112: February 8, 1819: On the Occasion of Ruskin’s 199th Birthday

Fine Folks,

On this date all those years ago, Ruskin was born in an already smog-enshrouded London. From his first, albeit brief, lecture–“People be good!”–delivered spontaneously when he was five from the top of a stool to those who had assembled in the drawing-room of his home in South London until he finally set down his pen sixty-five years later, he devoted his days to dispelling the smoke.

Two posts ago  (#110), I related how, not long before his passing in 1900, he had been offered burial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. To which proposal he replied that, if he died in the capital, such would be fine, but if he died at his home, Brantwood, St. Andrew’s Churchyard in nearby Coniston would suffice nicely. And that is where he rests, watched over, as he has been the case for over a hundred years by Gershom Collingwood’s elegant, honorific North Country Cross.

But the London notables whose task it was to allot the precious and scarce plots in Poets’ Corner could not, given Ruskin’s eminence as one of the greatest men of letters of the British nineteenth century, countenance the idea that there would be no remembrance of him there. And so, on his birthday, the 8th of February, in 1902, they unveiled the bas-relief reproduced below, the last completed commission of the highly regarded Onslow Ford (who had died the previous December).

ruskin-john-memorial-72-westminster-abbey-copyright-photo.jpg

With this historic honor in mind, I thought that, today, on a much later Ruskin birthday, it might be a good idea to spend a little time with the thoughts of three whose lives had been much changed by his words and, in two cases, by their personal experiences with him. I have chosen these three because, in the wide spectrum of things, it is unlikely that many now have any idea who they were–and, for this reason, they can serve as representatives of the transformatory effect Ruskin had on a great many “average educated folk” who lived their lives along with his. In this same unrecognized status they can serve another function too: as examples illustrating how Ruskin’s character and writings became as guides for others’ lives, a perhaps not irrelevant observation for those of us trying to navigate  our way through these perilous first decades of the 21st century. They are:

A diplomat and writer, William J. Stillman (whom we have met, see Posts  103, 104, and 105); a minister, The Reverend A. Tighe-Gregory; and the still most  mysterious, Charles A. Schumacher. I consider them in that order.

William J. Stillman

It is 1888. Ruskin, living at Brantwood, is in serious, much publicized, decline. His attacks of mental illness—the first of which occurred in 1878 – have not gone away. Indeed, they have, at approximately two-year intervals, recurred, with equal or even greater intensity. His writing, once a veritable river of words flowing into the estuary of print every year, has slowed to a trickle. There is very good reason to think that his time as one of the most significant players on the stage of Britain’s remarkable nineteenth century will soon end. Sensing that the curtain is already on its way down, even as he still lives on in his much reduced state, those who have known him are being solicited by publishers for reflections of the great man. Stillman is one.

W. J. Stillman circa 1860

Almost three decades before, during the Spring and Summer of 1860, Stillman accompanied the world-famous art critic on a tour of Switzerland and the Alps. They had met, early in that year by chance, in a London gallery where both had gone to admire some Turner paintings that were for sale. Quickly taking the 32-year old’s measure, Ruskin, then 39, finds the younger man to be intelligent, sensitive, and intensely committed to finding out if he has the talent to become a great artist, much influenced in this hope by his close readings of Ruskin’s Modern Painters books. What better then, the writer thinks, than to take this American with him as a companion on his upcoming tour of the Continent? He can bring Stillman to all the most beautiful places and let him have his chance at painting them. He can even advise him on how he might refine his technique as their weeks together pass.

On another level, however, the Ruskin who meets Stillman in the early months of 1860 is in crisis, having recently concluded that all his books, all his art and architectural criticism, all his captivating passages lauding the beauties of nature, have failed – and that utterly – to accomplish the end he intended: to transform an insensitive, industrializing-at-breakneck-speed world into a place much more humane and capable of living in joy and harmony with each other and with nature. By the time the pair arrive in Chamouni in the French Alps in late May, the place Ruskin loves most in the world, he is in constant turmoil, in perpetual, excruciating debate with himself about what he should do next, his days as a “useless” art critic, he knows, being over.

Mostly, he is considering taking up social criticism, within which frame he can attack the economic and social systems he believes are devastating the world and creating, in their brutal wake, the rampant social ills (poverty, overcrowding, extensive, untended sickness in the lower classes, environmental devastation and pollution) plaguing the industrializing world. As he circles toward a decision, he shares with Stillman his ruminations. Finally, having been asked to do “something” by the editor, his friend, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, he determines that he will write a series of short essays for Thackeray’s Cornhill Magazine, a new London monthly. He will call the essays Unto this Last. Their thrust will be an exposing and repudiation of the uncriticized assumptions lying at the core of the theory of laissez-faire, the “scientific” argument used to legitimate the “me first, and devil take the hindmost” form of capitalism which, while making a tiny few rich, is wreaking harmful havoc everywhere else (Posts 81, 106).

