The critic, social reformer and troubled genius profoundly changed British culture. In his 200th anniversary year.
Can this exhibition help us see him clearly?
Art critic, geologist, botanist, Alpinist, architectural theorist and social reformer – maybe even revolutionary – John Ruskin gazes with troubled intensity from a watercolour portrait that dates from when he was on the verge of losing his mind. Half his face is in shadow, the other in mountain sunlight. His blue-green eyes stare almost too intently. There’s something wrong behind them. The following year, over Christmas 1876 in his beloved Venice, Ruskin would start to hallucinate. Breakdowns would follow and he eventually withdrew from the world, cared for at home on a healthy inheritance from his wine merchant father, until his death in 1900.
Ruskin’s manic portrait, attributed to Charles Fairfax Murray but quite possibly the critic’s own work, fits well into the late-Victorian interior of Two Temple Place, laden with rich wooden carvings, panelling and stained glass. Or does it? It’s safe to say its architect was influenced by Ruskin’s gothic vision of architecture. Yet it’s an equally safe guess that Ruskin would have loathed it, for this neo-Tudor fantasy was created for the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor. In his book The Stones of Venice, the bible of the gothic revival, Ruskin denounces the very opulence and selfishness this building represents. Medieval gothic, for him, is an art of communal togetherness, created by a morally superior age that respected honest work and condemned capitalist usury.
What the show can’t fully reveal, because it is hidden by the precision of his drawings, is the tragedy of Ruskin’s passion for nature. Brought up as an evangelical Christian, shaped by the glories of art and nature he saw on childhood trips in Europe, his vocation as a young man was to teach his contemporaries to see the divinely created beauty of the world. “I have to prove to them ... that the truth of nature is part of the truth of God,” he wrote. As those lovely rocks in this exhibition show, geology was at the heart of his theocratic scientific vision. Yet geology in the 19th century was the very science that was demolishing god, fossil by fossil. By 1851, he could hear the geologists’ hammers chipping away his faith: “…those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.”