John Ruskin : Modern Art – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era

Richard Wagner : Modern Music
John Ruskin : Modern Art
Herbert Spencer : The Evolutionary Philosophy
Charles Darwin : His Place in Modern Science
John Ericsson : Navies of War and Commerce
Li Hung Chang : The Far East
David Livingstone : African Development
Sir Austen Henry Layard : Modern Archaeology
Michael Faraday : Electricity and Magnetism
Rudolf Virchow : Medicine and Surgery

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era
John Lord

Topics Covered
Passionate and luminous exponent of Nature’s beauties.
His high if somewhat quixotic ideal of life.
Stimulating writings in ethics, education, and political economy.
Frederic Harrison on Ruskin’s stirring thoughts and melodious speech.
Birth and youth-time; Collingwood’s “Life” and his own “Praeterita”.
Defence of Turner and what it grew into.
Architectural writings, lectures, and early publications.
Interest in Pre-Raphaelitism and its disciples.
Growing fame; with admiring friends and correspondents.
On the public platform; personal appearance of the man.
Economic and socialistic vagaries.
F. Harrison on “Ruskin as Prophet” and teacher.
Inspiring lay sermons and minor writings.
Reformer and would-be regenerator of modern society.
Attitude towards industrial problems of his time.
Founds the communal “Guild of St. George”.
Philanthropies, and lecturings in “Working Men’s College”.
Death and epoch-making influence, in modern art.

John Ruskin : Modern Art

By G. Mercer Adam

What John Ruskin has done in a prosaic, commercial, and Philistine age, in teaching the world to love and study the Beautiful, in opening to it the hidden mysteries and delights of art, and in inciting the passion for taking pleasure in and even possessing embodiments of it, that age owes to the great prose-poet and enthusiastic author of “Modern Painters.” Neither before nor since his day has literature known such a passionate and luminous exponent of Nature’s beauties, such an inculcator in men’s minds of the art of observing her ways and methods, or one who has given the world such deep insight into what constitutes the true and the beautiful in art. For these things, and for opening new worlds of instruction and delight to his age in the realm of art, heightened by the charm of his marvellous prose, we can readily pardon Ruskin for his weaknesses and perverseness,–for his dogmatisms, his fervors, and ecstasies, his exaggerations of praise and blame, and even for the missionary propagation of his often unsound economic gospel, valuable though it may be in illustrating and enforcing morality in its aesthetic aspect. Despite his enemies, and all that the critics have said contradicting his theories, Ruskin was a surprise and a revelation to his time. In not a little of all that he said and did, it is true, we cannot concur; nor can we fail to see the errors he fell into through his want of reserve and his headlong haste to say and do the things he said and did; nevertheless, he was a great and inspiring teacher in things that appeal to our sense of the beautiful, and earnest in his zeal to raise men’s intellectual and moral standard of life. Like most enthusiasts and geniuses, he had, now and then, his hours of reaction, waywardness, and gloom; but there was much that was noble and ennobling in the man, as well as rich and fructifying in his thought. Even in his social and moral exhortations, tinctured as they are with medievalism, and however much we may here again disagree with him, he had much that was uplifting and inspiring to say to his time,–a time that had great need of his apostolic counsellings and his fervent inculcations of morality, industry, religion, and humanity.

Throughout Mr. Ruskin’s works–and they are amazingly manifold–a strong and intense purpose runs, given to the highest and noblest ends; and though their author at times wearies his reader by his diffuseness and his digressions, and to some is almost fanatical in his reverence for art, he is ever imaginative and eloquent, and has created for us a new, instructive, and uniquely fresh and thoughtful body of art-literature. The truth of infinite value he teaches is “realism,”–the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a reverent and faithful study of nature, and not, as a reviewer expresses it, “by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality. The thorough acceptance of this doctrine would remould our life; and he who teaches its application, even to any single department of human activity, and with such power as Mr. Ruskin’s, is a prophet for his generation.” In all his various labors and aims, Mr. Ruskin set before himself a high, if somewhat quixotic, ideal of life, and with great earnestness did much, not only for the elevation of his fellow-men, but for the development of sound artistic taste and the enriching and spiritualizing of life by seeking to surround it at all times with the true and the beautiful, and with the old-time virtues of purity, manliness, and courage.

Among the “Beacon Lights” of the age there can be no question that Ruskin is worthy of an exalted place, since few men of our modern time, rich as it is in eminent thinkers and writers, has done more than he to illumine the many subjects with which he has so fascinatingly dealt,–and that not only in art and its cult of the Beautiful, but in ethics, education, and political economy. The energies, activities, and impulses he constantly put forth, as well as the high principles that ever guided him in his earnest endeavor to improve the intellectual and moral condition of his kind, mark his era as a great artistic epoch in the onward and upward progress of the race. By stimulus, suggestion, and inspiration he has powerfully influenced his time, though manifestly not a little of the seed he abundantly and hopefully scattered has fallen upon barren ground. Nevertheless, where the seed has fallen and germinated, the yield has been large: “his spirit has passed far wider than he ever knew or conceived; and his words, flung to the winds, have borne fruit a hundredfold in lands that he never thought of or designed to reach.” With what pride and gratitude should not the age regard him and his memory,–one who has quickened the sensibilities of men in looking upon nature; opened our dull eyes to its manifold beauties; made plain to the average intelligence what Art is and stands for; implanted in our souls worship of the beautiful; shown workingmen how to use their tools in the highest interests of their craft, and taught maidens what and how to read as well as how and in what spirit to sew and cook. The world too often acknowledges its true teachers and prophets only when it begins to build them some belated tomb. “This, at any rate,” gratefully exclaims Frederic Harrison,[1] “we will not suffer to be done to John Ruskin.”

