Thursday, March 14, 2019

Seeing, drawing, teaching

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing
An exhibition at Two Temple Place, London
Curated by Sheffield Museums and the Guild of St George

‘Is Mr Ruskin living too long?’ asked the architect E. W. Godwin in a piece written in 1878.* Godwin had revered the great Victorian sage and been inspired by his book The Stones of Venice, but now Ruskin was embroiled in a controversy with the artist Whistler; Whistler seemed the latest great thing in art and Ruskin suddenly seemed old hat. Just under a hundred years later, when I was at university, Quentin Bell, art historian and biographer (and nephew) of Virginia Woolf came to persuade us that it was still worth reading Ruskin: few of us can ever have read more than a page or two of the great man, who seemed a distant figure indeed.

In the 21st century, Ruskin can seem yet more remote: a Victorian who wrote interminable books with impenetrable titles,† who promoted a kind of architecture – Gothic – that harks back to the Middle Ages, who had a famously disastrous marriage, who was active in so many areas that it’s hard to pin him down. And yet his influence has been profound. The proto-socialism of his book Unto This Last, attacking free-market economics, guided pioneers of the Labour party, inspired Gandhi to found a newspaper on which everyone was paid equally, and has been said to prefigure some of the ideas of the Green movement. His writings, especially the vast Modern Painters, gave Turner (among the greatest of all English artists) his due for the first time. He developed a new appreciation of Venice and its architecture – as well as a sense of that city’s fragility – in The Stones of Venice, a book that also made an eloquent case for Gothic architecture. He presented art and history in exciting, if sometimes baffling, new ways in works such as Fors Clavigera, his absorbing series of polymathic letters to the working men of England. There’s more? There’s more. He could draw like an angel. He lectured tirelessly. And he gave away much of his inherited wealth to promote educational projects, such as his museum (it has been called a ‘people’s museum’) in Sheffield, and schemes that taught people how to live a better life, like his Guild of St George.
John Ruskin, Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank, 1875–79. © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

Most of what Ruskin wrote and did was animated by this educational mission, and he went at it with the zeal of a prophet. That’s one of the things that comes across vividly in the exhibition John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place in London. This show features drawings and watercolours that Ruskin did that show people how to see – minute studies of leaves or the surfaces of rocks, of mosses and ferns, of glaciers, of a peacock’s breast feather, delineations of architectural details, landscapes inspired by works of Turner and by Ruskin’s incessant travelling. But the exhibition is also stuffed with things that he collected, for his museum and to show anyone (students at Oxford, members of the public who attended his many lectures) how too look at nature – specimen rocks and minerals, botanical drawings, paintings of birds by Audubon and Edward Lear, old master paintings, architectural carvings.

This commitment to education is something that shines through the exhibition. Most of what Ruskin drew or collected seems to have been drawn or acquired for a practical, instructional purpose – to reproduce in books (works like The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice are full of wonderful prints from his drawings of buildings), to illustrate lectures, to add to the museum.  Ruskin is talking to us through these objects – revealing tiny worlds among the mosses and ferns, showing the effect of light on a carving, demonstrating the use of ornament or different coloured stones on a building, explaining how an artist like Turner saw and painted the St Gothard Pass. It’s a wonderfully varied exhibition, because, as he said, ‘The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things’.

Because art, for Ruskin, is at the heart off all things, this makes The Power of Seeing a very serious exhibition. This does not make it dull, though. Far from it. The interest and quality of what’s on display justifies the seriousness, and makes it worth one’s while waiting to get close to some of the watercolours so that one can take in the minute detail. But there is amusement to be had too. A couple of large panels display quotations from his writings under the heading ‘Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin’. What does he loathe? The Renaissance buildings of Venice (‘amongst the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men’), lawyers (‘Not one of them shall ever have so much as a crooked sixpence of mine’), Palladio, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, railway stations, cycling, being photographed, Victorian church statuary (‘A gross of kings sent down from Kensington’), and more. Out of step with his time? And with our own? In part, perhaps. But no less absorbing for that and still, at Two Temple Place, very much alive and kicking.

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Top illustration: John Ruskin, Santa Maria della Spina, East End, Pisa, Italy, 1845 © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

* Ruskin was to live until 1900, but by the time Godwin asked his question much of Ruskin’s greatest works were written, with the exception of the later numbers of Fors Clavigera and his autobiography, Praeterita.

† What do all these Latin or Latinate titles mean? Praeterita means ‘Of past things’; Fors Clavigera is difficult to translate, and its author wanted it understood in several parallel ways – you just have to read it.


Miss Rayne said...

Quentin Bell did that to me too, at Sussex in the 80s. I've still got a copy of Sesame and Lilies somewhere..

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ah Sesame and Lilies: 'a provision for life', as Ruskin says books are. Bell was a striking figure, I seem to remember, with a great beard on him even then. He didn't do a bad job as an advocate for Ruskin, and I remember enjoying his biography of Virginia Woolf too.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Ruskin enthralls and annoys at the same time. How are early 19th-century "dripstones" "immoral"? It simply means he didn't like them personally. My volume of selected Ruskin I don't know whether to keep or give away - and then keep coming back to it to have another quiet guffaw at somebody almost as opinionated and unreasoningly dogmatic as myself. He was completely wrong about railway stations, I just having been in a few that were around in his time. So much roof and so much space, and so much cast iron holding it all up with volutes and flowers. It's a good job they ignored Ruskin and made them as grand and as grandiloquent as they could manage - because they can't manage it today, anyhow.