Many of you are probably already feverishly counting down the days on your calendar until the 100 year anniversary of the illustrious British art critic John Ruskin, otherwise known as the kingmaker of 19th century taste. Or maybe it’s more likely that you’ve never even heard of this curious man and for that – you can be forgiven.
Ranking amongst the least sexy eras of British art, filled with swooning damsels, medieval narrative and pinpoint accuracy, the Victorian period was John Ruskin’s stomping ground. Aside from the notorious rumours about his sexless relationship with Effie Gray, who abandoned the marriage for greener pastures with Pre-Raphaelite and darling of the Royal Academy John Millais, Ruskin is best remembered as the most powerful writer and critic of the time. 2019 marks Ruskin’s 100th birthday and several museums across the country are taking it as the perfect opportunity to celebrate this key figure in British art history and put just a little swagger in his step.
Two Temple place are the first to take up the challenge in London with a major display that will later travel to Sheffield, where the Ruskin Collection is housed, while in the USA, Delaware Art Museum puts images of the natural world by Ruskin and American artist Andrew Wyeth in the spotlight.
Let’s break down what all the fuss is about.
John Ruskin was all about truth. Truth in art, truth in nature, truth in life. His epic five volume ‘Modern Painters’ extolled the virtues of an artist who, in his opinion, epitomised this gilded rule – J.M.W. Turner. This obsession with getting even the most minute details right has hardly done much for Ruskin’s sex appeal.
Ruskin also brought Romanticism – think Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley – into alignment with contemporary art of the 19th century and defined a new movement of painting for the public to understand. ‘The Stones of Venice’ was the other major achievement of Ruskin’s lifetime, which praised the virtues of gothic architecture and started a whole wave of copy cat designers in England. He even came face to face with Whistler at a court case in 1878 that bankrupted the artist and left Ruskin’s reputation in tatters.
As a fervent Christian, Ruskin made collecting a palatable pastime for the devout. Spirituality, the natural world and painting on a canvas suddenly became part of the same wheelhouse. And this is where Ruskin veered from the path of Pre-Raphaelites as he became the leader of this morally and socially responsible art form.
At some point, Ruskin’s stuffy and obsessive ways turned off society and he became something of a recluse. But perhaps 2019’s festivities will be the redemption of this pivotal figure in British art history.