Friday, February 8, 2019

John Ruskin’s birthdays

Today is the double centenary 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 society, architecture, nature and art.

Ruskin was born in London on 8 February 1819, 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. Further information is available from Wikipedia, The Victorian Web, The Ruskin Society, The Ruskin Museum or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Ruskin’s diary, covering most of the timespan of his adult life, was published around 60 years ago (1956-1959) in three volumes by Clarendon Press (1835-1847, 1848-1873, 1874-1889). The entries for the book - The Diaries of John Ruskin - were selected and edited by Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse. They also included a good number of Ruskin’s small sketches which accompany some of the diary entries, of landscapes, nature or architecture. 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. And the second volume of the Clarendon edition of the diaries is freely available online at Internet Archive thanks to Digital Library of India.

Meanwhile, here are some extracts form Ruskin’s diary taken from the Clarendon Press volume 2. The first, when Ruskin was 30, is representative of the more interesting parts of his diary. When he was abroad he sometimes wrote long entries, but at home and later in his life, there were often long gaps in his diary, and the majority of entries he did make were short, a sentence or two. I have included a selection of entries written on his birthdays, including the one for his 50th birthday, in 1869, which 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.’

2 June 1853
‘Sunday. Walking home from Dr. Cumming’s through Holborn and Oxford Street, note shops open: nearly all tobacco and cigar shops: tobacco pipe shops: small confectioners selling ginger beer - large confectioners modestly, and in sly corners of shutters; taverns of all kinds and eating houses.’

31 January 1854
‘To Mr. Melville’s. Wrote a little. Numbered Chamouni drawings. Quiet evening writing Giotto. Summary of month: nearly got Giotto done; Mr. Brown’s MS. a little, 13 pages only of Modern Painters, but house quite in order and everything set going, and a great deal done in learning MS. at Brit[ish] museum.’

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]. . .’

13 February 1854
‘Monday. All day at British museum, drawing Hebrew ornament for my book binding - hardly anything done.’

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.’

16 April 1873
‘Wednesday. Y[esterday] a hot, thunderous day. I very languid and ill, hearing from Joanna of her mother’s death. My work all hanging fire sadly.

Primroses and periwinkles a great comfort.

Dreamed last night that I saw my Fluelen Turner blown down a steep bank into the sea; that I woke from my dream and said what a relief it was to find it was only a dream; that nevertheless I might as well go down to look at the sea; and there, sure enough, was my Turner floating in it, in its frame. When I took it out, the salt was crystallized all over the picture, moist, and I could not think how to wash it off, or carry the picture - for we were travelling. I was announcing my misfortune to my father, when I woke in reality.

Plagued also with letters from madmen and fools, whom I am mad and foolish enough to try to mend.’ 

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 8 January 2009.

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