H&C Heroes: John Ruskin
In praise of the Victorian renaissance man who was a pioneer of modern ideas on craft, sustainability and environmentalism…
An art critic and respected painter in his own right, John Ruskin was above all a ‘man of letters’, whose numerous writings shared his expertise on subjects ranging from geology and architecture to ornithology. Born in 1819 and passing away just after the turn of the century, in January 1900, Ruskin was a true Victorian polymath, whose abiding interest in the connection between art and nature – and how the two affect society – paved the way for modern environmentalist movements, predicting (and in many cases instigating) the growing interest in craft and sustainability.
Ruskin’s emphasis on ‘truth to nature’ in art (a phrase he used while writing in support of Turner) was a significant inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848 by the British artists John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the son of an Italian scholar who moved to London). But it wasn’t just the art world that saw his influence – a keen social reformer, he was an early supporter of progressive schools for girls and female colleges, donating time, money and books to Winnington Hall in Cheshire, Whitelands College at Roehampton and Oxford University’s Somerville College.
In 1860, his political writings Unto This Last were first published as a series of essays in the Cornhill Magazine, exploring social and economic issues including the living wage and questioning the negative impact of industrialisation. Although meeting with fierce criticism at first (at one point prompting editor William Makepeace Thackeray to cease its publication), the work had a lasting impression on the founders of the Labour Party as well as Gandhi, who described the ‘magic spell’ it cast on him. He even adapted Ruskin’s work into his own Sarvodaya (‘Advancement for All’) and used its principles as inspiration for founding the Phoenix Settlement, from where he developed his ideas on equality, civil liberty and passive resistance. Due to Ruskin’s rejection of the impact of industrialisation, he also touched on many subjects that were later adopted by the Green movement.
Later, as Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Slade Art, Ruskin’s unconventional thinking saw him establish a road-mending scheme in which privileged undergraduates rubbed shoulders with labourers – partly to install in them a sense of public service and also to teach the virtues of ‘wholesome labour’. The scheme had a profound effect on some of his students who took part – most notably Oscar Wilde.
In later life, his expertise in meteorology informed Storm-Cloud, seen today as a precursor of environmentalism, while his thoughts on the social utility of art were also ahead of their time. William Morris was a keen disciple, as were Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley, founders of the National Trust. His general distrust of the modern world did lead him down a few intellectual cul-de-sacs though – most notably his rejection of Darwinism. But above all, he is best remembered in the words of Tolstoy: ‘One of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times’.