The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 13. Ruskin; Modern Painters

The nearest akin to literary critics were writers of the aesthetic group, of whom John Ruskin was the greatest. Ruskin is one of the most voluminous and, superficially viewed, one of the most miscellaneous, of English writers. Verse and prose, criticism—aesthetic, literary, social and political—economics, autobiography, all are represented. The thought is sometimes dressed in royal purple and adorned with gold embroidery, sometimes clothed as simply as ever was village maiden. In opinion, again superficially viewed, he is one of the least consistent. Convictions expressed with the utmost confidence in the first edition of a book are scornfully renounced in the second. Yet, Ruskin will never be understood unless the truth be grasped that there is a unity underlying all his diversity, and that, in spite of contradictions on this point and on that, no writer, in essentials, is more consistent. There is evolution from the first volume of Modern Painters to Fors Clavigera, and to the last volume of Praeterita; but there is no fundamental change. Even the gulf which seems to divide the concluding volume of Modern Painters, with its analysis of leaf beauty and of cloud beauty, from Unto this Last, with its discussion of the nature of wealth, proves, on examination, to be no gulf at all.

Ruskin’s father had good taste both in literature and in art, and fostered these tastes in his son. To his mother was due that familiar knowledge of the Bible which is shown in every one of his works. She and her son read it together from beginning to end, turning to Genesis again as soon as they had reached the close of the Apocalypse. But there was a disadvantage as well as an advantage in these intimate family relationships. In a sense, Ruskin was never sui juris so long as his parents lived; and, affectionate as were his feelings for them, before the end he had begun to chafe at their control as a thing almost intolerably irksome. In his maturity, Ruskin became a heretic in religion and a revolutionary in economics, while his father was orthodox on both points.

In his youth, however, notwithstanding the mistake of overindulgence and excessive protective care, Ruskin gained enormously from the devotion of his parents. The early journeys of mingled business and pleasure in England supplied much food for eye and mind; and, when Prout’s Sketches in Flanders and Germany suggested a longer tour, it was promptly undertaken. Similar tours followed, year after year. If, when he went to Oxford in 1837, Ruskin was ill equipped in respect of the ordinary subjects of study, he already knew a great deal more than most of his teachers about the things that, for him, were important. He had laid deep and sure the foundations of Modern Painters, the first volume of which was published in 1843; and repeated visits to the continent in after years enriched him with materials for the subsequent volumes, and for much of his other work as well.

Even before the appearance of the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin was a practised writer. From 1834 onwards, he was a fairly active contributor, in prose to Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History and Architectural Magazine, and in verse to Friendship’s Offering and The London Monthly Miscellany. The verses, with the Newdigate prize poem Salsette and Elephanta, and with later contributions to The Keepsake and other compilations, were gathered together and reprinted more than half a century after most of them were written. Not till after more than ten years of effort did Ruskin finally make up his mind that, though he could write fluent and melodious verse, he was not a poet. The early prose pieces, being on the true line of development, are of superior interest to the early verses. Some of these prose pieces were included in On the Old Road, and a complete series, The Poetry of Architecture, was separately reprinted in 1892. Considering the boyish years of the writer, the early essays reveal, in a very remarkable degree, the mature Ruskin. He liked to lay a scientific foundation for his aesthetic theories; and the embryo man of science is shown in the titles of three early papers—Enquiries on the Causes of the Colour of the Water of the Rhine, Note on the Perforation of a Leaden Pipe by Rats and Facts and Considerations on the Strata of Mont Blanc. Again; in The Poetry of Architecture, some of the leading principles which were afterwards developed in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and in The Stones of Venice are already taught; and, above all, the very title of that early work asserts the central principle of all his aesthetic writings. What he means by the poetry of architecture is, he explains in the subtitle, “the architecture of the nations of Europe considered in its association with natural scenery and national character.” In Modern Painters, he declares that the distinctive character of his writings is “their bringing everything to a root in human passion or human life.” This distinctive character, then, is present from the start; and no student of Ruskin can doubt that it remains present to the end. When we turn from substance to style, we find the same harmony between these early essays and the best known of Ruskin’s aesthetic treatises. Alike in diction, in structure and cadence of sentences and in the love of such ornaments as alliteration, the boy is father to the man.

