On this date, 118 years ago, Ruskin died at Brantwood, his home of thirty years, not far from the Lake District village of Coniston. Pneumonia, his physician said. After a dinner of partridge. Nothing, the few present reported, especially dramatic, no great suffering; a simple slipping away, a ceasing of the breath which had served him and those who read or knew him so well. The day of his leaving was less than a month shy of his 81st birthday. All things considered, a good death.
He was buried in Coniston’s St. Andrew’s churchyard some days later. The little church was full to overflowing, the rain on the roof nearly torrential. In early May of the following year, on, appropriately enough, Ascension Day, a wonderful North Country Cross, designed by his devoted friend, William Gershom Collingwood (Post 55), was placed on his grave in celebration of his life and work. It is still there, as is Mr. Collingwood, a few paces away, his resting place marked by a much more modest stone. The Ruskin Cross was carved by H. T. Miles, a mason who had done some work for Ruskin in years past. Today, it looks like this.
Given his eminence as one of its most accomplished men of letters, the British nation, before his passing, had offered Ruskin burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, the highest accolade accorded its greatest writers. Ruskin replied that that would be fine if he died in London, but if (as was more likely) he departed from Coniston, he would prefer to lie there. (A bas-relief profile of him, however, was placed in the Abbey’s famed Poets’ Corner. I’ll include a picture of it in our next post.)
The passing was mourned by the entire country and much of the world. Thousands upon thousands of letters of condolence were posted to his Lake District home, Brantwood (still thriving in his name). Hundreds of letters and editorials praising his life and work printed in newspapers. Dozens of reflective essays appeared in circulating magazines. Over the course of the next decade, compendium after compendium of his best paragraphs were published. Many wrote personal tributes telling of how much he had meant to them, telling of how he had bettered their lives. Some of these have been featured in previous posts–for instances, see 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 cross, a consummate work of art in its own right.
Overall, the Cross, as a physical presence, is intended to symbolize Ruskin’s love of and realization of the importance of good craftsmanship in our lives. It is made entirely–a fact which would have pleased him greatly–of stone quarried from the surrounding Coniston hills. The designs, again by intention, are, however complex their meanings, are simple. Excluding the cross at the top of the monument, there are eight main images, four arranged on each of the two principal sides, each symbolizing a phase in Ruskin’s intellectual journey. The first side faces east toward the rising sun (and, hardly incidentally, Brantwood), the other looks west. Smaller sculpted images, also symbolic of the subject’s life and loves, adorn the sides. Keeping this arrangement in mind, what follows is a bit of a “walkabout” of the Cross intended to explain each panel in a basic way.
A view of the Cross as a whole (above) gives us a sense of what Collingwood was trying to communicate. The shaft purposefully narrows as it rises from base to top, indicating the upward journey of life. The Cross at the top 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 us toward lives more abundant. The interweaving threads of Celtic design, which occur repeatedly on the monument, suggest the interweaving of all life.
Returning to the bottom of the east side of the monument, we find, in the first image, a young man playing a lyre. From those moments when he could first comprehend, Ruskin, during the family’s evenihgs, had listened to his father read aloud the poems of Britain’s greatest poets, Byron, Burns, Keats, Wordsworth. When, as he grew, he showed some penchant for verse, his father made clear his wish that his son would become the nation’s next Byron, a charge which his boy dutifully accpeted and tried to realize. Hence, here, The Young Poet, wearing, as Collingwood explains in his description of the Cross, a rather desultory face, as if the versifier was undertaking the task with less than unbridled enthusiasm, as though he was writing his verses not for himself but to please another.
But, as he soon learned (and as anyone reading his poems today also learns!), although he realized that he had a stunning facility with language, verse was not his forte. His poems were heartfelt, but labored, his rhymes frquently devoid of rhythm, at least of that rhythm which transfixes those who read the eminent poets mentioned above. All that changed, however, when, at 13, Ruskin was presented with a copy of the poet Samuel Roger’s collection, Italy, with inside, vignettes Rogers had commissioned 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 on seeing with his own eyes the places Turner had painted. The experience was to result in the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843. Over the course of the next 18 years, four additional volumes of Modern Painters would appear, each advancing the claim to Turner’s pre-eminence among painters, as they laid out the author’s theories of beauty, imagination, the holiness of nature, and much more. Hence, Mr. Collingwood’s second panel above that part of the stone which informs us that it is John Ruskin who is being celebrated here): The Idealistic Young Writer, an image which shows us the sun rising gloriously in the background (indicative of Ruskin finding his own voice and vocation) and a suggestion, in the background, of Mont Blanc and the pines and flowers surrounding 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 almost any time had passed, he was being touted as the greatest art critic who had 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 transfixed 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 those who had constructed these marvelous buildings–workers often disdained or completely ignored in Ruskin’s era 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–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 time. Everywhere in the industrializing world around 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, while 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 clear 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 uninterested in the warning. Ruskin’s captivating word paintings of various parts of and the monuments in Venice were, as always, well-received. (What a writer! his readers still said) But, as for abandoning their frantic desire to erect ever higher piles of precious metals for their own use, they were having none of it (Post 103, Post 104). Which reaction occasioned a radical turn: the transformtion of Ruskin from an art critic to an uncompromising critic of society, a turning which brings us around to the other, west, side of the memorial.