“We may all of us recall to-day with love and gratitude the enormous mass of stirring thoughts and melodious speech about a thousand things, divine and human, beautiful and good, which for a whole half-century the author of ‘Modern Painters’ has given to the world. They cover every phase of nature, every type of art, of history, society, economics, religion; the past and the future; all rules of human duty, whether personal or social, domestic or national…. He spake to us of trees, from the cedar of Lebanon unto the hyssop on the wall; he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. He has put new beauty for us into the sky and the clouds and the rainbow, into the seas at rest or in storm, into the mountains and into the lakes, into the flowers and the grass, into crystals and gems, into the mightiest ruins of past ages, and into the humblest rose upon a cottage wall. He has done for the Alps and the cathedrals of Italy and France, for Venice and Florence, what Byron did for Greece. We look upon them all now with new and more searching eyes. Whole schools of art, entire ages of old workmanship, the very soul of the Middle Age, have been revealed with a new inspiration and transfigured in a more mysterious light. Poetry, Greek sculpture, mediaeval worship, commercial morality, the training of the young, the nobility of industry, the purity of the home,–a thousand things that make up the joy and soundness of human life have been irradiated by the flashing searchlight of one ardent soul: irradiated, let us say, as this dazzling ray shot round the horizon, glancing from heaven to earth, and touching the gloom with fire. We need not, even today, be tempted from truth, or pretend that the light is permanent or complete. It has long ceased to flash round the welkin, and its very scintillations have disturbed our true vision. But we remember still its dazzling power and its revelation of things that our eyes had not seen.

“What we especially love to dwell on to-day is this: that in all this unrivalled volume of printed thoughts, in this encyclopaedic range of topic by this most voluminous and most versatile of modern writers [may we not say of all English writers?] there is not one line that is base, or coarse, or frivolous; not a sentence that was framed in envy, malice, wantonness, or cruelty; not one piece that was written to win money, or popularity, or promotion; not a line composed for any selfish end or in any trivial mood. Think what we may of this enormous library of print, we know that every word of it was put forth of set purpose without any hidden aim, utterly without fear, and wholly without guile; to make the world a little better, to guide, inspire, and teach men, come what might, scoff as they would, turn from him as they chose, though they left him alone, a broken old man crying in the wilderness, with none to hear or to care. They might think it all utterly vain; we may think much of it was in vain: but it was always the very heart’s blood of a rare genius and a noble soul.”

Before entering, somewhat in detail, into Ruskin’s vast and varied labors, let us briefly outline the scope and character of the work which gave the art critic and prophet of his time his chief fame. The personal incidents in his life need not detain us at the outset, as they are not specially eventful, and may be more fully gathered from the excellent “Life” of Ruskin, by his friend and some-time secretary, W.G. Collingwood, or from the delightfully interesting reminiscences by the master himself in his autobiographic “Praeterita,” published near the close of his long, arduous, and fruitful career. John Ruskin was born in London on the 8th of February, 1819. He was of Scotch ancestry, his father being a prosperous wine merchant in London, who acquired considerable wealth in trade, which the son in time inherited, and nobly used in his many private benevolences and philanthropic enterprises. The comfortable circumstances in which he was born, coupled with his father’s own love of pictures and books, were helpful in giving encouragement and direction to the young student’s studies and tastes. His mother, a deeply religious woman, was, moreover, influential in implanting the serious element in Ruskin’s character and life, and in familiarizing him with the Bible, whose noble English, in King James’ version, manifestly entered early into the youth’s ardent, prophetic soul, and, as a writer, had much to do in forming his magnificent prose style. Ruskin was in early years–indeed, far on in his manhood–in delicate health, and consequently he was educated privately till he passed to Christ Church College, Oxford, where, at the age of twenty, he won the Newdigate prize for verse, and graduated in 1842. His taste for art was manifested at an early age, and after passing from the university he studied painting under J.D. Harding and Copley Fielding; but his masters, as he tells us in “Praeterita,” were Rubens and Rembrandt.

At the outset of his career Ruskin, as is well known, was led to take up a defence of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and the contemporary school of English landscape-painting against the foreign trammels, which had fastened themselves upon modern art, and especially to prove the superiority of modern landscape-painters over the old masters. This revolutionary opinion, though at first it was hotly contested, established the new critic’s position as a writer on art, and the defence, or exposition rather, grew into the famous work called “Modern Painters” (5 vols., 1843-60). This elaborate work deals with general aesthetic principles, and, notwithstanding its occasional extravagances, alike of praise and censure, its charm is irresistible, presenting us with its brilliant and original author’s ideas of beauty, to which he freshly and powerfully awakened the world, while enshrining throughout the work the most enchanting word-poems on mountain, leaf, cloud, and sea, which, it is not too much to say, will live forever in English literature. In the second volume Mr. Ruskin takes up the Italian painters, and discusses at length the merits of their respective schools; in the others, as well as in the work as a whole, we have a body of principles which should govern high art-work, as well as new ideas as to what should constitute the equipment of the painter, and that not only as regards the technique of his art, but in the effect to be produced on the onlooker in viewing the skilled work of one who, above all accomplishments, should be lovingly and intimately in contact with nature.

From the study of painting Mr. Ruskin passed for a time to that of architecture. In this department we have from his pen “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849) and “The Stones of Venice” (1851-53). In these two complementary works their author sets forth as in an impressive sermon the new and admonitory lesson that architecture is the exponent of the national characteristics of a people,–the higher and nobler sort exemplifying the religious life and moral virtue in a nation, the debased variety, on the other hand, expressing the ignoble qualities of national vice and shame. The text of “The Stones” is Venice, and the design of the volumes, in the author’s words, is to show that the Gothic architecture of Venice “had arisen out of, and indicated, a state of pure domestic faith and national virtue;” while its renaissance architecture “had arisen out of and indicated a state of concealed national infidelity and domestic corruption.” The earlier work, “The Seven Lamps,”–the Lamp of Sacrifice, of Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience,–looks upon architecture “as the revealing medium or lamp through which flame a people’s passions,–the embodiment of their polity, life, history, and religious faith in temple and palace, mart and home.” Akin to these two eloquent works, in which their author thoughtfully sets forth the civic virtues and moral tone, as well as the debased characteristics, by which architecture is produced at certain eras in a people’s life, is the earlier volume on “The Poetry of Architecture” (1837), which discusses the relation between architecture and its setting of landscape or other environment, illustrated by examples drawn from regions he had visited,–the English Lakeland, France, Switzerland, Spain, and northern Italy.

