Victorian Visionary: Why Is Ruskin Still Relevant?

Re-assessing the 19th-century artist, critic and historian’s contemporary relevance on the bicentenary of his birth

John Ruskin – who was born in London in 1819 and died in 1900 – was one of the most important cultural figures of the 19th century. It is hard to imagine now how famous this polymath – artist, scientist, writer – was in his own time. In huge demand as a lecturer across Britain during his lifetime, Ruskin’s lasting influence can be glimpsed in movements inspired by him, ranging from the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the National Trust and the Labour Party. Despite all this, he stopped being a household name early in the 20th century.

This year, however, a number of exhibitions celebrating the bicentenary of his birth are driving a resurgence in public consciousness. Ruskin’s belief in the power of close observation to record and understand – to really see – beauty and truth, and thereby transform individuals and societies for the better, is at the heart of all his work. So it is fitting that these exhibitions invite us to look closely at his art, research and writing as well as their influences and legacies.

Venice – the city Ruskin loved and the subject of his three-volume treatise on art and architecture, The Stones of Venice (1853) – started early. To avoid conflict with the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto’s birth (1519–1594), the Doge’s Palace held ‘John Ruskin: Le Pietre di Venezia’ (John Ruskin: The Stones of Venice) in 2018. Curated by Anna Ottani Cavina, it borrowed heavily from UK collections to show Ruskin’s relationship with, and influence on, the city. Similarly, ‘Parabola of Pre-Raphaelitism: Turner, Ruskin, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris’ – a travelling exhibition organized by Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum and currently on view at Abeno Harukas Museum in Osaka – borrowed extensively to foreground Ruskin as inspiration and mentor of the Pre-Raphaelites. Primarily drawing on its own collections, the Houghton Library, Harvard University, showed ‘Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal’ earlier this year. The exhibition traced Ruskin’s influential radicalism, especially his fight against social and economic inequality, urbanization and mass production.

John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, 1853–54, oil on canvas, 71 × 61 cm. Courtesy: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 

In the UK, ‘John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing’ launched the bicentenary celebrations in January. This major London exhibition was at Two Temple Place, in partnership with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George – a charity established by Ruskin in 1871. The Guild’s eclectic core collection was built by Ruskin himself for display in the museum he founded for the working people of Sheffield; it is now on view at the city’s Millennium Gallery. His aim was to give free access to art and craftsmanship, bringing a world of beauty, normally reserved for those with the means to travel abroad, to the wider population. Curated by Louise Pullen, this exhibition achieved a similar goal this year, attracting 50,000 visitors.

Entering the ornate, Neo-Gothic mansion of Two Temple Place was an immersive experience, like stepping into a jewel box. Complementing the Guild collection with loans and new commissions, the exhibition included a menagerie of objects in densely hung displays that echoed how the collection appeared in its original home: a cabinet of curiosities offering a glimpse into the multi-faceted mind of Ruskin, while also telling the story of his relationship with industrial Sheffield and the continuing relevance of his radical views on aesthetics and society.

On a much smaller scale, Bewdley Museum’s ‘Beautiful, Peaceful, Fruitful: Ruskin in Wyre’, curated by Hilary Baker and Jenny Robbins, combined loans from the Guild collection with community-produced craft from a Heritage Lottery-funded project to tell the story of Ruskin’s continuing influence in an ancient woodland and its surrounding community. 

When ‘The Power of Seeing’ travelled home to Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, it was reconceived as ‘John Ruskin: Art & Wonder’. Displayed in a single, large gallery within a modern building, it had a very different feel. Curated again by Pullen, it focused on how artists have captured the wonder of nature. Emphasizing Ruskin’s importance across art and science, it communicated the polymath’s message that we must value and preserve nature, with Dan Holdsworth’s Acceleration Structures (2018) especially effective. Using new geomapping technologies, Holdsworth’s 3D images of Alpine glaciers are reminiscent of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes, and haunting reminders that these fragile peaks are receding.

'John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Two Temple Place, London 

Environmental issues are even more central to the other major bicentenary exhibition shown at two locations in the UK: ‘Ruskin, Turner & the Stormcloud: Watercolours and Drawings’. Co-curated by Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns, it opened at York Art Gallery, then travelled to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal (it runs until 5 October). Combining objects from those collections with significant loans and specially commissioned work by Emma Stibbon, the show explores the elemental beauty of the British landscape. Ruskin on culture is also foregrounded: classical and biblical paintings, architectural scenes and portraits. But the lingering impression is the threat of climate change, highlighted in Stibbon’s work, especially her 2018 cyanotype rendering the precise site captured in an 1854 Ruskin daguerreotype – now with much less ice.

Light was the theme of ‘Incandescence: Turner in Venice’, held earlier this year in the small exhibition space at Brantwood, Ruskin’s Lake District home, and curated by Howard Hull. It included Venice, the Piazzetta with the Ceremony of the Doge Marrying the Sea (c.1835), part of Tate’s Turner Bequest, which Ruskin helped establish in 1857–58. This work was presented alongside watercolours from 1840 (the year Ruskin first met Turner), which captured the shifting light at different times of day. Change and the ephemeral were similarly foregrounded when the same space held ‘Ruskin’s Good Looking!’,  a solo show of Sarah Casey’s studies of Ruskin’s clothing. Painstakingly observed, mapped and then drawn by hand with a dressmaker’s pin on Japanese paper soaked in wax, the effect of these works is ghostly, capturing echoes of Ruskin the man, whose body shaped the cloth.

Lecturing at Manchester School of Art in 1859, Ruskin declared that fine art is the coming together of hand, head and heart. This unified vision of being human in the age of machines inspired ‘Ruskin’s Manchester: “Devil’s Darkness” to Beacon City’ at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections, of which I was guest curator. It stressed his championing of art education for all, including architectural drawings of Neo-Gothic buildings at Manchester’s civic heart as well as ceramics and textiles that posed craft-based challenges to the industrial pollution Ruskin despised in the Victorian city. A short walk away, across All Saint’s Park, The Holden Gallery hosted the 2019 John Ruskin Prize Exhibition, featuring 41 shortlisted artists responding to the theme ‘Agents of Change’ across a range of media. This year’s first-prize winner was Juliette Losq, for her hand-painted, immersive installation Proscenium (2018).

Emma Stibbon, Mer de Glace I, 2018, cyanotype, 39 × 36 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

The Whitworth Art Gallery’s ‘Joy for Ever: How to use art to change the world and its price in the market’, curated by Alistair Hudson and Poppy Bowers in collaboration with constituents, took its title from a lecture Ruskin gave in response to the 1857 Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester. His speech was political, and so was the Whitworth’s celebration of his bicentenary. Combining treasures from its own collection with period loans and significant contemporary works, it challenged audiences to think about the social and political uses of art.

As we enter the fourth technological revolution, Ruskin’s work in response to the first resonates. He grappled with headline issues of our day: climate change and pollution, fair wages and work-life balance, universal education and health care. He asked questions about how to be human, and he offered utopian ideas about living well together – from the individual to regional, national and global relationships.

Main image: John Ruskin and Frederick Crawley, Chmonix, Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif, 1854, daguerreotype, 15 × 20 cm. Courtesy: © The Ruskin Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Look Again’.

Rachel Dickinson is principal lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and director of education at Ruskin’s Guild of St George, Sheffield, UK. Her most recent publications are on Ruskin and textiles, and she has lectured worldwide on Ruskin, sustainability and craft. 

Issue 8

First published in Issue 8

September 2019

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