As all of us have surely noticed, we have turned a dated corner, and are now moving at a long experienced pace down a road which we have decided to call 2019. As we travel it, given the current state of the world, it is more, rather than less, likely that it will prove to be a critical year in many respects. But in one of those respects, one which touches anyone who is reading this post or following this site, it is a year most significant: the year that marks the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth. In celebration of that singular event, as the dozen months which lie before us slide by, there will be events–in the UK, in Europe, in the US–which will, in their various ways, applaud the eighty years he was allowed to spend with us after drawing his first breath on the 8th of February, 1819 in London. I’ll have something to say about these special events in due course.
But today I thought that, given that it is the very first day of this very significant Ruskin year, I would share some reminiscences of someone who had the good fortune to spend a number of evenings with our subject in the early days of January, 1878, a time when he, Ruskin, looked like this:
The picture, a watercolor, as surely I’ve mentioned when including it in earlier posts, is Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s, painted when he was only 29 and Ruskin 59. It is now housed in The National Portrait Gallery, London. What I love about it is that, for me, and unlike any other image which exists of Ruskin, it captures the soul of the man. Depicted here, at once, are his remarkable intelligence and his abiding compassion, his concern for the wellness of his fellow human beings. Here too we find his by-this-time-in-life well-entrenched world-weariness, a consequence of having worked for nearly forty years attempting to do the things which demanded doing if our wonderful natural world was to be preserved and we, those living in it, were to live happier lives. More materially, but hardly unimportantly, the artist has given us a perfect exposition of Ruskin’s penetrating blue eyes (which everyone, meeting him, immediately noticed) and, complementing these, a rendering of the blue cravat he always wore. Applause sustained for the skill and sensitivity of Mr. von Herkomer for getting all these essential elements in one image.
It is this complex soul whom we must imagine in our mind’s eye as we read the passages to follow, excerpted from a journal written by a university age George Wyndham. Wyndham was one of Ruskin’s favorite undergraduates at Oxford, and had been invited to the events soon to be described with Scott Holland, another of Ruskin’s undergraduates (we will meet Holland again and at more length in a coming post). What makes these journal passages so inviting is that they were written immediately after the three evening discussions with “the great Ruskin” had arrived at their end. They can be found in their entirety in a small book (Letters to M. G. and H. G. by John Ruskin) which Wyndham published in 1903, just three years after Ruskin’s death.
The book’s principal raison d’etre was its collection of some of the most important of the many letters which Ruskin sent, over the course of a decade and more, to Mary and Helen Gladstone. The Gladstone sisters were the daughters of William Gladstone, who, at the time that these evening conversations took place, was the British Prime Minister, a fine friend of Ruskin’s despite some serious political differences. Gladstone was an avowed Liberal while Ruskin regularly called himself “a violent Tory of the Old School” in spite of the fact that he was one of the most vocal proponents of what, today, we would call “liberal reforms”–old age pensions, medical leaves, decent living wages, welfare payments to support the indigent, the lame, the halt, and the blind–for more, see Post 61: The List)–and where his word, “violent,” pointed not to anything physical but to Ruskin’s belief in preserving all those things which tradition had proved good in and for life. (An unpopular position to hold during an age, very much like our own which, in knee-jerk fashion, held that anything old was suspect, useless. or irrelevant.)
The three evenings in question were passed at Hawarden Castle in Wales, the family estate of the Gladstones. Ruskin, Wyndham, Holland, and others, including a very vocal and opinionated Duke, had assembled, at Gladstone’s invitation, for a weekend visit, during the course of which there would be some very good food and wine, much music (much of it played by Mary Gladstone, a fine pianist), chances to relax, walk and talk, with many leisure hours set aside for informal conversation. Here’s a lovely picture of Hawarden as it looked at the time (it doesn’t look much different today):
Ruskin’s reputation as one of his era’s greatest minds, of course, had preceded him and all those who were invited, especially those who believed him to be not only brilliant but a living sage who had no equal like Wyndham and Holland were most excited about the chance of having considerable time to chat with him.
In fact, so taken was Wyndham with what transpired during their conversations, he set everything he could remember about them down in his journal. Not many such records of first-hand encounters with Ruskin exist, and what makes this one so appealing is that the recollections were almost instantaneous and, for that reason, provide us with ample evidence that, in his casual as well as his public life, Ruskin practiced what he preached. (In what follows, for simplicity’s sake, I have collapsed what are the reminiscences of three evenings into a single sequence. As well, for argument’s sake, I have a moved comments on a few subjects which appear in one place in the journal to another.) That said, to celebrate the beginning of his bicentennial year, here are some of Ruskin’s new year’s thoughts as the young G. Wyndham recollected them 131 years ago.
On Meeting Ruskin
I had the joyous chance of dining at the Castle with Ruskin and Holland of Christ Church [the Oxford College from which Ruskin graduated in 1842 and where he was, at this time, the university’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art]. [At my first chance,] I asked [him] how the Hinksey work progressed. [Believing that significant social reform could be accomplished by properly motivated students working with their hands, Ruskin had asked a number of his–among them Oscar Wilde, Arnold Toynbee and Wyndham–to help him repair a road outside of Oxford in 1873. All those who came to work–with Ruskin acting as supervisor–he affectionately called his “diggers.” For years the project continued in fits and starts, gaining increasing notoriety as time passed.] Then, after shaking both my hands, as those of one of his “diggers,” he mournfully admitted its failure, owing to the want of an earnest spirit in the undergrads. They played at it, he said. “It is only one of the many signs of the diabolical conditions at Oxford.”
