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Art review: John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing

15 March 2019

Jonathan Evens visits the current exhibition celebrating Ruskin

© Collection of the Guild of St George/ Museums Sheffield

J. W. Bunney’s Façade of San Marco, Venice (1877-82); in the exhibition at Two Temple Place

J. W. Bunney’s Façade of San Marco, Venice (1877-82); in the exhibition at Two Temple Place

TWO TEMPLE PLACE, London, is both a hidden architectural gem and a monument to wealth. Designed by the neo-Gothic Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson, it was the equivalent of Bloomberg’s new European Headquarters in the City of London, being for use as William Waldorf Astor’s estate office. No expense was spared for the man who was then, arguably, the richest in the world. Apart from its extraordinarily opulent interior, when it was finished in 1895, the building contained the largest strong room in Europe, as well as two other enormous fortified safes.

The location for this exhibition, organised to mark the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth on 8 February 1819, is, therefore, at odds with the reason that the work exhibited was first displayed: Ruskin’s founding in 1875 of St George’s Museum, Walkley. This museum was created to enhance the happiness of working people earning a living through the metalworking industries in Sheffield. Ruskin believed that there was no wealth but life, and both the breadth and depth of his collection, now held by The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, is testament to that belief.

Ruskin, the recipient of inherited wealth through trade, lived in an age when, as Clive Wilmer notes in the exhibition catalogue, many Victorians thought the England of their day to be the most fortunate society ever known. In contrast, he saw that the success of Victorian England was founded on industries that created wealth for a few while being based on the deprivation of the poor and a violation of nature through pollution.

Ruskin was an inter-disciplinarian writing on art and architecture, nature and craftsmanship, literature and religion, political economy and social justice. As an author, he attracted praise from Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, and Mahatma Gandhi, while his work in social and cultural politics influenced Gandhi, William Morris, Ebenezer Howard (architect of the Garden City movement), and many founder members of the Labour Party. He championed many of the tenets of the welfare state, and inspired the founders of the National Health Service, the formation of public libraries, and the National Trust.

The Ruskin scholar Robert Hewison has written that Ruskin “drew as well as he wrote”, “became as passionate about economics as he was about art”, “changed people’s taste in architecture and design”, and “took science as seriously as he did painting and sculpture”.

All these attributes are on show in an exhibition that brings together more than 190 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, items of metalwork, and plaster casts to illustrate how Ruskin’s attitude to aesthetic beauty shaped his radical views on culture and society. By examining the sights and artefacts that had power over Ruskin, this exhibition seeks to explore the power that he thought the act of seeing possessed.

Ruskin was a man of many words, who believed that, through drawing, one had the power to say what could not otherwise be said. He built his reputation on the power of his words as an art critic, author, and lecturer, but his subject was the power of seeing, because, for him, the teaching of art was “the teaching of all things”. He believed that the “greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way”. “To see clearly”, he said, “is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one.”

Art, then, is an expression of “the love and the will of God” to which we gain access primarily by looking closely at the splendour of nature.

At St George’s Museum, founded with the help of the Guild of St George, Ruskin displayed his eclectic collection of watercolours, drawings, prints, plaster casts, minerals, illustrated books, and manuscripts. Objects from this collection include Ruskin’s St George and the Dragon, after Carpaccio (1872), the “De Croy” Book of Hours, an exquisitely illustrated religious manuscript dating from the 15th century, and John Wharlton Bunney’s Western Façade of San Marco (1882).

These are displayed alongside examples of Ruskin’s own work, and paintings, drawings, and photographs by Ruskin’s contemporaries, including J. M. W. Turner and G. F. Watts. Also included are newly commissioned works, including site-specific installations, ceramics, and an animated film.

Ruskin collected and made such objects available to others because he believed that there “was a direct connection between the condition of art and the health of the nation that produced it”. An “aesthetically healthy society” was one in which individuals could give personal expression through imaginative, creative work, made meaningful by a shared framework of values and beliefs. “No great arts are practicable by any people,” Ruskin wrote, “unless they are living contented lives, in pure air, out of the way of unsightly objects, and emancipated from unnecessary mechanical occupation. It is simply one part of the practical work I have to do in Art teaching to bring, somewhere, such conditions into existence, and to show the working of them.”

Ruskin perceived that the key ideas and actions of the Victorian era — utilitarianism, philistinism, materialism, and abuse of the natural world — by creating “an anti-aesthetic or anaesthetic environment” might be leading to a real natural catastrophe and the annihilation of human life.

In reviewing a 1983 exhibition on Ruskin, the art critic Peter Fuller wrote that, at the end of 19th century, Ruskin had been presenting an argument that was not to be heard on the Left or the Right, but that was “beginning to be heard again, in different forms, from many otherwise incompatible quarters”. Exhibitions like this, he wrote, “may compel us to begin to acknowledge that this much misrepresented Victorian sage was the true prophet of the ‘post-modern’ and ‘post-industrial’ era”.

© Collection of the Guild of St George/Museums SheffieldJohn Ruskin’s Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather (1873), which is in the exhibition “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing”  

Much of the work included here by Ruskin himself is exquisite. When he isolates an object — such as his watercolour Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather (1875) — in the intensity of his looking and the sensitivity of his brushstrokes, he demonstrates the value of his advice to young artists to “go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remembering her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”

While, as he wrote in 1875, he might not have “heaven” in which to dip his brush when drawing a peacock’s breast-feather, in my view he did not fall far short.

Although he saw the duty of the trainee artist as being “neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God”, he also argued that, “‘when visual experience has nurtured the young artists’ hand, eye, and imagination, we will follow them wherever they choose to lead. . . They are then our masters, and fit to be so.”

We see him practising what he preaches in images such as Light in the West, Beauvais (1845) and Vevey, Sunrise, which are not examples of the photo-realism practised by his more literalistic followers, but Turneresque evocations of a response to natural beauty from his whole moral being — “affections and emotions”, “imaginative and symbolic thought” — imagining natural beauty and “happy human thought” gathered up in God’s hands.

Ruskin never argued for the literal reproduction of his arguments: he said that “no true disciple of mine will ever be a ‘Ruskinian’!” Hewison notes that, instead of literal reproduction, “we can discover in his work those values that avail themselves to Life,” including love, joy, and admiration. Ruskin’s is a charitable hermeneutic, in which “his love of the beauty of the natural world, his own joy in conveying it in pictures and evoking it in words, and his admiration for the artists and writers of all ages who did the same, are the key.”

This exhibition, together with “John Ruskin: Art and Wonder”, which will run at The Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, from 29 May to 15 September, explores how Ruskin championed the joy that nature can bring to our lives, and the sense of awe that it can evoke within us. As Louise Pullen writes, this “is not so much an exhibition of art as an examination of how Ruskin used imagery to help develop an education in well-being”. The foundation of such well-being is the Ruskinian belief that “All great art is praise.”

“John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing” is at Two Temple Place, London WC2, until 22 April. Phone 020 7836 3715. twotempleplace.org

The Millennium Gallery, Arundel Gate, Sheffield: phone 0114 278 2600. www.museums-sheffield.org.uk

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