Biography of John Ruskin
Childhood and Early Life
An only child, Ruskin was born in 1819 in south London to affluent parents, John James Ruskin, a Scottish wine merchant, and Margaret Ruskin, the daughter of a pub proprietor. The young Ruskin spent his summers in the Scottish countryside and when he was four, the family moved to south London's Herne Hill, a rural area at the time. It was these early experiences that ignited his lifelong love of nature. He was educated at home, where he was influenced by his father's collection of watercolors and his mother's pious Protestantism. Ruskin recalled a rigorous daily practice of bible reading and interpretation, which was to provide an early foundation for his work in criticism. At the age of seven he began to write books and his father - ambitious for his son to find success - would pay him for his poems.
The family's wealth allowed them to travel extensively throughout the UK and Europe, visiting Italy, France, and Belgium. Ruskin was particularly taken by the picturesque landscape of the Lake District and his first publication was a poem entitled On Skiddaw and Derwent Water which appeared in the Spiritual Times in 1829. He also became fascinated by the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron, and Scott. Ruskin was an intelligent and articulate teenager. He collected and compiled a dictionary of minerals and he had three articles on geology published in the Magazine of Natural History when he was 15. He went on to study classics at Oxford University, where his mother followed him, insisting that she meet him for tea every day. He did well at university, but after a period of illness, he left in 1842, with only a double fourth degree (a classification lower than a third, awarded by Oxford until 1971) in classics and mathematics.
It is often forgotten that Ruskin was a talented artist in his own right, and he said the instinct he had to draw was akin to the instinct to eat and drink. He filled sketchbooks from an early age, and throughout his life produced volumes of exquisite sketches and watercolors of nature; blossoms, flowers, mountains, stones, clouds, minerals, and birds. His watercolors mimicked J.M.W. Turner's expressive style and he was most prolific in the period 1840-70, with fewer produced later in his life. He did not, however, exhibit his artwork professionally, instead he used his studies to record what he saw and assist with his writing. Although many of his images were never shared, he used some to illustrate his essays and books.
Modern Painters (1843)
When Ruskin was 24, he wrote the first volume of Modern Painters - Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters, a hugely influential work that launched an assault on the artistic establishment. The book criticized the work of 17th century painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa. As an alternative, Ruskin promoted the accurate documentation of nature and he especially championed J.M.W. Turner, who was a controversial figure in the establishment at the time. Modern Painters questioned the arguments of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the rules which he had established at the Royal Academy. Many were appalled, but the passion with which Ruskin wrote won him fans and he was championed as a new voice in modern artistic thinking. He particularly found favor with contemporary writers of the time, including William Wordsworth, George Elliot, and Charlotte Brontë as well as with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ruskin went on to publish four more volumes, with the last coming out in 1860. Modern Painters also found an eager readership in America, where artists felt it freed them. As artist John A. Parks said: "Art could now become both an aesthetic and a religious quest freed from the dominance of centuries of European painting. This was the magic brew that Ruskin had concocted and that American artists found utterly intoxicating."
The Stones of Venice (1851)
Ruskin was particularly enamored with the architecture of Venice and was vehemently opposed to restoration, so much so that he would climb scaffolding in the Italian city to argue with stonemasons. His convictions were immortalized in The Stones of Venice, a three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture, in which he expanded the ideas he had formulated in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), an extended essay in which he argued that the leading principles of architecture were sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience. Within the Stones of Venice was a chapter On the Nature of Gothic, in which Ruskin proposed that architecture revealed the spiritual and moral state of the society that produced it. He admired the Christian society of the Middle Ages and its imperfections which represented the individual craftsman's autonomy and talent, but also that it was communal art, inspired by a love of God. It stood against the regularity and geometrical shapes of the Classical style that to Ruskin represented coldness, a need to control, and a "haughty aristocratic style". For Ruskin, Classical architecture represented a fall from healthy civilization.
Unto This Last (1862)
This work, although a move away from art criticism, was considered by many to be Ruskin's best. Unto This Last took on the thorny issue of capitalist economics, and formed an indictment of the dehumanization caused by the industrial revolution. Passionately written, the work was received with shock as he made a personal plea to his readers to help build a fairer society. He condemned the ugliness of industrialism and the impact commerce was having on the natural world. He also denounced society's dependence on child labor, appealing to employers to ask whether their own children would be asked to do such work.
Unto This Last alienated friends and professional acquaintances alike. Some considered his speech outmoded, others regarded him as self-righteous. One review said reading the book was like being "preached to death by a mad governess", while another stated "if we do not crush [Ruskin], his wild words will touch the springs of action in some hearts and before we are aware, a moral floodgate may fly open and drown us all." The impact of the work, however, cannot be underestimated and he influenced many founders of the British Labour Party as well as the economist John A Hobson. When Mahatma Gandhi read Unto This Last, it inspired him to become an activist, and he translated it into Gujarati so that it may be read by the working classes of India. Gandhi wrote: "I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life."