More remarkable, however, than any of the published articles, as an anticipation of the future Ruskin, was a paper written, in 1836, in answer to a ribald criticism in Blackwood’s Magazine of the paintings exhibited by Turner in that year. As Turner “never moved in these matters,” the paper was not then printed; and, when Ruskin came to write Praeterita, he could find no fragment of it. But he there refers to it as “the first chapter of Modern Painters,” and the copy subsequently discovered, which is printed in the library edition of his writings, proves that, at seventeen, he was already, to a surprising degree, master of the principles he enunciated in that work. The gradual expansion of the plan of Modern Painters is highly characteristic of Ruskin. In conception, at first, merely a pamphlet in answer to an objectionable critique, it becomes a reasoned examination of a great artist, and, finally, a treatise on art based upon such a view of art that almost anything in heaven or earth becomes relevant. Systematic it is not, although there is a show of system. Ruskin’s mind was, naturally, discursive, and it is fortunate that he was compelled to follow the bent of his mind. The book would have been much less rich than it is had it been really systematic. The success of the first volume was so great, and the vistas of work which it opened out before him were so vast, that the general lines of Ruskin’s future activity were practically determined by it. Seventeen years were to pass before Modern Painters itself was finished. The journeys, year after year, through France to Switzerland and Italy not only furnished materials for it, but opened up ever new vistas. The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice were both by-works, undertaken and carried through while it was still on hand. All three, in their author’s view, were educational works. Modern Painters was conceived in a mood of “black anger” at the ignorance and insensitiveness of England; the author felt he had a mission to dispel the ignorance and to pierce the insensitiveness. Architecture was as little understood as painting; even those who were trying to revive Gothic architecture showed, by their actions, that they knew not what they did. Hence, to expound the nature of Gothic was as essential for the spiritual welfare of the people as was the vindication of Turner. Though Ruskin disappointed the hopes of his parents, who had destined him for the church and who saw in him a future bishop, he was all his life a preacher. The sense of duty, growing ever deeper, compelled him to take up fresh burdens. Thus, in 1850, he intervened on behalf of the pre-Raphaelites, as, in 1843, he had intervened on behalf of Turner. In the latter case, his aid was volunteered; in the former, it was sought; but, in both, it was given from the same sense of duty. He, the man who had vision, was bound to remove the scales from the eyes of the blind. He was all the more bound to the pre-Raphaelites because, working, in the main, independently of him, they were putting into practice in their painting the principles which he was maintaining in his books. Hence, the letters to The Times on the art of the brotherhood, and the subsequent pamphlet on pre-Raphaelitism. Academy Notes, in which, each year, from 1855 to 1859, he somewhat pontifically instructed the faithful what they must believe concerning contemporary art, were another outcome of the same spirit. These, however, were strictly within the province which Ruskin had made his own. Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds, issued in the same year with Pre-Raphaelitism, was much more questionable in every respect. Ruskin had no such authority in the sphere of theology as he had in that of art, and the former work showed that he was altogether incapable of gauging the practical difficulties in the way of a re-union of the sects.

Yet another development of his activities is shown in the various series of lectures which he delivered during the sixth and seventh decades of the nineteenth century, before his official position as Slade professor of fine art at Oxford made lecturing part of his business. Probably, the closer contact with his audience as lecturer than as writer satisfied his hunger for sympathy. It was, moreover, essential to get all the strength he could upon his side; for “what with that infernal invention of steam, and gunpowder, I think the fools may be a puff or barrel or two too many for us.” He lectured, therefore, in order to enlist recruits in the army of the wise which was to condense the steam into water and to pour it upon the gunpowder. His lectures On Architecture and Painting were delivered in Edinburgh in 1853; The Political Economy of Art (afterwards included in A Joy for Ever) consisted of two lectures delivered at Manchester in 1857; and in The Two Paths were gathered together five lectures which are related by unity of purpose, though they were delivered at different places. These lectures were all directly concerned with Ruskin’s primary business, art; but the very title of the second course indicates the change which was coming over him. He was half serious as well as half playful when he wrote to Norton that he wanted to give lectures in all manufacturing towns. He was approaching the great dividing line of his work and life, which he crossed when, in 1860, he published both the last volume of Modern Painters and the five essays afterwards known by the title Unto this Last.