After these works followed lectures on drawing, perspective, decoration, and manufacture, with later theories (crotchets, some have impiously called them) on political economy, Pre-Raphaelitism, et cetera, with a flood of opinions on social, ethical, and art subjects, enriched by rare intellectual gifts and much religious fervor. Ruskin’s whole writings form a body of literature unique of its kind, pervaded with great charm of literary style, and inspired by a high moral purpose. Ruskin’s excursions into non-aesthetic fields, and the strange jumble of Christian communism to which, late in life, he gave vehement expression, it must be honestly admitted, have detracted much from his early fame. In everything he wrote the Ruskinian spirit comes strongly out, colored with an amiable egotism and enforced by great assurance of conviction. The moral purpose he had in view, and the charm and elevated tone of his writings, lead us to forget the wholly ideal state of society he sought to introduce, while we are won to the man by the passion of his noble enthusiasms.

Like Carlyle and Emerson, Ruskin was by his parents intended for the ministry; but for the ministry he had himself no inclination. The broadening out early of his mind and the freeing of his thought on doctrinal subjects, which took him far from the narrow evangelicalism of his youth, made the ministry of the church repugnant to him, though he was always a deeply religious man and a force ever making for righteousness. At the same time, he numbered many divines among his most cherished friends, and he frequently, and with admitted edification, was to be found in chapel and church. Meanwhile he continued busily to educate himself for whatever profession he might choose or drift into, supplemented by such fitful periods of schooling as his delicate health permitted, as well as by many jaunts with his parents to the English lakes and other parts of the kingdom, and by frequent tours on the Continent, especially in Italy and Switzerland. Before he arrived at his teens, young Ruskin had composed much, both in prose and verse, and he early manifested an aptitude for drawing, as well as a decided taste for art, which, it is said, was in some measure incited by the gift, from a partner of his father, of a copy of the poet Rogers’ “Italy,” with engravings by Turner. Nor, early in manhood, did he escape a youth’s fond dream of love, for as a worshipper of beauty, and an enthusiast of the “Wizard of the North,” we find him drawn tenderly to a daughter of Lockhart, editor of the “Quarterly Review,” a grandchild of his famous countryman, Sir Walter Scott. The affair, however, though encouraged by his parents, who longed to see their son settled in life, came to nought, chiefly owing to the young lover’s weak physical frame and uncertain health. Later on, unhappily, he was caught in the toils of another Scottish lass, for whom, it is related, he had written “The King of the Golden River” (1841), and whose rare beauty had readily attracted him. With her, in 1848, he made an ill-assorted marriage, only to find, some years afterwards, his heart riven and a bitter ingredient dropped into his life’s chalice by a fatal defection on the wife’s part, she having become enamoured of the then rising young painter, Millais, whom Ruskin had trustingly invited to his house to paint her portrait. The sequel of the affair is a pitiful one, which Ruskin ever afterward hid deep in his heart, though at the time, finding that the woman was unable to live at the intellectual and spiritual altitude of her loyal husband, the latter, with a magnanimity beyond parallel, pardoned both Millais and the erring one, consented to a divorce, and actually stood by her at the altar as the faithless one took upon herself new vows unto a new husband. The estrangement and loss of a wife gave Ruskin afresh to Art,–his true and fondly cherished bride.

John Everett Millais Drawing by William Holman Hunt

John Everett Millais Drawing by William Holman Hunt

At this period, as we know, English painting was at a low ebb, mediocre and conventional, though with a show of artificial brilliance. Ruskin, with his scorn of the artificial and scholastic, threw himself into the work of overturning the established, complacent school of the time, and with splendid enthusiasm and an unfailing belief in himself and his ideas he undertook to reform what had been, and to raise current conceptions of art to a more exalted and lofty plane. We have seen what he had already achieved in his first dashing period of literary activity, in the production of the early volumes of “Modern Painters,” and in his “Seven Lamps” and “Stones of Venice.” While he was at work on the concluding volumes of the first and last of these great books there arose in England the somewhat fantastic movement in art, launched by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included such Ruskinites and other devotees of early Christian and mediaeval painting as Rossetti, Millais, Morris, Burne-Jones, and Holman Hunt. Towards this new school of symbolists and affectationists Ruskin was not at first drawn, since it seemed to him unduly idealistic, if not mystic, and smacked not a little, as he thought, of popery. Later, however, he saw good in it, as a breaking away from academic trammels; while he recognized the earnest enthusiasm of the little band of artists and artist-poets, as well as their technical dexterity and brilliance. With ready decision as well as with his accustomed zeal for art, Ruskin ended by defending and applauding the new innovators, particularly as their chief motive was the one the master had always strenuously pled for,–adherence to the simplicity of nature. Their scrupulous attention to detail, characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites, later on bore good results, even after the Brotherhood fell apart, especially in William Morris’s application of their art-principles to household decoration and furnishings. But for the time the movement was loudly mocked and decried, and perhaps all the more because of Ruskin’s espousal of the fervid band, his letters of defence in the London “Times,” and his discussion in his booklet on “Pre-Raphaelitism.” Heedless of the outcry, Ruskin pursued his own self-confident course, and by the year 1860 he had completed his “Modern Painters,” and, in spite of objurgation and detraction, had won a great name for himself as a critic and expounder, while expanding himself over almost the whole world of art.