Every night, before posting his essays to Thackeray in London for type-setting, he solicits Stillman’s reactions, reading aloud what he has written in the guests’ sitting room of the Union Inn where they are staying. The experience all but overwhelms Stillman. Recalling those evenings nearly thirty years later, fully aware of the extensive, additional social criticism Ruskin has published after Unto this Last (the collective response to which has not been applause but, rather, what Ruskin termed a “violent reprobation”), Stillman, writing an essay on his time with and assessment of Ruskin which would appear in the January 1888 issues of London’s Century magazine, concluded the following:

Ruskin’s true position is higher than that of art critic in any possible [sense]. It is as a moralist and a reformer; [it is] in his passionate love of humanity…that we must recognize him. His place is in the pulpit, speaking [always] largely and in the unsectarian sense. Truth is multiform but of one essence, and, such as he sees it, he is always faithful to it… I retain the personal affection for him of those years which are dear to memory, and reverence the man as I know him and because I most desire that he should be judged rightly: as a man whose moral greatness has few equals in this day, and who deserves an honor and distinction which he has not received (and, in a selfish and sordid world, will not receive, but which I believe time will give him); [namely,] as one who gave his whole life and substance to the furtherance of what he believed to be the true happiness and elevation of his fellow men.

The Reverend D. A. Tighe-Gregory

It is 1883, a half decade before Stillman’s essay appears. It is late at night and we are in the parsonage abutting St. Mary’s Church, Bawdsey-on-Sea, Suffolk. If we attend, we can hear, outside, the sea waves pounding at the bottom of the crag. Peering into the dim light of the study, we can make out a man seated at a desk,  the parish priest.   

The Reverend D. A. Tighe

He is writing Ruskin a letter. As if unsure of what to say, every few minutes, he pauses, thinks for a time, and then, picking up his pen again, resumes. The process repeats a number of times. This is not the first time this minister has sat to compose such a missive. Hardly! And, tonight, he is as nonplussed as ever about how to bring his task, a task he sees as a sacred duty, to a meaningful close. Nearly a decade and a half before, already a devout follower of Ruskin and his works, they had had a chance, brief meeting in London. The memory of those short moments remains as fresh as if it happened minutes ago. The encounter transformed his life.

On the writing table before him are clippings from local newspapers. He intends to insert these into the envelope which will hold his completed letter. He hopes the clippings will make it palpable to his hero that his, Ruskin’s, teachings, particularly those arguing for the excruciating need for humane social reform, have framed the entirety of his ministry. He starts again, his slowly evolving sentences fashioning one of the most remarkable paeans to another human being I have ever read: “Dear Mr. Ruskin,”

It is New Year’s Night, and I am getting to be an old man (over 63!), and I must write to you – of all men first and most beloved and revered before all the ‘go’ is gone out of me. For I love you, as few men love, or are loved. And before you or I die, you shall know it!…

I am not impressionable, nor superstitious, but I have a feeling as if my life won’t be much longer. I work hard and am mentally, manually, and locomotively far more active than when I was 23. But for many years past, I’ve had, personally, nothing to live for. My heart – all but what you have of it  –  was buried with my wife, a perfect woman, the only woman I ever loved, and who loved me, and who did all but love you as well.

Now, know that you are  – and have ever been – and ever will be – in my heart. That is as nothing to one who is in the hearts of many – which, perhaps, I know better than you – you dear unpretending, unegotistical man! But it is everything to me! And I’ve a right to it! Do you recollect [our chance meeting in] London in 1870? From that day to this I may safely say there has never been a day or night that you have not been in my thoughts. And, as you then ‘saved’ me from – God knows what consequences! – so, I solemnly assure you, I would, any day since then, have given my poor, worthless life for you – at an hour’s notice!  And this feeling has been ever, as it will always be, present with me.

When you passed through that critical illness [at Matlock in 1871], when men and women the whole world ’round trembled on the public reports of your state and prayed to God for you, I cannot attempt to describe what an atmosphere of anxiety I lived in. And that’s nothing either! There has been a continual wish within me to write…to you. In truth, I have written a thousand letters to you! I have written to you as I’ve lain awake in the darkness of my bed in the night. When I’ve lain down, you have been, after God, my last thought. And when I’ve wakened in the morning and walked out around my little parson’s lawn like a ghost tired with confinement in the house, and when I’ve refreshed myself with an odd twenty minutes on this lonely beach or that cliff, with the cold waves of the North Sea making sad music at my feet, I’ve written to you – over and over again!

Many are the poets who have never penned their inspiration…”but who have compressed the God within them…’ And so this is the only one of my ten thousand letters to you that you’ve ever been ‘bothered’ with. Doubtless [this is] best….

