkening Glass Routledge &.Kegan Paul: London:1963

Shapiro, Harold. I, ed: Ruskin in Italy - Letters to His Parents 1845. Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1972.

Sherburne, James Clarke: span class=’book’>John Ruskin, or the Ambiguities of Abundance - A Study in Social Economic Criticism: Harvard University Press:1972.

Sonstroem, David: ’John Ruskin and the Nature of Manliness The Victorian Newsletter: Fall 1971.


R. H: John Ruskin: An Introduction to Further Study of His Life and Work: Faber and Faber: London: 1933. Copyright: Michael Williams 2017.

Last modified 1 April 2017