We have said that Pre-Raphaelitism, as a movement in art, was contemporaneously jeered at; while to-day, among superficial or inappreciative students of the period, seriously to mention it or any of its cultured brotherhood is to provoke a smile. Nevertheless, there was not a little high merit in the movement, which Ruskin was keen-eyed and friendly enough to recognize, while much that is worthy afterwards came out of it in the later work of the more notable of its members as well as in that of their unenrolled associates and the admirers of the Pre-Raphaelite method. What the movement owed to Ruskin is now frankly conceded, in the lesson the brotherhood took to heart from his counsellings,–to divest art of conventionality, and to work with scrupulous fidelity and sincerity of purpose. Nor was contemporary art alone the gainer by the movement; it also had its influence on poetry, though this has been obscured–so far as any beneficial influence can be traced at all–by the tendency manifested in some of the more amorous poetic swains of the period, who professed to derive their inspiration from the Brotherhood, to identify themselves with what has been styled the “Fleshly School” of verse. Of the latter number, Swinburne, in his early “Poems and Ballads,” was perhaps the greatest sinner, though atoned for in part by the lyrical art and ardor of his verse, and much more by the higher qualities and scholarly characteristics of his later dramatic Work. Nor is Dante Rossetti himself, in some of his poems, free from the same taint, despite the fact of his interesting individuality as the chief inspirer and laborer among the Brotherhood. Yet the movement owed much to both his brush and his pen of other and nobler, because reverential, work, as those will admit who know “The Blessed Damozel,” “Sister Helen,” and his fine collection of sonnets, “The House of Life,” as well as his famous paintings, “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin,” and his Annunciation picture, “Ecce Ancilla Domini.” Of the product of other Pre-Raphaelites of note,–such as Ford Madox Brown, Millais, Morris, Woolner the sculptor, Coventry Patmore, and Holman Hunt,–much that is commendable as well as finely imaginative came from their hands, and justified Ruskin in his gallant advocacy of the movement, its founders, and their work.

By this time, of which we have been writing, Ruskin had reached the early meridian of his powers, and, as we have hinted, had wrested from the unwilling many a juster recognition of his amazing industry and genius. To his fond and indulgent parents this was a great source of pride and satisfaction, and the practical evidence of it was the throng of visitors to the family seats of Herne Hill and Denmark Hill, in the then London suburbs, where Ruskin long had his home, and by the attentions and honor paid to their son by universities, academies, and public bodies, as well as by many eminent personages and the intellectual élite of the nation. Among those with whom the young celebrity was then ultimate and reckoned among his admiring correspondents were, besides Turner (who died in 1851) and the chief artists of the time, the Carlyles and the Brownings, Mary Russell Mitford, Charlotte Bronté, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), Charles Eliot Norton, Lady Trevelyan (Macaulay’s sister), Whewell, Maurice, Kingsley, Dr. John Brown (author of “Rab and his Friends”), Tennyson, and Dean Milman. To these might be added many notable foreigners whom he either met with in his continental travels or who were attracted to him by a lively interest in his writings. In his home, thanks to a wealthy and indulgent father, he was surrounded with every comfort, short of luxury, if we except under the latter the large sums expended on the purchase of “Turners” and many famous foreign pictures, and a vast and increasing collection of favorite books and other treasures and curios.

Of the author’s home-life we get many delightful reminiscences in “Praeterita,” with entertaining talks of his childhood days, his youthful companions, his toys and animate pets, his early playful adventures in authorship, and other garrulities with which, late in life when the work, as it remains, was incompletely put together, he beguiled the weariness and feebleness of old age. But we are anticipating, for we are writing of Ruskin when his hand was yet on the plough, and the plough was still in the furrow, and half a long life’s arduous work was yet before him. At this era, no brain could well have been more active or fuller of philanthropies than his, for we approach the second period of his life’s grand activities,–the era of a new departure in the interests that occupied him and the herculean tasks he set himself to do.

Before recording some of the achievements of this time and glancing at the inciting causes of the transition which marks the era we have now reached, let us note the demands made upon Mr. Ruskin’s thought and labor by universities and public institutions, whose audiences desired to have him appear before them in person and address them upon topics in which he and they were interested. These appearances on the lecture platform were now numerous, since many throughout the kingdom were eager to see and know the man whose art criticisms, principles that govern the beautiful, and stimulating thought on all subjects, had made so deep an impression on the reflecting minds of the age. His earliest appearance on the rostrum was at Edinburgh, where he delivered four lectures before the Philosophical Institution, chiefly on landscape-painters and on Christian art, with a plea for the use of Gothic in domestic architecture. Subsequent appearances were at Manchester, where he spoke on the Political Economy of Art and the relation of art to manufactures; at the South Kensington Museum, London, which had just been opened; and later at Oxford, where further on in his career he became Slade Professor of Art in his own University. From the accounts of these public lectures we get opinions as to the personal appearance of Ruskin at the period which add to our knowledge of him from paintings, drawings, and photographs, though not a few of these accounts vary from those given us in books, chiefly sketched by his lady friends and correspondents. The more trusty of the contemporary pictures speak of him as having “light, sand-colored hair; his face more red than pale; the mouth well cut, with a good deal of decision in its curve, though somewhat wanting in sustained dignity and strength; an aquiline nose; his forehead by no means broad or massive, but the brows full and well bound together; the eye [says the observer from whom we are quoting] we could not see, in consequence of the shadows that fell upon his [Ruskin’s] countenance from the lights overhead, but we are sure that the poetry and passion we looked for almost in vain in other features must be concentrated here.” Miss Mitford speaks of him at this time as “eloquent and distinguished-looking, fair and slender, with a gentle playfulness, and a sort of pretty waywardness that was quite charming.” Another, a visitor at his London home, characterizes him as “emotional and nervous, with a soft, genial eye, a mouth thin and severe, and a voice that, though rich and sweet, yet had a tendency to sink into a plaintive and hopeless tone.” Later on in years we have this verbal portrait from a disciple of the great art-teacher, occurring in an inaugural address delivered before the Ruskin Society of Glasgow: “That spare, stooping figure, the rough-hewn, kindly face, with its mobile, sensitive mouth, and clear deep eyes, so sweet and honest in repose, so keen and earnest and eloquent in debate!”

