John Ruskin

Building a city fit for people to live in [Ruskin wrote] means 'remedial action in the houses that we have; and then the building of more, strongly, beautifully, and in groups of limited extent, kept in proportion to their streams, and walled round, so that there may be no festering and wretched suburb anywhere, but clean and busy street within, and the open country without, with a belt of beautiful garden and orchard round the walls, so that from any part of the city perfectly fresh air and grass, and sight of far horizon, might be reachable in a few minutes' walk'.1

John Ruskin was born of a possessive mother and wine-merchant father. Instead of being sent away to school he was tutored at home; at Oxford University he won the prestigious Newdigate prize for poetry in 1839. He published the first volume of his series Modern Painters, establishing the importance of the painter Joseph Turner, when he was 24 years of age. He rapidly established a reputation as the foremost art critic of his time, later holding a Chair of Fine Arts at Oxford. His personal life was not wholly happy: his wife Euphemia ('Effie') Gray divorced him, on the grounds that the marriage had not been consummated after five years, to marry the painter Millais who had been an intimate friend of the couple.

Three years later Ruskin met and fell in love with the young Rose La Touche; when he eventually proposed to her, Rose's parents opposed the marriage. In late life he experienced periods of mental illness, exacerbated perhaps partly by this disappointment and partly by the strain of the libel action brought against him by the painter Whistler (whose Nocturn in Black and Gold he had accused of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'). He resigned his Oxford Chair in 1879, four years after Rose la Touche's death and two years after Whistler's technical victory in his lawsuit (Ruskin was ordered to pay damages of one farthing). A connection between his resignation and Oxford University's proposal to sponsor vivisection is unproven. His house, Brantwood, overlooking Lake Coniston in England's Lake District, still stands as a memorial to many of his artistic and environmental ideals.

By the 1860s Ruskin was drawing significant connections between art and architecture on the one hand, and the natural world and social and economic conditions on the other. He criticized the economic thinking of his day for emphasizing material wealth at the expense of social welfare, and insisted on the moral basis of any true economics: The idea that directions can be given for the gaining of wealth, irrespectively of the consideration of its moral sources, or that any general and technical law of purchase and gain can be set down for national practice, is perhaps the most insolently futile of all that ever beguiled men through their vices'.2 The conditions of industrial mass production, he argued, were destructive of human sensibility and of a harmonious relationship with nature. They involved making the worker into a tool, his fingers like cog-wheels and his arms like compasses. Demanding 'engine-turned precision' of human beings is a degradation of them.

More than that, to demand precision or perfection goes against what we understand of the natural world of which we are part. Nature teaches us that imprecision and imperfection are essential if anything is to be good. This is what might be called The Foxglove Principle':

Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect: part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world.3

It is this principle that Ruskin believed was enshrined in the 'rude and wild' Gothic architecture that he revered. It displayed a 'look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alp', its ruggedness and even crudeness paying homage to its models in nature. Since no truly great man stops working until he has reached his point of failure, Ruskin notes, it follows that 'no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art (ibid., emphasis in original). He is prepared to point up the paradox: 'Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect' (ibid.). It would be interesting to hear his comments on that tawdry educational slogan of our times, 'Excellence'.

Gothic architecture, furthermore, is the product of the medieval guild system, which Ruskin viewed with romantic eyes as embodying 'healthy and ennobling labour'. It rejected the idea of the division of labour with its excessive specialization and repetition, and thus it involved work which was intrinsically satisfying, as opposed to work which merely makes possible the acquisition of satisfactions through the wages it commands. It fostered creativity, or Invention, as Ruskin calls it, never demanding exactness for its own sake but only where there is a practical or aesthetic need for exactness; it discouraged mere imitation. The cathedral's gargoyles are 'signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone' (ibid.). Here Ruskin's ideas are remarkably similar to those of Marx and Engels, who shared his sense of the damage done by industrialization; the language of his denunciation of the evils of industrialization is considerably more vehement and impassioned even than theirs.

Ruskin's reputation now is not primarily that of an environmental thinker. Yet his formulation of the connections between social and economic, artistic and what we would now call environmental questions is important and humane. It is not misleading to call his thinking holistic in its lively sense of those interconnections. At the same time he repudiates any easy distinction between anthropocentrism and the idea of intrinsic value in nature, in a way that many later writers might learn from:

The desire of the heart is also the light of the eyes. No scene is continually and untiringly loved, but one rich by joyful human labour; smooth in field; fair in garden; full in orchard; trim, sweet, and frequent in homestead; ringing with voices of vivid existence.. .As the art of life is learned, it will be found at last that all lovely things are also necessary:—the wild flower by the wayside, as well as the tended corn; and the wild birds and creatures of the forest, as well as the tended cattle.4

Ruskin was a powerful influence on the development of socialism, on the arts and crafts movement of the later nineteenth century, and on a diverse range of thinkers. For example, Gandhi reported that he discovered some of his deepest and most life-transforming convictions from reading Unto This Last on an overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban. William Morris wrote the utopian News from Nowhere in 1890: it is a vision of a pastoral and ecologically harmonious England that we would now perhaps call 'ectopian'. It has been claimed that 'the most important period of green politics before 1980 lay between 1880 and 1900'.5 During this twenty-year period were founded many environmental and conservation groups, such as the Edinburgh Environment Society and the Coal Smoke Abatement Society. Ruskin's ideas inspired many of these, as well as the founding of the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.


1 The Mystery of Life and its Arts, 1868.

2 The Veins of Wealth, 1862.

3 The Stones of Venice, 1851-3.

4 Unto This Last, 1887.

5 P.Gould, Early Green Politics, Brighton: Harvester, 1988.

See also in this book


Ruskin's major writings

The Stones of Venice, Orpington, Kent: G.Allen, 1886.

Unto This Last and Other Writings, ed. C.Wilmer, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985. Seven Lamps of Architecture, New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

Further reading

Anthony, P., John Ruskin's Labour: A Study of Ruskin's Social Theory, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1983. Landow, G.P., Ruskin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Wheeler, M. (ed.), Ruskin and Environment: The Storm-cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.


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