But I must not occupy you longer. Accept this assurance of a love for you passing the love of woman. Know that you are in my Heart while I live – and I’ve no doubt my dying thought will be of you. And I give you – I, a poor, but true servant and minister of God, I give you this crowning glory. God grant that Better Thousands give it to you too–that it is to you and you only, that I am indebted for realizing the sense of The Savior… Don’t trouble yourself to write to me.

How am I, your kind soul will assuredly ask? As it pleases God to have me. Doing my necessary literacy work…and my best for the Church and the people in my charge here. My Church is the only one for miles around crammed with the Poor… [You will be happy to know that] this out-of-the-way village church [is] almost “fashionable”! Members of “the better classes” from the great country towns of 10 and 20 miles away actually come quite constantly to our services! I enclose a few…[newspaper] clippings that have noticed the work we do here…

Here the letter breaks off, unfinished, perhaps because, once more, the writer’s courage retreated when he faced with the prospect of actually mailing it! Attached to what we have read in the file are other handwritten pages, a “continuation” of sorts. On the first such sheet, a handwritten line at the top tells us that our pastor wrote these holographs a little more than a year later, on 13 February 1884. For the most part, the additional leaves brim with the same keen applause of Ruskin. Following their final sentence, we see that the author has appended his signature to his paragraphs.

Examining the file as a whole, we find none of the newspaper clippings mentioned, nor is there any information that would tell us whether or not any of the minister’s missives were ever posted to their intended recipient; nor does the file contain any information that would tell us how the file came to reside here in the Rare Book and Manuscript Archive at Princeton University (where I came across it during a day’s research in 2002, a day when I was accompanied by my very dear friend, and much more accomplished Ruskin-researching colleague, Van Akin Burd–Post 52).

Further enquiry, however, reveals that they were in touch. Lancaster University’s Ruskin Library has one letter attesting to as much, a letter in which Ruskin effusively praises one of Tighe-Gregory’s sermons at which he was present in the early 1870s. An internet search turns up little more–some evidence showing that the pastor published a number of ecclesiastical essays during his lifetime and, happily, his picture.

In other words, I’ve not been able to find anything which would establish that Ruskin ever read any of the moving tributes which had been so painstakingly and lovingly prepared in his honor by this “unimportant” minister, tributes that attested to the abiding gratefulness he had for the goodness which Ruskin had bestowed on his life.

But now, through some good chance of our own, we know of them.

Charles A. Schumacher

His small book, an essay really, came as a gift from my lovely wife, Jenn Morris, on the  Christmas just past. She found it in a local bookstore and knowing (how could she not?) of my great admiration for the Brantwood master, she bought it. It is a treasure (as we shall shortly see), and, as a result of that quality, its few (22) pages now hold one of the premier places in my cache of favorite Ruskin items.

As in the case of the good Reverend Tighe-Gregory’s letters, however, it has not proved very easy (thus far) to pin down, even in this modern “everything-is-out-there-on-the-web” era, much of anything that would tell us anything particularly useful to know about this fine essay’s author. The full title of the piece is John Ruskin: A Study in Genius. On the reverse side of the title page, we learn that the essay printed in 1929, but, since no publisher is indicated, we have to assume that it was self-published.

When we turn to the “everything-is-out-there” web, things don’t get much better. A search on Schumacher’s name, title and the year of printing, brings up only one reference, a Google page referring us to the

Catalog of Copyright Entries. New Series, 1929, Part 1

Clicking on it, we find only one bit of new information: that it was printed in “Oneonta, New York” (my Finger Lakes area!). This would suggest (but only that) that Schumacher was, like Stillman, an American admirer of Ruskin’s and that he hired an unknown  imprinter in Oneonta to make an unknown number of copies of his pamphlet.

But here the trail ends. No other combination of entries into the “everything-is-out-there” web produces anything else of use. I learned that, indeed, there are quite a few Charles A. Schumachers out there, but all of them either still live or are recently dead. I could unearth no one bearing his name who lived in the early decades of the 20th century, could discover no long passed over pictures which would allow me to say, as was the case with Tighe-Gregory’s photo when I found it, “That’s the fellow!”

But perhaps Mr. Schumacher’s very elusiveness is a good and important thing. For in his mysterious guise, his lovely words take on an even more special sheen, a sheen which informs us of the reverential thoughts of yet one more among those thousands who once read and loved Ruskin. Here are some of the words:

I

What manner of man was Ruskin…? He…was cast in no ordinary mold. He was tall, graceful, inspiring… His eyes were blue, wistful, penetrating. Those who heard him lecture said of him that, in the deeper moments, when beauty and truth were sweeping through him, those eyes were full of heavenly fire. When they rested on someone, the thrill was like a flash of lightning. His voice was soft as the wind and full as the sea, and could touch all the stops of a rich and rare instrument. After an inspired lecture at Oxford, when his thought came flooding like the tide, and his words were colored like the clouds, the audience sat, at its conclusion, in absolute silence. That is the perfect tribute to eloquence–a thing so beautiful, so majestic, so sublime, that noise thereafter would be sacrilege.