The last volume of Modern Painters had, for the most part, been written in the winter of 1859–60. While it was passing through the press, the author was already busy with his revolutionary essays on economics, the first of which appeared in The Cornhill Magazine for August. The outcry against these papers was so great that Thackeray, the editor, at the instance of the publisher, intimated to Ruskin that the series must be stopped. The same fate attended the series of essays contributed in 1862–3, on the invitation of Froude, to Fraser’s Magazine. The fragment afterwards received the title Munera Pulveris. The strong opposition aroused by these papers was due, mainly, to the heterodoxy of Ruskin’s opinions. Writing when the Manchester school was at the height of its power, he flatly denied its gospel. But another cause operated to increase the irritation which was felt against him. In the transition from the criticism of art to the criticism of industry, Ruskin seemed to break with his own past; and, while his countrymen were now willing to listen to his exposition of the political economy of the former, they asked impatiently what he knew about the political economy of the latter. He had given ground for the question by the statement in the preface to The Political Economy of Art that he had never read any author on political economy, except Adam Smith.

Ruskin had to create a public for his economics, as he had created one for his aesthetic doctrine. But there was no break and no inconsistency. Evolution there certainly was—an evolution mainly from within, though influenced by Carlyle. The transition from art to industry was the natural outcome of Ruskin’s doctrine of art as an expression of the whole life. He knew that life is social, and he felt that the imperfectious and the unreality of modern art are intimately related to the ugliness of modern industry. There was, from the first, much in his writings that might have prepared a close student for the transition. He had vigorously protested in The Seven Lamps of Architecture against the uselessness of much of the toil to which the working classes are condemned. In Modern Painters, he had distinguished the lower picturesque from the higher, and declared that the essence of the difference between them lay in the fact that the lower picturesque was heartless. Most clearly of all, the last volume of Modern Painters revealed the drift of his thought. There, he had condemned the modern “monetary asceticism, consisting in the refusal of pleasure and knowledge for the sake of money”;—that is to say, that inverted asceticism which renounces the kingdom of heaven in favour of this world, just as medieval asceticism renounced this world in favour of the kingdom of heaven; he had maintained that, if all physical exertion were utilised, no man need ever work more than is good for him; and, after Carlyle, he had thrown out for the consideration of a mercantile era the doctrine that the best work, whether of soldier or sailor, or of spiritual teacher, or of writer or artist, was never done for pay, but for nothing or for less than nothing—for death.

Just because the development was wholly natural, it proved to be no mere passing phase. Henceforth, Ruskin’s writings and his practical work alike proclaim him an economist and social reformer as well as a critic of art. On the practical side, the proof is plain in the guild of St. George; while among his writings there are, from Unto this Last onwards, two great groups, one in which the aesthetic element is most conspicuous, the other in which it is subordinate to the economic. The increased prominence of the latter element inevitably influenced Ruskin’s style. After Unto this Last, there is less gorgeousness; but the author’s own high opinion of that volume as a piece of English was justified.

During the years which followed Unto this Last, the conflict in Ruskin’s mind between the aesthetic and the social and economic interests is unmistakable. On the whole, the latter triumph. The Queen of the Air belongs to the domain of aesthetics, and so does the report on the Turner drawings in the National Gallery. In The Cestus of Aglaia, he laid down the laws of art for the use of schools. But the laws of art prove to be very close to the laws of morals; and, in The Ethics of the Dust, which treats of crystallography, there is asserted a similarly close connection between morals and science. In Sesame and Lilies, and in The Crown of Wild Olive, the predominance of the social over the aesthetic interest is very evident. The former became at once, as it still remains, the most popular of all Ruskin’s writings, partly, perhaps, because of the elements of the fanciful and the sentimental in it. Both these books were collections of lectures; for Ruskin still loved to meet an audience. He loved, also, at this time and for years afterwards, to speak through the medium which brought him into contact with the largest number. He entered into several newspaper controversies. These “letters to the editor” were afterwards collected by an Oxford pupil, and published under the title Arrows of the Chace—a volume full of paradox, but full, also, of sparkling and memorable sayings. Of these letters, some belong to the aesthetic, and others to the social, divisions of Ruskin’s writings. The remarkable series entitled Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne belongs wholly to the social division; and, apart from the letters in Fors Clavigera, it was Ruskin’s last important contribution, in a direct way, to the subject. Afterwards, he tried in a practical way, by the guild of St. George, to further the ends he had at heart.

