On this date, 118 years ago, Ruskin died. Pneumonia, his physician said. After a nice dinner, earlier, of partridge. Nothing, the few who were there said, especially dramatic, no great suffering. A simple slipping away, a ceasing of the breath that had served him and those who read or knew him so well. The day of his departure was a little less than a month short of what would have been his 81st birthday. All things considered, a good death.
He was buried in St. Andrew’s Churchyard in Coniston some days later. On (appropriately enough) Ascension Day in the early May of the following year, a wonderful North Country Cross, created by his devoted friend, William Gershom Collingwood (Post 55), was set on the place in celebration of his life and work. Both are still there, as is Mr. Collingwood, a few paces away, his resting place marked by a considerably more modest stone, as he, Collingwood, knew was appropriate. The Ruskin Cross was carved by H. T. Miles, a mason who had done some work for Ruskin in years past. Today, the Cross looks like this.
Given his eminence as one of its most accomplished men of letters, the British nation, before his departure, had offered Ruskin burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, the highest accolade accorded to its great writers. Replying, Ruskin said that would be fine if he died in London, but if (as was much more likely) he left from Coniston, he would prefer to lie there. (A bas-relief profile, however, was placed in Poets’ Corner. I’ll include a picture of it in our next post.)
His passing was mourned by the entire country and much of the world. Thousands upon thousands of letters of condolence came to his Lake District home, Brantwood (still thriving in his name). Hundreds of letters and editorials praising his life and work appeared in newspapers. Dozens of essays of reflection appeared in circulating magazines. Over the course of the next decade and a half, compendium after compendium of his best paragraphs published. Still others wrote private tributes telling of how much he had meant to them, telling how he had bettered their lives. As this series of posts has progressed, we have read some of these (see, for instances, Post 54, Post 80). When his birthday comes around in a few more days, we’ll have a chance to read some more. But, today, I thought it might be useful to have a closer look at Mr. Collingwood’s wonderful, honorific Cross, a work of art in its own right.
Overall, the Cross is intended to symbolize Ruskin’s love of and realization of the importance of good craftsmanship in our lives. Simple designs. Natural materials. Here–a fact which would have pleased him greatly–stone quarried from the surrounding Coniston hills.
Each of the eight main images, arranged on the two sides of the Cross, has been carefully planned to illustrate a phase in his intellectual journey. Each side has four principal panels. The first side faces east (and–hardly by chance–Brantwood). The other looks west. Smaller sculpted images, as symbolic of the subject’s life and loves as the images on the main panels, adorn the sides. That said, here’s a bit of a “walkabout” of the main panels, accompanied by bits of biography which should make them more understandable. (Apologies for the differing quality of some of the images below. Most are my photographs, but a few, of necessity, had to be hunted down in cyberspace.)
The view of the east side of the Cross, given above, gives us a sense of what Collingwood was trying to communicate. The shaft purposefully narrows as it rises from the base to the top, symbolizing the upward journey of life. The Cross at the peak is meant to reminds us that, in whatever he attempted, Ruskin never lost sight of the fact that he, as all of us, had been charged from birth by the benevolent God in whom he believed to use his powers to help others to live lives more abundant.
Using the above image of the east side of the Cross as reference, what follows is a brief description of the principal images, beginning, as Collingwood intended, at the bottom. At the bottom because, from his earliest days, Ruskin had listened, in the family’s evenings, to his father read aloud the poems of Britain’s greatest poets, Lord Byron, Robert Burns, John Keats, William Wordsworth. When, as he grew, he showed some penchant for verse, his father expressed his hope that his son would become the nation’s next Byron: hence, The Young Poet, a fellow wearing, Collingwood explains in his description of the Cross, a rather desultory face, as if the versifier was undertaking his task with less than unbridled enthusiasm, as if he was writing his verses not for himself but to please someone else (as indeed was the case).
But, as Ruskin soon learned (and as anyone reading his poems these days learns too), although he found that he had a stunning facility with language, verse was not his forte. His poems were heartfelt, but labored, his rhymes often devoid of rhythm, at least of that rhythm which transfixes those who read the eminent poets mentioned above. All changed when, at 13, he was given a copy of the poet Samuel Roger’s collection, Italy, with inside, some vignettes Rogers had commission from one of Britain’s most famous painters, J. M. W. Turner (Post 37, Post 96). Enthralled with Turner’s renderings of the nature which he, Ruskin, loved, soon, with his parents, he was traveling Europe, intent to see with his own eyes the places Turner had painted. The experience resulted in the first volume of Modern Painters in 1842. Over the course of the next 18 years, four more volumes of Modern Painters would be published. Hence, Mr. Collingwood’s second panel (above the part of the stone telling us that it is Ruskin who is being celebrated here): The Idealistic Young Writer, complete, in the background, with a rising son and the suggestion of Mont Blanc and the pines by his favorite rock in Chamouni in the French Alps where he often sat, looked, and painted.
Modern Painters brought Ruskin immense fame and influence. Before hardly any time had elapsed, he was being touted as the greatest art critic who ever lived (as, indeed, he was). But, as he had traveled in Europe in the mid-1840s, gathering material for the second volume of Modern Painters, he began to be mesmerized by its marvelous architecture, especially by the great cathedrals in cities like Amiens, Rouen (Post 98), Lyon, and Italy (St. Mark’s in Venice (Post 99). The result, in 1847, was The Seven Lamps of Architecture. (Placed above the image of the lion–next discussed–because, I suspect, Collingwood saw the “uplifting quality” of the Seven Lamps bas-relief, an effect that leads the eye of the viewer to the cross at the memorial’s peak).
