Sunday, February 8, 2009

John Ruskin’s birthdays

Today is the 190th anniversary of the birth of John Ruskin, one of the greatest art and social commentators of the Victorian period in Britain. He was a man of many talents, also producing paintings and poems, and a diary which he kept for most of his life. Although many of the entries are fairly brief and even mundane (about the weather), there are plenty with interesting observations about nature and art.

Wikipedia has a detailed biography on Ruskin and The Diary Junction has a shorter one with some diary-related links. He was born on 8 February 1819, exactly 190 years ago today, the son of a wine merchant. His family moved to Herne Hill when he was but four, and to Dulwich when he was 20. In 1836, he began studying at Christ Church, Oxford University, and, while still in his early 20s, travelled with his parents to Italy and Switzerland. Thanks to funding by his father, Ruskin was able to indulge a passion for collecting art, in particular the paintings of Turner.

Aged only 24, Ruskin published Modern Painters, an important and controversial work arguing that modern landscape painters - and in particular Turner - were superior to the so-called Old Masters of the post-Renaissance period. Further volumes followed. In 1848, he married Euphemia Chalmers Gray, the daughter of friends of his parents, but the marriage did not last long. In the early 1850s, Ruskin became involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom, John Everett Millais, married Euphemia (after her marriage with Ruskin was annulled).

Ruskin went on to write many important and influential books, such as The Seven Lamps of Architecture. He became a great advocate for the Gothic style, and an opponent of the debasing effects of the industrial revolution. In the 1860s, he had a calamitous affair with a very young Irish girl, Rose La Touche, which dragged on until she died in 1875. In 1869, he was elected the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University, and achieved some success as a lecturer.

He resigned his post after ten years, and, thereafter, was subject to more frequent bouts of the mental illness that had beset him through much of his life. After the death of his parents, and for the last 30 years of his life, Ruskin’s main residence was at Brantwood, in the Lake District, which is where he died a few days after the start of the 20th century.

Ruskin’s diary, covering most of the timespan of his adult life, was published just over 50 years ago in two volumes by Clarendon Press. The entries for the book - The Diaries of John Ruskin - were selected and edited by Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse. Some years later, in 1971, Yale University Press published The Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin. This was based on some of Ruskin’s diaries, written while living at Brantwood, which had not been made available to Evans and Whitehouse. The Victorian Web has an informative review of The Brantwood Diary, and quotes from the diary itself.

Meanwhile, here are some extracts form Ruskin’s diary taken from the Clarendon Press book. The first, when Ruskin was 30, is representative of the more interesting parts of his diary. All the rest were written on his birthday in different years. The one written on his 50th birthday, in 1869, is rather maudlin.

3 June 1849
‘I walked up this afternoon to Bloney, very happy, and yet full of some sad thought; how perhaps I should not be again among these lovely scenes; as I was now and ever had been, a youth with his parents - it seemed that the sunset of to-day sunk upon me like the departure of youth.

First I had a hot march among the vines, and between their dead stone walls. Once or twice I flagged a little, and began to think it tiresome; then I put my mind into the scene, instead of suffering the body only to make report of it; and looked at it with the possession-taking grasp of the imagination - the true one; it gilded all the dead walls, and I felt a charm in every vine tendril that hung over them. It required an effort to maintain the feeling; it was poetry while it lasted, and I felt that it was only while under it that one could draw, or invent, or give glory to, any part of such a landscape. I repeated, ‘I am in Switzerland’ over and over again, till the name brought back the true group of associations, and I felt I had a soul, like my boy’s soul, once again. I have not insisted enough on this source of all great contemplative art. The whole scene without it was but sticks and stones and steep dusty road.’

8 February 1854
‘Began description of valley of Chamouni and finished my rocks at Glen Finlas [in the Ashmolean Museum]. Went up with Sophy to Mr Griffiths and saw a wonderful Turner, of a Diligence deep in snow by moonlight and firelight [probably The Dover Mail]. . .’

8 February 1857
‘Hear Mr Spurgeon on ‘Cleanse thou me from secret faults’ - very wonderful.’

8 February 1858
‘Brilliant intensely, with hard frost’

8 February 1863
‘Walked lazily in pine wood, and to Regny chateau. Talked with peasant.’

8 February 1869
‘How utterly sad these last birthdays have been, in 67 and 68. I am not much better today, but in better element of work. Wild wind and dark morning. I proceed to botanize.’

8 February 1872
‘Oxford, Corpus Christi College. Came into my rooms last night, after a lovely walk on Seven Bridge Road.’

8 February 1873
‘The sun does not rise by ten minutes, her to that time, we so westing, and the days last already till full six, with long twilights.

Yesterday glorious walk in snow to the tarn in hollow - Goat’s water - and not in the least touched with fatigue by a mile’s row and six mile’s walk up sixteen hundred feet; and write this and my Greek notes at 7 in the morning, sans spectacles. . . I must try to make my daily life more perfect as I grow old.’

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