II

[When he was thirteen, and on a trip with his parents through Europe] he saw the Alps for the first time and, best of all, he saw the eternal beauty of the Valley of Chamouni. It seemed to him on that day that the Gates of Heaven had opened before him, and he had a vision of immortal loveliness. Thereafter, whenever he was weary in body and soul, he went to Chamouni for healing and divine consolation. Without Chamouni, [the five books of his] Modern Painters [series] would lose half their charm…Chamouni never failed to lift his eyes to heaven, and lift his soul in gratitude to God.

III

[And then he found Turner!] Of one thing only may we be sure, that [in Turner’s paintings] he saw nothing he had never seen before–the beauty of Nature touched by the hand of a master. All his life he had gone to galleries to look at pictures of Nature, but he had never seen an artist who could make the things in Nature live with the blessed beauty of life. Under the magic of Turner’s touch, cloud and sun and earth and sky and running water and mountain glory were clothed in celestrial light. Ruskin gazed and gazed on those matchless things, and the more he looked, he marveled that the beauty of Nature could become so exquisite in terms of art. The very breath stopped…and his body and his soul ware lost in wonder over those priceless treasures… Often, in the days that followed, when Ruskin saw some particular grace of cloud, or glory of the sun, or loveliness of landscape–all disposed in the magical forms of beauty–he would exclaim. “That is a perfect Turner!”

IV

[It was awful experience] that turned Ruskin from art to life. He saw sun and stars and moon and free sky blotted out by the smoke of industry. He saw the blessed beauty of Nature trampled under the feet of modern progress. He saw the priceless treasures of art left in neglect and decay. He saw men spending their lives at low levels with small purpose. He saw nations even, bent on vain pursuits and wrecked in the ravages of war… Beauty of Nature, beauty of art, beauty of Life were, he thought, in danger from indifference, greed, and barbarity. How could he rest in peace, how could his soul be joyful, when he was increasingly conscious that man had fallen on evil days? Like [the poet, Robert] Browning, he was ever a fighter, and so the best and the last [of his days] he gave for the welfare of man.

All these above, offered in honor and remembrance of Mr. Ruskin’s 199th birthday.

Until next time.

Be well out there!

Jim

A few notes regarding some of what’s above:

1.) Regarding Stillman: I should note that Ruskin learned fairly quickly that his younger American friend did not have the talent required to become a great artist. Always honest, at various times during their tour, he informed Stillman of the fact. (The few Stillman paintings that survive confirm the judgment.) The consequence was that, after their Chamouni sojourn, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Stillman would disavow Ruskin’s legitimacy as an art critic, even while, as we have read, never denying his status as one of the great sages of the age. The art criticism appears in the same essay cited.

2.) Regarding Reverend Tighe-Gregory: In his fifth paragraph, he alludes to the first stanza of Byron’s “Many are the Poets who have never Penned” from Canto IV of Byron’s “The Prophesy of Dante.” Used there because of Tighe-Gregory’s awareness of Ruskin’s love of both Byron and Dante.

3.) Also regarding Tighe-Gregory: The one surviving letter Ruskin wrote him can be found in The Ruskin Library, Lancaster, UK, in file RF L31. Many thanks to Diane Tyler at the Library for help with this search.

4.) Regarding Mr. Schumacher: If there is anyone out there who has the time and inclination, I’d be delighted if you could ferret out more about this elusive fellow.

This entry was posted in Encomia, Tributes, Truths and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 112: February 8, 1819: On the Occasion of Ruskin’s 199th Birthday

  1. Jack Harris says:

    It must have been something to be in Mr. Ruskin’s company. A really lovely homage to Ruskin, spoken through 3 of his admirers. So very well done – so tender, personal and uplifting. To be remembered so, by you, almost 200 years of Ruskin’s birth — quite an extraordinary being he was, Mr. Ruskin!.

  2. Michelle Lovric says:

    Thank you, Jim. Wonderful to spend some time with the man in this way. You have given us the gift of some time, vicariously, in his company. These writers refract such similar light: they are so obviously talking of the same man.

  3. George P. Landow says:

    Wonderful post, JimIII

    Do you have a larger image of Onslow Ford that I can add to both R’s portraits and Ford’s?

    If we wait long enough more records of births, deaths, and deed will be online so a search might turn up something on that elusive gent.

    Cheers,

    George

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s