The unfavourable reception of his economic theories had, probably, caused some discouragement in Ruskin’s mind. At any rate, after Time and Tide and The Queen of the Air, he turned to a study so far removed from economics as Greek mythology. He also occupied himself with such tasks as the production of catalogues of pictures. Then, in 1869, came his appointment to the post of Slade professor of fine art at Oxford; an office to which he was again appointed in 1883. This (without at all extinguishing his social interests, which were manifested in road-making, street-sweeping and tea-selling, as well as in other less eccentric ways) gave a decisive impetus to the aesthetic element in his mind; for the professorship made aesthetics his business and his duty. He was a busy and highly successful lecturer, delivering, in the year 1870, the series afterwards published under the title Lectures on Art, in which, after four introductory lectures of a general nature, he dealt with painting; and that on sculpture, entitled Aratra Pentelici. In the following year, he delivered his lectures On Landscape, which were not published till 1897, and a muchdebated discourse entitled The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret. The violent exaggerations of this discourse evoked vigorous repudiations from more than one authority on art, and even put some strain upon Ruskin’s relations with one or two of his friends. Before the end of his first tenure of office, he had delivered, in all, eleven courses of lectures. But, besides lecturing and teaching through the eye and hand at Oxford, Ruskin conceived it to be his duty to act as a sort of director general in things of art to all who cared to learn from him; hence, Mornings in Florence and St. Mark’s Rest were conceived by him to be part of the work of his chair.

Unfortunately for his own health, Ruskin was not content with the tasks which his enthusiasm for art imposed upon him. Though the professorship had breathed a new life into his work for art, it left him still convinced that the problems raised by modern industry were of vital importance. The guild of St. George was conceived at this period, and, in 1871, he started Fors Clavigera. By far the greater part of that extraordinary collection of letters, the most comprehensive and the most characteristic of all Ruskin’s writings, was produced while he was still Slade professor. Every phase of Ruskin is illustrated in it, except that of the master of gorgeous English. For insight into the range of Ruskin’s style, it is only necessary to compare the first volume of Modern Painters with Fors. All through his career, he had been moving consistently, though with variations due to the nature of his theme, towards greater simplicity. But the simplicity is still eloquent, and, in Fors, it is wonderfully flexible; for it has to be adapted successively to every one of the author’s interests and emotions.

Overstrain brought on, in the summer of 1878, a serious attack of brain fever; and Ruskin never regained his old vigour. He was active enough, and most discursively active. Science, art, theology, literary criticism, economics, are all treated with more or less fullness in the writings of the next two or three years. His re-election to the professorship at Oxford meant more lectures, those entitled The Art of England and The Pleasures of England; but the latter course clearly showed as it proceeded that his mind, in some degree, had lost its balance. He resigned, once more, and, for the remaining years of his life, he produced nothing of importance except the admirable Praeterita. This was finished in 1889. The years of life which still remained to him are best described by the phrase which he himself applied to the closing phase of Scott’s life—jours de mort.

Ruskin is now passing through that period of depreciation which seems to be the lot of all writers who, at any part of their career, have been regarded with exaggerated admiration. Time was when Ruskin was Sir Oracle on art; now, it is frequently maintained that his principles are antiquated, that the world can afford to forget him. It is curious that, in respect of his work as economist and social reformer, opinion has moved in precisely the opposite direction. Though probably few, either of statesmen or of economists, would accept without large reservations the views advocated by Ruskin, these views have influenced life and legislation; and those who bear in mind how closely the two sections of his work were associated in his own mind will doubt whether the aesthetic teaching can be entirely superseded. It was the conviction that while life without industry is guilt, industry without art is brutality, which drove Ruskin to examine the kind of industry by which the modern world escapes guilt—only to fall into brutality. At any rate, the intense humanity which inspires all Ruskin’s work, economic and aesthetic alike, can never become antiquated. A false conception of aesthetic principle is fatal to him who holds that art exists for art’s sake, but not necessarily to him who holds that the end of art is to raise life from brutality to graciousness.