When the fifth and last volume of “Modern Painters” was finally off his hands, Mr. Ruskin not only engaged, as we have seen, in occasional lecturing, but began (1861) to add a prolific series of brochures–many of them with quaint but significant titles–to his already stupendous mass of writing. Their subjects were not alone aesthetics, but now treated of ethical, social, and political questions, the prophetic declarations and earnest appeals of a man of wide and varied culture, deep thought, and large experience. The attempted alliance of political economy with art was a novel undertaking in that sixth lustrum of the past century, even by a man of Mr. Ruskin’s eminence and fame in the world of letters. But Mr. Ruskin was a bold and earnest man, as well as a genius; and he had too much to tell his heedless, laissez-faire age to keep silent on themes, remote as they were from those he had hitherto taught, and of which he desired to deliver his soul, whatever ridicule it might provoke and however adverse the criticism levelled against him. His humanity and moral sense were outraged by the manner in which the mass of his countrymen lived, and trenchant was his castigation of this and eager as well as righteous his desire to amend their condition and elevate and inspire their minds. As an economist, it is true, there was not a little that was false as well as eccentric in what he preached; moreover, much of his counsel was directly socialistic in its trend, repugnant in large degree to his English readers and hearers; but all this was atoned for by the honesty and philanthropy of his motives, by his phenomenal fervor and eloquence, and by the literary beauty and charm of every page he wrote. Nevertheless, as in Carlyle–for in these depreciations the style of the seer of Chelsea was deeply upon him–the note of calamity and the wail of despair are too much in evidence in Ruskin’s writings at this period, while, like Carlyle also, he was equally precipitate and impulsive in his attacks on things as they were. Yet in the economic condition just then of England, and in the circumstances environing the labor world, there was, possibly, justification for the rebukes and objurgations of onlookers of the type of both of these men, and very humanitarian as well as practically helpful were Ruskin’s counsel and aid to labor and to all who sought to raise and expand their outlook and better their condition in life. Towards politics Ruskin was never drawn, but had he been more prosaic and less given to anathematizing, most valuable would have been his aid in legislation at this era of political and moral reform. But if political science, or science in any other of its branches or departments, did not come within his purview, great was the revolution he wrought in the working-man’s surroundings, and immense the illumination he shed upon industry and on the spirit in which the laborer should think and work.

Referring to Ruskin at this period of his career, and to his influence as a social and moral exhorter, Frederic Harrison, from whom we have already quoted, has an admirable passage on “Ruskin as Prophet,” [2] which, as it is presumably too little known, we take pleasure in embodying in these pages.

“The influence of Ruskin,” says Mr. Harrison, “has been part of the great romantic, historical, catholic, and poetic revival of which Scott, Carlyle, Coleridge, Freeman, Newman, and Tennyson in our own country have been leading spirits within the last two generations in England. There is no need to compare him with any one of these as a source of original intellectual force. He owns Scott and Carlyle as his masters, and he might vehemently repudiate certain of the others altogether. His work has been to put this romantic, historical, and genuine sympathy inspired by Scott, Wordsworth, and Carlyle into a new understanding of the arts of form. The philosophic impulse assuredly was not his own. It is a compound of Scott, Carlyle, Dante, and the Bible. The compound is strange, for it makes him talk sometimes like a Puritan father, and sometimes like a Cistercian monk. At times he talks as Flora MacIvor talked to young Waverley; at other times like Thomas Carlyle inditing a Latter-day Pamphlet. But to transfuse into this modern generation of Englishmen this romantic, catholic, historical, and social sympathy as applied to the arts of form, needed gifts that neither Scott, nor Carlyle, nor Newman, nor Tennyson possessed–the eye, if not the hand, of a consummate landscape painter, a torrent of ready eloquence on every imaginable topic, a fierce and desperate courage that feared neither man nor devil, neither failure nor ridicule, and above all things an exquisite tenderness that is akin to St. Francis or St. Vincent de Paul….

“Here is a man who, laboring for fifty years, has scattered broadcast a thousand fine ideas to all who practise the arts, and all who care for art. He has roused in the cultured world an interest in things of art such as a legion of painters and ten royal academies could never have done. He has poured out a torrent of words, some right, some wrong, but such as have raised the level of art into a new world, which have adorned English literature for centuries, and have inspired the English race for generations; he has cast his bread upon the waste and muddy waters with a lavish hand, and has not waited to find it again, though it has been the seed of abundant harvest to others.”

Again, speaking of what Ruskin sought to accomplish in the regeneration of modern society, and the reformation of our social ideals, and of that “heroic piece of Quixotism” he founded, “the Guild of St. George,” Mr. Harrison remarks:–

“The first life of John Ruskin was the life of a consummate teacher of art and master of style; the second life was the life of priest and evangelist…. Here is the greatest living master [the passage was written while Mr. Ruskin was yet alive] of the English tongue, one of the most splendid lights of our noble literature, one to whom a dozen paths of ambition and power lay open, who had everything that could be offered by genius, fame, wealth, social popularity, and intense sensitiveness to all lovely things–and this man, after thirty years of untiring labor, devotes himself to train, teach, delight, and inspire a band of young men, girls, workmen, children,–all who choose to come around him. He lavishes the whole of his fortune on them; he brings to their door his treasures of art, science, literature, and poetry; he founds and endows museums; he offers these costly and precious collections to the people; he wears out his life in teaching them the elements of art, the elements of manufacture, the elements of science; he shows workmen how to work, girls how to draw, to sing, to play; he gives up to them his wealth, his genius, his peace, his whole life. He is not content with writing books in his study, with enjoying art at home or abroad; he must carry his message into the streets. He gives himself up–not to write beautiful thoughts: he seeks to build up a beautiful world…. When I see this author of ‘Modern Painters’ and the ‘Stones of Venice,’ the man who has exhausted almost all that Europe contains of the beautiful, who has thought and spoken of almost every phase of human life, and has entered so deeply into the highest mysteries of the greatest poets–when I see him surrounding himself in his old age with lads and lasses, schoolgirls and workmen, teaching them the elements of science and art, reading to them poems and tales, arranging for them games and holidays, ornaments and dresses, lavishing on these young people his genius and his wealth, his fame and his future–I confess my memory goes back instinctively to a fresco I saw in Italy years ago–was it Luini’s?–wherein the Master sat in a crowd of children and forbade them to be removed, saying that ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.'”

