EXQUISITE! In To See Clearly, Suzanne Fagence Cooper gives a masterclass in how to write well about a subject who was as expansive as she is concise and as florid as she is focused, while sensitively — even poetically — summarising the many insights imparted by her subject.
Her focus is on John Ruskin’s belief that sight is fundamental to all insight, whether poetry, prophecy, or religion. So, this is a book about a purveyor of words who encourages in those who listen or read the discipline of attentive looking.
Fagence Cooper blends Ruskin’s biography and writings together with personal stories focused on Ruskin’s legacy and meditation on his key themes. We travel from his learning to look attentively in childhood through his travels, books, lectures, relationships, and controversies of his prime to the mental distress of his final years. Fagence Cooper connects her readers to Ruskin’s relevance through the legacy-related stories that she tells and her apposite summaries of the contemporary issues that he foresaw, in particular our polluting of the natural world.
While explaining why Ruskin still matters, she is nevertheless also acutely aware of the ways in which his views — for example on gender diversity — tended to reflect rather than challenge the culture of his day. The concerning aspects of his relationships and attitudes towards women are highlighted and discussed in measured rather than polemical tones.
Ruskin has been a guide and inspiration to Fagence Cooper for more than 30 years in her career as researcher, lecturer, and curator. This book blends together the fruits of Fagence Cooper’s journeying with Ruskin’s original insights into art, architecture, nature and society. Ruskin believed that there are thousands of us who think for each one that truly sees. Those who see search into the cause of beauty and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. Fagence Cooper is one that sees.
The Revd Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for Partnership Development of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
To See Clearly: Why Ruskin matters
Suzanne Fagence Cooper
Church Times Bookshop £11.70