The study of architecture carried with it a new, vital insight: of the long-overlooked artistic talents of all the unknowns who had created these glorious buildings, men who had given of their life-energy to enhance the delight and understanding of any who came to see their work, even many centuries later (again: Post 99). This led to a second insight: the realization that all those who had constructed these marvelous buildings–workers often disdained or completely ignored in their time as (what Dickens would call in Hard Times) “the hands”–were as decent and needful human beings as anyone else, and that to not treat them well or pay them decently for their contributions to our lives was reprehensible. But, he saw also, and to his growing horror, that the disdain for the weaker and poorer which had run rampant in history was hardly a stranger in his own era. Everywhere in the industrializing world surrounding him, he saw greed and self-seeking devouring nature, the treasures of history, and human beings by the millions. The destructive path was analogous to that which had been trod by once-glorious Venice as, as the Medieval period transitioned into the High Renaissance, it abandoned its once sustaining moral and religious principles for a “rage to be rich.” All this argument was made and copiously evidenced in his “warning to Britain,” the three-volume, The Stones of Venice (1851-3), symbolized by Collingwood as The Venetian Lion, who, and again intentionally, evinces a sad, worried face.
But Britain was not interested in the warning. Ruskin’s captivating word paintings of various parts of and monuments in Venice were, as always, well-received. (What a writer!) But as for abandoning their frantic desire to erect ever higher piles of pelf, his readers and nation were having none of it (Post 103, Post 104). Which reaction occasioned a radical turn: from art critic to dedicated critic of society, a turning which takes us to the other, west, side of the memorial.
We begin again, as is particularly appropriate in this context, at the base–with an image of a (now largely forsaken and forgotten) King sitting in judgment over two of his young citizens, the one on the left patently downcast for having in some way offended the laws of life and nation, for which, he knows, he deserves and will receive, punishment, in contrast to the fellow on the right, who, with his head upright, is in a considerably happier state, having chosen to do things that have proved helpful to life and nation, for which doing he will receive, as he deserves, praise and reward. Unto this Last was Ruskin’s first sustained critique of his social order (Post 81, Post 106). Published in 1860, he always believed it to be his best book. He thought, so meticulously had he argued his points (direct critiques of the selfish nature of laissez-faire capitalism), that it would prove sufficient to change things for the better.
It didn’t. They didn’t like what he had written. Or him for having written it. For publishing Unto this Last Ruskin was vilified in the press almost without pause for years and abandoned by many who had been, or so he had thought, his friends. In the wake of which reaction, he knew that, if he was going to reform society, he was in for the critical long-haul. Unto this Last became the fulcrum around which the rest of his life pivoted. Throughout the 1860s he lectured, without easing his critique an iota, on social and economic matters, mostly about how both had gone radically wrong, telling his audiences and readers how in their avariciousness, they had, with impunity, damaged, in many cases, killed, millions. His fellows continued to bridle at the suggestions. By 1870, after surviving a decade of castigation and rejection, he learned that the rich, powerful, and important had not the slightest intention of ameliorating their ways. And so he determined to reach the working people of Britain directly by writing a series of monthly letters within which he set out what he believed to be the key things they needed to ponder if they wished to alter their lots for the better. These letters, which by 1884 would reach 96 in number, he called Fors Claivigera, a title Collingwood symbolizes with his image of “The Crowned Angel of Destiny,” Ruskin’s idea being that, even though things may at any given time may seem to be overpoweringly aligned against the good, human beings, the crown of creation, still hold the key, still wear the wings which, properly used, can lift them into happier days.
He soon learned that this was not enough either. As the 1870s wore on, he realized that writing was one thing, a good thing perhaps, but, in the end, it was doing that mattered. And so he decided to create an organization of his own, “The Guild of St. George,” the members of which, by living and working together, would combat the ills of acquisitional modernity not by fighting it but by inventing a healthy, simple life, a life salubrious for all, a life which, in due course, would attract others into its fold. The Guild (still going strong) Collingwood’s represents as Ruskin symbolized it, with an image of St. George and the Dragon, the former England’s patron saint and protector, the latter, the destructive forces of evil which always threaten the good.
Which is something of what The Ruskin Cross in St. Andrew’s Churchyard is about. There is much more. Which is a way of saying that, if you are ever in the area, a visit to the Cross is very much worth your time. Almost surely, when you visit, you will find, set just below Mr. Collingwood’s memorial on the grave itself, some flowers someone has left in honor of Mr. Ruskin and his work. A life-long lover of flowers, he would be delighted with the tribute.
And, while you are there, it is worth another of your moments to glance a little to the right of the east facing side of Ruskin’s Cross to see Mr. Collingwood’s (as noted) much more modest stone, placed about the resting spot he shares with his wife of many years, Edith Mary Collingwood (“Dorrie”), a fine artist herself, as I will make clear in a later post.
Mr. Collingwood’s gravestone, however, doesn’t give much of an idea of how the man who conceived and created the marvelous memorial to Ruskin looked. To rectify the situation, here’s a picture, a self-portrait actually, of Collingwood in later life (“Gershom” to his friends and Dorrie, to Ruskin, “Collie”), painted about the time he would have created his tribute. The painting can be seen at Abbot Hall in Kendal.
But, earlier, like us all, he looked differently, as another lovely self-portrait show:
If you are interested in reading Collingwood’s description of The Ruskin Cross–it is considerably more detailed than what I have written above–you can find it here:
Alas, I could not find any picture, or even much describing, the accomplished carver of the Cross, Mr. H. T. Miles. But anyone who visits Ruskin’s grave will know that he was there and recognize his remarkable skill.
Until next time.
Be well out there!