One hundred and ninety-six years ago this day, in London, John Ruskin was born. As a result, it seemed to me, given such an august moment, that I should, as last year (see Post 12), cite a few more of the many encomia voiced by his contemporaries. Hopefully these, newly read, can give a better sense (we having forgotten) of what mmany of those who went through time with him, whether eminent or less so, thought of him and why they thought as they did.
It was the first of May, 1885. The place, not far from London, was Whitelands College for Young Women, a small public school (which we in the US would call a “private” school–that is, one funded by private funds). Over the course of the previous decade and more, Ruskin, always believing that more and better education was the one sure path to a happier society, had favored Whitelands with many gifts–monetary donations to be sure but, as importantly, with significant pieces of art and rare books from his personal collection, all intended for the use of the school’s teachers and students. (The art and books are still there and can be viewed on request.) May first was the day of Whitelands’ May Queen Festival, a celebration initiated at Ruskin’s suggestion. At it, the year’s May Queen, having been elected by the students as the young woman from among their number who best exemplified the school’s ideals, would be honored. Before the award was presented Whitelands’ principal would take some moments to eulogize the donor whose largesss had made their celebration possible. This year the remarks fell to Reverend J. P. Faunthorpe. The principal began his commendations of their famous donor with no faint praise, suggesting that Ruskin should be regarded “as one of the major prophets, as doing for his age what Plato, Aristotle, and Bacon have done for other ages,” adding further that a “hundred years hence, the ninetenth century will be remembered only or chiefly because Mr. Ruskin lived in it.” (Still quite a bit of work to do on that account!)
It was almost half a decade later, the fourteenth of April, 1890. In Sheffield, the Ruskin Museum, an institution created entirely with his funds, artistic and literary gifts, was about to reopen in the city proper. First located out of town in the suburb of Walkley, it had come into being as a result of Ruskin’s desire to collect in one place everything the working people of England would need to raise their educational level to a height which would allow them to choose among various employments, employments matching their own talents and interests, instead of continuing, as had been the case for centuries, essentially as chattel for the rich. (Ruskin’s Museum, now “The Ruskin Gallery,” still exists; click on the entry for it on the Ruskin Resources Page above.)
Ruskin could not attend the opening. He was at Brantwood, his home in the Lake District, very ill, hoping to recuperate from the debilitating effects of a serious mental breakdown on the Continent in late 1888 (he never would fully recover). In spite of his absense, thanks needed to be proffered. Chosen for the task was his long-time friend, Dr. Henry Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. Ironically, because of an illness of his own, Acland was unable to be there. In his stead, he sent the following remarks:
“It is a grave disappointment to me not to be with you at the opening of the Ruskin Museum… I had hoped–with your permission–to have said a few words concerning the [Museum] work in which you are all engaged. It is [work] of rare, indeed of unique, significance. Mr. Ruskin is a unique man… I have known him more than fifty years. We were at Christ Church in Oxford together and formed an intimacy then which has never had a jar. He has been one of the joys of my life, and of my home. But I must not trust myself to speak of any private relations. I name them only to justify me in saying to you what I am about to say. It were wasting words to remark what a hold Mr. Ruskin has had and has on the literature of the English-speaking races. His voluminous writings have had and have a vast circulation in this country and the United States. It may be doubted whether any literary man has had more ardent devotees among cultivated people. [This is all the more notable, because, as] is the case with many great geniuses in history, he does not, [in many of] his utterances, obtain the approval, or even the consent, of persons entitled to hold and express an opinion [on a given subject. As a result,] he often expresses opinions in powerful language adverse to the general sentiment of his time. In fact, his way of uttering rebuke–nay, even abuse–is, as a work of that black art, as masterly as his finest touches of poetry and his tenderest portraiture of human passion.”
But Acland was just warming up. Ruskin was much more than a social critic, he continued. He was among the greatest celebrants of nature and interpreters of fine art who ever lived. In which context, he went on, “[Ruskin]–it is almost trifling to say it!–has powers granted to few of the sons of men. I remember when the first volume, the first edition, of Modern Painters appeared anonymously.” [Ruskin’s father, nervous that his son’s none so subtle pronouncements on what made some art great while other art (much of it created by artists, some still living, who had been deemed great by critics and public alike) was not worthy of notice, insisted that his son’s name not appear and that the spine and title page would only indicate the writer as “A Graduate of Oxford.” After the book became a widespread literary success, John James Ruskin proudly relented and all subsequent editions bore his son’s name.] Continuing his comments on that first volume of Modern Painters, Acland told the following story: “A great literary authority in such matters said to me at [London’s] Athenæum Club, ‘That young man has added to the English language descriptions of Nature never until now produced.’ [As a result, Acland continued, in all his works] children and women and men may now read ineffable descriptions of the loveliest pictures of Fra Angelico, Giotto, and Carpaccio [and find in] every line of…Mr. Ruskin’s description…a text for a spiritual soul-stirring discourse on the highest nature of Man, fostered by faith, hope, and charity…”
Acland was hardly alone in celebrating the power and beauty of Modern Painters. Here is Charlotte Bronte’s reaction: “Hitherto,” she wrote, “I have only had instinct to guide me in judging of art. I now feel as if I had been walking blindfolded. This book seems to give me eyes…Who can read these glowing descriptions of [J. M. W.] Turner’s works without longing to see them?…[Mr. Ruskin] does not give himself half measure of praise…He eulogizes, he reverences [art] with his whole soul…He writes like a consecrated Priest of the Abstract and Ideal.”
George Eliot, another avid reader of Modern Painters, was similarly impressed: “I venerate him as one of the great teachers of the day. The grand doctrines of truth and sincerity in art, and the nobleness and solemnity of our human life which he teaches with the inspiration of a Hebrew prophet must be stirring up young minds in a promising way.”
But we return to Sheffield and Acland: Nearing the end of his remarks, knowing that he simply wasn’t up to the task of capturing Ruskin’s genius and significance, the Oxford professor decided, to show his audience what he had been trying to say and concluded by reading a single sentence from one of his friend’s last books, The Bible of Amiens (1885)–a sentence which captures for me the essence of all the praise just cited and the heart of Ruskin’s significance overall. “As I write this in my bedroom,” Acland said, “I feel the poverty and feebleness with which I treat a great subject. Let me [illustrate my problem by citing] the ending of one of Mr. Ruskin’s lectures on Art, a passage the like of which are, by hundreds, [to be discovered] in his writings, [a passage] illustrating the supremacy in him of the love of God, of Nature, and of Man.
‘If, loving well the creatures that are like yourself, you feel that you would love, still more dearly, creatures better than yourself, were they revealed to you; if, striving with all your might to mend what is evil near you and around, you would fain look for a day when some Judge of all the earth shall wholly do right and the little hills rejoice on every side; if, parting with the companions that have given you all the best joy you had on earth, you desire ever to meet their eyes again, and clasp their hands where eyes shall no more be dim nor hands fail; if, preparing yourselves to lie down beneath the grass in silence and loneliness, seeing no more beauty and feeling no more gladness, you would care for the promise to you of a time when you shall see God’s light again, and know the things you have longed to know, and walk in the peace of everlasting love; then the hope of these things to you is religion, the substance of them in your life is faith.”
All this being praise–as I hope you might agree from this and our previous posts–singly and collectively, singular and deserved. In which context, it seems right to wish Mr. Ruskin, wherever his spirit may be at the moment, a very happy birthday and wish him, as well, a marvelous 197th year. And wish, too, a good day, whether birthday or not, and a wonderful unfolding year to all of you out there as well.
PS: If anyone’s interested in the sources for these commendations, I’ll be glad to supply same.