With this generous tribute to and appreciation of Ruskin, despite the economic vagaries into which the great critic and teacher of his time fell, we may more confidently approach the busy era of his later and self-sacrificing labors, and with less apology take space to deal–as compactly and intelligently as we can–with some of the more notable of the many books and brochures of the period. Difficult as would be the task, fortunately there is little need to epitomize these works, as many of them are better known, and perhaps more attentively read, than his earlier, bulkier, and more ambitious writings. A few of them lie outside the economic gospel of their apostolic author, and these we will first and briefly deal with. A number of them are instructive and inspiring lay sermons on the mystical union between nature and art, beauty and utility, and their reflex in the reverential homage for the beautiful and the worthy in the mind and character of the English-speaking race. The whole form a great body of fine and thoughtful work, which is as enchaining as its meaning is often profound. The best-known of these lay sermons is: “The Queen of the Air” (1869), a splendid blending of his fancy with the Greek nature-myths of cloud and storm, represented by Athena, goddess of the heavens, of the earth, and of the heart. The parable drawn is that “the air is given us for our life, the rain for our thirst and baptism, the fire for our warmth, the sun for our light, and the earth for our meat and rest.” Related to the work is “Ethics of the Dust” (1865), lectures to little housewives on mineralogy and crystallography, nature’s work in crystallization being the text for a diatribe against sordid living. “Sesame and Lilies,” which belongs also to this period of the writer’s work, consists of three addresses, delivered at Manchester and at Dublin, designed specially for young girls, and treating in the main of good and improving literature. The first of them, “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” deals with the treasures hidden in books, the writings of the world’s great men; its sequel, “Of Queens’ Gardens,” deals with the function and sphere of woman, and, by way of application, with the how and the what to read; the third lecture, on “The Mystery of Life and its Arts,” is a discursive but inspiring consideration of what life is and how most successfully to battle with it in the way of our work and of our appointed duty. All three lectures, observes a commentator, “tell men and women of the ideals they should set before them; how to read and to build character under the inspiration of the nobility of the past, fitting one’s self for such great society; how to develop noble womanhood; how to bear one’s self toward the wonder of life, toward one’s work in the world, and toward one’s duty to others.”

Other lectures and brochures of or about this period are “Hortus Inclusus” (The Enclosed Garden), being “Messages from the Wood to the Garden sent in happy days to two sister ladies,” residing at Coniston, and collected in 1887; “Arrows of the Chace,” letters on various subjects to newspapers, gathered and edited in 1880; “The Two Paths,” lectures on art and its application to Decoration and Manufacture (1859); “Ariadne Florentina” (1873), a monograph on Italian wood and metal engraving; “Aratra Pentelici” (1872), on the elements and principles of sculpture; and “The Eagle’s Nest” (1872), on the relation of natural science to art. Still pursuing his delightful methods of interpreting nature and teaching the world instructive lessons, even from the common things of mother earth, we have a series of three eloquent discourses, entitled (1) “Proserpina,” studies of Alpine and other wayside flowers, dwelling on the mystery of growth in plants and the tender beauty of their form; (2) “Deucalion,” a sort of glorified geological text-book, treating of stones and their life-history, and showing the wearing effect upon them of waves and the action of water; and (3) “Love’s Meinie” (1873), a rapture about birds and their feathered plumage, delivered at Eton and at Oxford. This trilogy, dealing with botany, geology, and ornithology, was presented to his audiences with illustrative drawings, representing the flora met with in his travels or found in the neighborhood of his new home in the Lancashire lakes, with sketches of regions, including the characteristics of the soil, in which he had been reared, and talks of the note and habit of all birds that were wont to warble over him their morning song. “The Pleasures of England,” the “Harbours of England,” and the “Art of England” further treat of his loved native land, the first of these being talks on the pleasures of learning, of faith, and of deed, illustrated by examples drawn from early English history, and the last treating of representative modern English artists, chiefly of the Pre-Raphaelite school. “The Laws of Fésole” (1878) deals with the principles of Florentine draughtsmanship; “St. Mark’s Rest,” with the art and architecture of Venice; and “Val d’Arno,” with early Tuscan art, interspersed with the author’s accustomed ethical reflections. “Mornings in Florence,” intended for the use of visitors to the art galleries of the beautiful city on the Arno, deals in the true artist-spirit with its famous examples of Christian art, giving prominence here also to the ethical side of the city’s history. “In Montibus Sanctis,” and “Coeli Enarrant,” the one comprising studies of mountain form, and the other of cloud form and their visible causes, though separately published, are only reprints of the author’s larger and nobler embodiment of his views on art, in “Modern Painters.” “The King of the Golden River,” of which we have previously spoken, is a fairy tale of much beauty, which he wrote for the “Fair Maid of Perth” whom he married, and who separated herself from him on the plea of “incompatibility.” Playful as is the style of the story, it is not without a moral, on what constitutes true wealth and happiness. “The Crown of Wild Olive” (1866) consists of lectures on work, traffic, and war; the latter lecture, delivered at the Royal Artillery Institution at Woolwich, was also separately published under the title of “The Future of England.” The two former, being addressed to working-men, laborers, and traders, discuss economic problems, and set forth tentatively their author’s antagonized political ethics, with which, in drawing this essay to a close, we now venture to deal.