The Marriage to Effie
In 1848 Ruskin married the beautiful Euphemia Gray (known as Effie), a family friend who was ten years his junior. It was a disaster as Ruskin failed to accommodate the young woman's interests or overcome the dominant presence of his own mother. One of the best-known stories about the marriage is that it was never consummated. Legend has it that Ruskin was unable to perform on his wedding night because he was so shocked by the revelation that his young wife had pubic hair, unlike the women in paintings he had grown up admiring. The story is most likely apocryphal, but Effie claimed her husband "had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening". This sentiment was echoed by Ruskin who stated that "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it". Ruskin's friend Clive Wilmer said: "The poor man had a bad marriage, but it takes two to make a bad marriage. He had faults, which one shouldn't pretend weren't there - he was very dogmatic...he could be quite arrogant - but he was extremely knowledgeable."
In 1852 Effie met John Everett Millais and modelled for one of his paintings, The Order of Release. Millais then accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland to paint Ruskin. During this period Effie and he fell in love. Returning to London, Effie left Ruskin and filed for an annulment. Despite causing a major public scandal, in 1854 the marriage was annulled on the grounds of "incurable impotency". The following year Effie married Millais and they went onto to have eight children together. In 2014 the scandal was made into a movie, Effie Gray, starring Emma Thompson.
Around 1865 Ruskin fell in love with Rose La Touche (on who he based his 1865 book Sesame and Lillies), a young pupil, to whom he proposed. Her parents refused permission after corresponding with Effie. The following year, Ruskin renewed his proposal when Rose turned 18 (by which time he was 47) and could legally make her own decision, but she, again, refused. Rose died in 1875, at the age of 27, reportedly of anorexia, and Ruskin was heartbroken. He was haunted by Rose's death, turning to spiritualism to contact her. During this period, he started to show the first signs of the serious psychological distress that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Late Years and Death
In 1869 Ruskin was made Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. This was not Ruskin's first teaching role, he had been involved in education in a range of capacities from the 1850s and was a very popular lecturer. In 1871 he set up his own art school, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art which sought to challenge formal methods and rigid, mechanical teaching systems. He also promoted the virtues of public service and manual labor. Ruskin endowed the school with £5000 of his own money. In 1879 Ruskin resigned from Oxford, but resumed his Professorship in 1883, resigning again the following year, this was probably due to conflict with the University authorities, who refused to expand his Drawing School as well as his increasing ill health. During this period he continued to put his political thoughts into practice, writing the monthly magazine Fors Clavigera, aimed at "workmen and labourers" and founding the Guild of St George, a utopian society which encouraged traditional crafts and amassed a large collection of art, books, and historical objects. He also wrote a number of travel guides including Mornings in Florence (1875-77) and The Bible of Amiens (1880-85)
In 1871 he bought Brantwood, a house in the Lake District which stands today as a museum of Ruskin's work. He lived there for the rest of his life enjoying the simplicities of home decoration, gardening and baking. From the late-1870s he had bouts of deep depression and underwent episodes of crisis which may have been a symptom of bipolar disorder. He was cared for by his second cousin, Joan Severn, who inherited his estate after his death. In 1878 he became convinced that his beloved Rose had returned from the dead, crying out in delirium for "Rosie-Posie" and shouting "Everything white! Everything black!". He died from influenza at the age of 80 in 1900, leaving little money behind. He had inherited at least £120,000 from his father but had given most of it away.
The Legacy of John Ruskin
Ruskin's writing was responsible for shaping and promoting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. His style of art criticism was groundbreaking and hugely influential to subsequent generations. As novelist Michael Bracewell writes: "Ruskin's passionate championing of particular artists paved the way for such great later critics as David Sylvester and Robert Hughes. Such erudition, clarity and richly opinionated rigor is sorely missed in contemporary art criticism." Ruskin was also respected by legendary writers including Marcel Proust, Charlotte Brontë. And Leo Tolstoy remarked after the critic's death: "John Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men not only of England and our time, but all countries and all time."
Beyond his writing and artistic talent, it was his radical ideas that really brought about change. As William Morris said: "He seemed to point out a new road on which others should travel" and Ruskin's social conscience was instrumental in improving society in Britain and abroad. He promoted women's education and carried out lectures to laborers which would go on to improve conditions for the working classes. He spent his own money setting up the Guild of St George which provided land where people could work cooperatively. The guild is now a charity for arts, crafts, and the rural economy. Furthermore, the introduction of garden cities have been attributed to Ruskin, and it was his love for the Lake District that ignited a drive to protect and conserve the landscape and sparked the foundation of the National Trust. His ideas also helped found the Welfare State in Britain - an institution that saw free health care for all, the introduction of a minimum wage and allowances for the vulnerable.
Ruskin continues to fascinate today, 200 years after his birth. As art historian Daisy Dunn notes: "Ruskin was a man of intense contradictions. Like a fish, he said, it is healthiest to swim against the stream. He described himself mostly as a Conservative, but many of his ideas were socialist in outlook. He believed in hierarchy but also that the rich had a responsibility to protect the poor." He has even been credited with foreseeing the horrors of climate change. In his book The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century he predicted "a period which will assuredly be recognized in future meteorological history as one of phenomena hitherto unrecorded in the courses of nature." As literary historian Marcus Waithe said: "Ruskin's dark premonition of atmospheric pollution...has been largely vindicated. Concerns about plastic pollution in our oceans likewise echo his fretful attention to the cleanliness of rivers and the purity of springs."
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
First published on 20 Jan 2020. Updated and modified regularly