Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Study of John Ruskin

A Study of John Ruskin

John Ruskin, 1863

 After an evening at my local cinema watching Mike Leigh’s new film ‘Mr. Turner’ ‘starring the likes of Timothy Spall as the lead J.M.W. Turner, I returned home intrigued about the biopic I had just witnessed, and the characters seen. In particular the character of John Ruskin had intrigued me. Although his appearance on screen was fleeting, his pronounced lisp, eccentric ways and apparent reverence of Turner had me captivated. Partly this was due to the fact I had already come across John Ruskin – and his work ‘The Stones of Venice’ but had not encountered him as young man or indeed I knew nothing of him but his work concerning architecture and art criticism. The character presented on screen seemed very different from his style of work and nothing like one would have imagined. It was entertaining to be presented suddenly with the figure of Ruskin in his brown overcoat and cornflower blue necktie – I was later to find out was somewhat his trademark as he felt that particular shade of blue complimented his eyes well. However on researching the film after the screening it became apparent through a particular article written by Philip Hoare for ‘The Guardian online’, that Ruskin had been crudely misrepresented -“Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.” Hoare’s reveal that the character of Ruskin presented on screen in ‘Mr. Turner’ was indeed nothing like the man himself only intrigued me further. I now wished find out who Ruskin was, if not this “lisping, red-headed, salon fop”(Hoare) then who?

Ruskin's painting of
 Christ Church college, Oxford
John Ruskin born to Margaret and John James Ruskin on the 8th of February 1819 (only a few months before Queen Victoria herself was born).  An only child, Ruskin grew up with his strict Evangelical mother and a father who was a successful wine merchant and a notable art lover. Although being pushed towards a life as an Anglican Bishop by his mother Margaret, Ruskin instead pursued the intellectual, taking up writing poetry and deciding to study at Oxford University. Ruskin started his time at Christ Church college in 1836, but graduated late in 1842 due to a bout of illness, thought to be consumption (now known more commonly as Tuberculosis). During his time at Oxford Ruskin won the New Prize for poetry and the same year as his departure he began to write the first volume of  ‘Modern Painters’ “
after reviewers of the annual Royal Academy exhibition had again savagely treated Turner's works” (George P. Landow)

 John Ruskin and Euphemia Chalmers Gray were wed on the 10th of April 1848. This could be described as a strange union at best. Although being married seven years, and Ruskin seemingly fondly writing 'Effie' a fairytale entitled, 'The King of the Golden River' their marriage ended in an annulment upon the grounds of non-consummation. The discussion of why their marriage was never consummated caused great controversy and although a heavily discussed topic, still has no definite answer. Instead there are only theories as to why Ruskin and Gray's marriage ended in failure. One conjecture was that Ruskin found Effie sexually repellent- arguing that the sight of her pre pubescent body, and in particular her pubic hair, rendered him impotent. This apparent revulsion is argued to be due to his fascination of classical sculpture and their smooth marble bodies. However Hoare argues that this is an unfair slight on Ruskin. He believes that Effie married Ruskin only to "forestall her father's bankruptcy" and "Ruskin – a rigorous Christian and idealist – felt anxious and subconsciously betrayed by the realisation that his love for Effie was a one-sided affair. For him, there simply could be no sexual consummation without the moral exchange of love. Anything else would have been dishonest. And when Effie sued for annulment on grounds of his impotency, Ruskin was too gentlemanly to argue."(Hoare) 

 Ruskin suffered from various nervous breakdowns eventually culminating in his insanity. The 'last straw' as they say was his love affair with Rose La Touche, which much like his marriage to Effie, was to end in disaster. Ruskin fell in love with Rose when he was in his forties and her scarcely ten years old. Though waiting for her to come of age her parents were still horrified by this prospect. Banned from ever seeing her Ruskin took drastic measures to ensure he did, at points chasing"...her carriage through London, [and even] confronting her in the Royal Academy [...] handing her a forbidden love letter."(Hoare) However Rose died aged 24, psychiatrically disturbed and suffering from anaemia. Ruskin's grief led him to hire mediums to try to contact her spirit. His insanity grew steadily worse, ending with him believing that him and Rose had indeed been wed, with Joan of Arc as their bridesmaid.

A Study of a Kingfisher, John Ruskin.

 Although Ruskin's story ended in tragedy, with him eventually passing away on the 20th of January 1900, his legacy lives on. Not only through his students at Oxford University where he taught - his students included the likes of Oscar Wilde- but also through his art criticism, which is still widely read and appreciated today. Ruskin also helped form artists of his era, for instance his praise of Turner, and helped to shape the artists and art critics of today. Not only did he do so through his volumes of critical work, but his own extraordinary paintings and drawings some of which can be seen hanging in The Tate, London. His work on architecture also helped to shape Victorian England, bringing about a gothic revival. His influence on the arts seems to be as steadfast as the Oxford College now founded in his name.

Bibliography: (Philip Hoare) (George P. Landow)

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