After the magnificent work done by Ruskin in art up to his fortieth year, that he should turn, for practically the remainder of his life, to the seemingly vain and profitless task of a social reformer and regenerator of modern society, has to most men been a riddle too elusive and enigmatic to solve. And yet, in his earlier career, had he not himself prepared us for just such a departure as he took in the sixties, for in art was he not equally revolutionary and iconoclastic, as well as personally self-willed, passionate, and impulsive? Moreover, had not Mother Nature endowed him with the gifts of a seer and made him chivalrous as well as intensely sympathetic, while his early training inclined him to be serious, and even ascetic? Nor were the rebuffs he met with throughout his career calculated at this stage to make him court the applause of his fellow-men or be mindful of the world’s censure or approval. Nor can one well quarrel with what he had now to say on many a subject, visionary and enthusiast as he always was, and given over to mediaeval views and preachments, and to abounding moral and ethical exhortation. Like Carlyle’s, his voice was that of one crying in the wilderness, and yet in the industrial and social condition of Britain at the era there was need of just such appeals for regeneration and reform as Ruskin strenuously uttered, accompanied by indignant rebukes of grossness, vulgarity, and meanness, as manifested in masses of the people. If in his strivings after amelioration he was too denunciatory as well as too radical, we must remember the temper and manner of the man, and recognize how difficult it was in him, or in any iconoclast who scorned modern science as Ruskin scorned it, to reconcile the age of steam and industrial machinery, which he spurned and would have none of, with the views he held of Christianity, morals, and faith. His views on political economy, which he treated neither as an art nor a science, might be perverse and wrong-headed, and his method of adapting prophetic and apostolic principles to the practice of every-day life utterly impracticable; but the virtues he counselled the nation to manifest, and the graces he enjoined of truthfulness, justice, temperance, bravery, and obedience, were qualities needed to be cultivated in his time, with a fuller recognition of and firmer trust in God and His right of sway in the world He had created.

What Ruskin’s economic views were, and what his relations to the industrial and social problems of his time, most readers of our author know, are mainly to be found in “Fors Clavigera,” a series of letters to working-men, covering the years 1871-84, and in his early essays on political economy, “Unto this Last” (1860), and “Munera Pulveris” (1863). “Unto this Last” appeared in its original form in the pages of the “Cornhill Magazine,” then edited by Thackeray, and our author speaks confidently of it as embodying his maturest and worthiest thoughts on social science. The work, which will be found the key to Ruskin’s economic gospel, embraces four essays, treating successively of the responsibilities and duties of those called to fill all offices of national trust and service; of the true sources of a nation’s riches; of the right distribution of such riches; and of what is meant by the economic terms,–value, wealth, price, and produce. Under these several heads, Ruskin expresses his conviction that co-operation and government are in all things the law of life, while the deadly things are competition and anarchy. Whatever errors the book[3] contains–and the author’s unconscious arrogance and dogmatism made him blind to them–his views were set forth with his accustomed vigor and eloquence, and in the honest belief that he was more than fundamentally right. It was for such helpful work as this, and what he accomplished in the kindred volume, “Munera Pulveris,” which first appeared in “Fraser’s Magazine,” that Ruskin for the time dropped his revelations in art to let a new world of thought into the “dismal science” of political economy, confound its old-time instructors, and gird at the evils of the age,–the greed, selfishness, and petty bargaining spirit of industrial and commercial life. Nor in conducting such a crusade as this was Ruskin abandoning his old and less controverted gospel of art. He was but carrying into new and barren fields the high ideals he had hitherto counselled his age to emulate and heed, and in his sympathy with labor seeking to bring into its world the comeliness of beauty and the cheer of prosperity, comfort, and happiness. In “Time and Tide” (1867), and more at length in “Fors Clavigera,” Ruskin reiterates his message to labor, to get rid of ever-environing misery by realizing what are the true sources of happiness,–pleasure in sincere and honest work, inspired by intelligence, culture, religion, and right living. What he desires for the working-man he desires also for his family, and consequently he urges parents to train their sons and daughters to see and love the beautiful, to cultivate their higher instincts, and call forth and feed their souls. In all this there is much helpful, tonic thought, which the church or the nation, roused to zeal and earnest activity, might fittingly teach, and so advance the material weal of the people, extend the area of public enlightenment and morality, and herald the dawn of a new and higher civilization.

Other aspects of Mr. Ruskin’s economic gospel are, unfortunately, not so sane and beneficent. His altruism knows no bounds, as his philanthropy and zeal have but few restraints. After the fashion of his mentor, Carlyle, he is carried away by his humanitarianism and his unreserved acceptance of the doctrine of the equality and brotherhood of man. Hence come his economic heresies in regard to rent and interest, and capital and usury, his denunciations of the division of labor, his Tolstoian impoverishment of himself for the benefit of his fellow-man, and his dictum that the wealth of the nation should be its own, and not accrue to the individual. Hence, also, the wholly ideal state of society he attempted to realize in his communal Guild of St. George, with its rigid government and restraints upon the personal liberty of its members. Ideally beautiful, admittedly, was the plan and scheme of the little state, with its disciplinings, exactions, and devout selective creed. But the age is a practical, unimaginative one, and whatever compacts men make, even for their highest welfare, there are, it is to be feared, few so loyal, tractable, and docile as to place themselves for long under such tutoring and one-patterned, fashioning forms of co-operative living. Into whatever millennial state Ruskin sought to usher his little band of English followers and disciples, one must speak appreciatively of his motives in projecting the scheme, and of the money and labor he personally lavished upon the Utopian project. Reverently also must one speak of the catholic creed to which its members were asked to subscribe: namely, to trust in God, recognize the nobleness of human nature, labor faithfully with one’s might, be loyal to one’s common country, its laws, and its monarch’s or ruler’s orders, so far as they are consistent with the higher law of God; while exacting obedience, and a pledge that one will not deceive, either for gain or other motive; will not rob; will not hurt any living creature nor destroy any beautiful thing; and will honor one’s own body by proper care for it, for the joy and peace of life. All this is very exemplary and beautiful, and not over-hard to live up to, though the working-men of Sheffield in time wearied of the organization, and the Guild and its noble ideals is now, we believe, but a memory, if we except the art museum and library of the Order taken over and still maintained by the town.