We begin again, as 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 just punishment in contrast to the fellow on the right, who, with his head upright, is in a considerably happier state, having chosen to do those things which have proved helpful to life and nation, for which doing he shall 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 never shied away from saying that it was his best book, a book which, he thought (at least initially), so meticulously had he argued his points (direct critiques of the selfish nature of laissez-faire capitalism), would prove sufficient to change things for the better:
It didn’t. His formerly loyal readership didn’t like what he had written. Or him for having written it. For having published 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 realized that, if he was going to reform society, he was in for the critical long-haul. Unto this Last wasthe 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 showing how both had gone radically aslant, telling his audiences and readers how, in their avariciousness, they had, with impunity, damaged, and in many cases, killed or maimed millions. His fellows continued to bridle at these new accusations.
The recriminations were interrupted, if only briefly, by the publication of a small volume containing two of his greatest lectures, “Of Kings’ Treasuries” and “Of Queens’ Gardens,” to which Ruskin gave the name, Sesame and Lilies. It quickly became the best selling book of his career, outlining what he believed to be the principal roles to be played by men and women in life, men as wise and kindly culture-builders, women as intelligent overseers of daily life, these symbolized by Collingwood by a group of five lilies surrounded by a plethora of sesame seeds watched over by two sweet, approving faces:
But, as suggested, the respite from brickbats was brief. By 1870, after having survived a decade of castigation and rejection, Ruskin arrived at the convinction that the rich, powerful, and important had not even the slightest intention of intentions of ameliorating their avaricious ways. And so he determined he would reach out to the working people of Britain directly by writing a series of monthly letters within which he would set out what he believed to be the key things they needed to ponder and alter if they wished to change their lots for the better. These letters, which by 1884 would become 96 in number, he called Fors Claivigera, a title Collingwood symbolizes with his image, The Crowned Angel of Destiny, his 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:
But he soon found 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 himself symbolized it, with an image of St. George destroying the Dragon, the former England’s patron saint and protector, the latter, the destructive forces of evil which always threaten the good:
Finally, the sides of the monument, or, for now, just one side: The South. Here is an image of the images Mr. Collingwood, paying homage to the soul of his master and friend, included: symbolizing his love of nature, from the top downward, a flower, a kingfisher (one of Ruskin’s most wonderful drawn creatures), lilies, a rose, a squirrel whose tail is so long it rises into the circle above with its plant leaves, another rose, and, at the bottom, the spiral of life which ties them all together. Beautiful, with the roses and the lily representing, to anyone who knows Ruskin’s story, Rose La Touche, the love of his life who tragically died at 25 in 1873, her enduring spirit with him every moment of the more than quarter century he had left to live.
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 Coniston, a visit to Mr. Ruskin’s 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. He is daily delighted with the remembrance.
And, one more thing: while you are there, it is worth another of your moments if you glance a little to the right of the east facing side of The Ruskin Cross to have a look at Mr. Collingwood’s much more modest stone, placed over the resting spot he shares with his wife of many years, Edith Mary Collingwood (“Dorrie”), a fine artist herself, as I will show 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 actually looked. To rectify the situation a little, here’s a picture, a self-portrait actually, of Collingwood in later life (“Gershom” to his friends and Dorrie; to Ruskin, “Collie”). It was painted about the time he would have created his cross. The painting can be seen at Abbot Hall in Kendal.
But, earlier, like us all, he looked quite differently, as another lovely self-portrait shows:
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 Mr. Ruskin’s Cross, Mr. H. T. Miles. But anyone who visits Ruskin’s gravesite will see that he, like the great, anonymous, carvers of the great cathedrals, was there and will know at first hand of his remarkable skill.
Until next time.
Be well out there!