His talk at dinner was altogether delightful. Nevertheless, there was an utter hopelessness, a real, pure, despair beneath the sunlight of his smile, ringing through all he said. Why it does not wholly paralyze him I cannot make out. He pitched into museums and natural science in general, as tending to fix attention on Nature’s mistakes and failures–every vile, and ugly, and monstrous, and odious, specimen of Nature’s doings. He insisted that we were never to look at, to think of, anything unlovely, impure, horrible. We were to remedy evils by bringing up the good against them, to scathe and annihilate them…”In museums, [he said,] we ought to have specimens [of] the loveliest, most perfect [instances] that are to be found in Nature’s handiwork.
On Motherly Love
[Sometime later,] he expounded some notions of domestic virtues. Mothers ought not to expend [all] their love upon their own children, but, while making that love their central care, should love all other children too, especially the poor and suffering. They should not spend so much care and money in dressing out their little ones gorgeously and at such cost, but should clothe the naked and feed the hungry children around them.
Why is there not an absolutely truthful newspaper in the world? he asked. “How horrible is the condition of our daily press! Columns full of horrors, murders, suicides, brutalities, conspicuous villainy, and abomination! I would have a paper which would tell us of the loveliest and best people in every town and place, of nothing but pure and beautiful things. Nowadays, it is the most infamous people who are published to the world, who are forced upon our thoughts. I would have the gentlest, purest, noblest of mankind set before the public mind, [and] made famous in [our daily] journals… At present they are precisely the last people in a place to be heard of!.. [G]oodness ought to be set up, [like] a city upon a hill.”
On How We Ought to Live
In reply to [a question of Holland’s about this, Ruskin] urged that, for practical purposes, we [all] knew right and wrong sufficiently, or, rather, we had enough knowledge of what beauty, truth, and goodness were to work and live in. There was no need to learn negatively. Simply go forward, look forward, never look backward.
On Social Reform
[A Duke who was there and was] astonishingly conventional, [opined that] the social condition of England was very satisfactory and little in need of reform, laughing [as he said so] almost contemptuously at Ruskin’s doctrines concerning…the defilements of factories. [He said] that the laboring classes had but little to complain of, and that agricultural tenants had no strong case against their landlords… At the polar extreme [of this view, was] Ruskin, Socialist [a mislabeling even then, attached to Ruskin because of his belief in the essential nobility of even the weakest in society and his correlated argument that the rich had an enduring obligation to make the weaker stronger with resources they had way too much of], dreaming Idealist, hater of modern “liberty,” lover of the poor and the laborious, the toiling multitude, who condemned rent as usury, detesting war and its “standing armies”…
On Armies and War
[And speaking of armies, Ruskin went on to speak] strongly about our national waste in military expenditure and the insanity of our wars. He deplored the existence of our large standing army and navy, and said our country can never truly prosper so long as her best and noblest sons adopt a soldierly profession as a means of livelihood. Here [came] an abrupt contradiction from the Duke. “They do not,” he said, “nobody enters the army for a living.” Then Mr. Gladstone interrupted to back up Ruskin, who forthwith explained: “Indeed, all do! They enter the army for the sake of position, the uniform, the prestige, etc., etc., and that is utterly wrong. I would have every man in England a soldier, able, if need be, to defend his home and his country, but not a standing army of fighters which must encourage the evil war-spirit. “Then you would abolish war entirely?” asked the Duke. “Most assuredly, if I could,” said Ruskin, “and exchange every sword for a ploughshare” [Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3]. “I dislike fighting immensely,” [he went on, saying that he] also felt that war–unless a moral necessity–was the most stupendous crime… The Duke instantly attacked him with vehemence [and, believing Ruskin crushed by his counterarguments,] wound up by saying, “You seem to want a very different world to that we experience, Mr. Ruskin, etc., etc. [To which, Ruskin replied,] “Yea, verily,a new heaven and a new earth, and the former things passed away” [Revelation 21:1], which, practically, was a pretty summing up and laughing conclusion of a helpful talk.
[Recalling an earlier thread, we] then reverted to the subject of the lords of the soil and their dependents, and employers and employed, and Ruskin told us of shameful instances in France and Italy–of one [particular great land owner] who spoke of his dependants as “cette canaille” [“those common people”]. Then we talked of the happiness of simple, pastoral life, still found among the young people of France; Ruskin said he was rather constrained from saying what he wanted to by the presence of the great “landed proprietor”[among us, an allusion to our Duke].
Ruskin goes to Bed
[After some conversation more,] Ruskin, to our dismay, abruptly rose from his chair (at a quarter to 11 PM) and moved bedwards, with the remark, “I always go to bed early,” [and then] vanished. He is a swift observer and acute. Not talkative, but ever willing to be interested in things, and to throw gleams of his soul’s sunlight over them; original in his dazzling idealism. Forever thinking on whatsoever things are pure, and lovely, and of good report [Philippians 4:8], annihilating, in the intense white heat of his passionate contempt and hatred for all vile, dark, and hateful things… [With such thoughts in mind, in due course, I made] my way home by a circuit through the cottage domain, dreaming of nothing but Ruskin and the glory of his soul, and the lovely visions he creates for us, and the ideals he would have us worship.
All of which seems to me to be a lovely way for us to start this bicentennial year. And so, until we reassemble some days later on in this space, I would like to take this moment to wish you, as would Mr. Ruskin, nothing but good and delight in it!
Note:: If you are interested in getting a copy of the little book that contains these reminiscences of the young man who would later became The Right Honorable G. Wyndham, and who used them to introduce Ruskin’s letters to Mary and Helen Gladstone, it is out there, under the title (no author is named), Letters to M. G. and H. G. by John Ruskin, New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1903. You won’t be disappointed. Ruskin’s letters to the sisters, I should also say, are brilliant, insightful and, throughout, charming.