John Ruskin Photograph

John Ruskin Photograph

More practical, may we not say, than this imitation of the Florentine arti of the Middle Ages was the Working Men’s College, founded in London in the fifties by that other earnest Christian Socialist, F.D. Maurice, in which Ruskin lectured gratuitously, took charge of the drawing classes, and hied off to the country with its members to sketch from nature and otherwise instruct and entertain them. Yet good in many respects came of the Guild of St. George, in the impulse it gave to the revival of the then dormant industries, such as the hand-spinning of linen, hand-weaving of carpets and woollen fabrics, lace-making, wood-carving, and metal-working, besides the stimulus it gave, with the infusion of higher ideals of workmanship, to the decorative arts, and the improvement in the sightliness of factories, and in the homes and surroundings of labor. Here Ruskin’s philanthropy and reform zeal showed themselves most worthily in the financial aid he gave in the pulling down, in crowded districts of the British metropolis, of poor tenements, and the building up in their place of clean, attractive, and wholesome habitations. In such benevolences and well-doings, and in this life of renunciation and self-sacrifice, Ruskin spent himself, and made serious inroads into his bodily health and strength, as well as scattered the fortune–about a million dollars–left him by his now deceased father. But this was the manner and character of Ruskin, and this the mode of expressing his love for his fellow-man, which in myriad ways showed itself throughout a long and strenuous career of devotion to high ideals, and of practical, tender help in all good works. In all his philanthropies he was true to his own preachings and counsellings, spending and being spent in the spirit of his Divine Master, his whole soul aglow with reverence and adoration and tender with a profound moral emotion. Besides his rare endowments as a lover of the beautiful, he had that other precious gift, of golden speech, which threw a mantle of loveliness over every book he wrote and perpetual lustre over the domain of letters.

Ruskin’s declining years, while hallowed by suffering, were cheered by many tender attentions and unexpected kindnesses, and by the recognition, by many notable public bodies and eminent contemporaries, of his long life of great service and devotion to his kind. In our modern age, from which, in his loved Coniston home, he passed from life Jan. 20, 1900, no one more reverently than he has looked deeper into the mystery of life, thought more concernedly of its problems, shed more passionately and eloquently about him love for the beautiful, or practically and helpfully done more–layman only though he was–for religion and humanity. At his death the nation paid honor to his memory by offering his remains a resting-place in the great fane of England’s illustrious dead, Westminster Abbey; but Ruskin had himself otherwise ordered the disposal of his body. “Bury me,” he said, “at Coniston.” And there, on the fifth day after his falling softly asleep, amid a concourse of loving friends, the earthly tenement of the great art critic and lover of righteousness was laid to rest, his grave strewn with myriad wreaths, garlands, and crosses of beautiful, bright flowers.

Here, after his long, strenuous, militant career, do we leave this inspiring teacher and “consecrated priest of the Ideal,” his gentle soul finding rest and peace after the myriad troubles and tumults of life. Still now is the once active, fertile, stimulating mind of the man who so effectively roused his generation from its complacent smugness and indifference in its appreciation of the beautiful, and with ardent boldness challenged established beliefs in art and defied the conventionality and authority of his time. His has been a powerful force in innumerable departments of human thought, and epoch-making the influence he has exerted in giving to the world new ideals of the beautiful and in shaping modern opinion and taste in art. How great is the work he has done, and what a library of stimulating, inspiring books he has left us, comparatively few realize, as they little realize what the age owes to him for his noble activities in well-doing and his many and impressive lessons and influence. In a commonplace, commercial time, how stimulating as well as ardent have been his appeals for sensitiveness of perception in regard to art, and of the tone and spirit in which it ought to be viewed and valued! And with what tender, reverent feeling has he not opened our hearts to compassion and to consideration for the welfare of our fellow-man, and how potent have been his counsellings pointing to the true and abiding sources of pleasure in life! Long must his formative opinions and influence extend, and in the minds of all who think and reflect abiding must be the charm as well as the power of his imaginative, glowing thought. That he met with opposition and hostility in his day was but the price to be paid for the disturbing, correcting, disciplining, yet inspiring part he played in the work he so impulsively set himself to do. One smiles now at the epithets of scorn and contumely once hurled at him, at the man who, little understood as he has been, has done so much to uplift and purify the thought of his time and do battle with the forces opposed to reform and arrayed against those of light and truth. And how great were the weapons with which he was armed, and how varied as well as marvellous the talents he brought into play in the onslaught upon shallowness, convention, and ignorance! Truly, he has done much for his time, and great has been the gain Modern Art has won from his inspiring lessons and thought. The coming of such a man, and at the time that was his, one cannot help reflecting, was one of the providences of an overruling Power, and adequately to estimate his influence and work, and the tone and temper in which he wrought, we have but to consider what the age would have been, in countless departments of thought and activity, had the century now passed possessed no John Ruskin.


Collingwood, W. G. Life of Ruskin.

Harrison, Frederic. Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill, and other Estimates.

Mather, Marshall. John Ruskin, his Life and Teaching.

Bayne, Peter. Lessons from my Masters–Carlyle, Tennyson, and Ruskin.

Japp, Alex. H. Carlyle, Tennyson, and Ruskin.

Spielmann, M.H. John Ruskin.

Waldstein, Charles. Work of John Ruskin.

Ward, May Alden. Prophets of the Nineteenth Century: Carlyle, Ruskin, and Tolstoi.

Bates, Herbert. Annotated edition, with Introduction, of Ruskin’s “Sesame and Lilies” and “The King of the Golden River.”

Ruskin’s “Praeterita”: An Autobiography.

[1] Written by Mr. F.H. on Professor Ruskin’s eightieth birthday (February 8, 1899).
[2] “Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill, and other Literary Estimates,” by Frederic Harrison; London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1900.
[3] Alluding to the quaint title under which these “Cornhill” essays afterwards appeared,–a title that hints at the gist of the work,–Mr. Ruskin’s biographer tells us that the motto was taken from Christ’s parable of the husbandman and the laborers: “Friend, I do thee no wrong. Didst thou not agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way. I will give UNTO THIS LAST even as unto thee.”–Matt. xx. 14.

Mayo W. Hazeltine – Herbert Spencer : The Evolutionary Philosophy

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIV : The New Era