A hundred and nineteen years ago, on the 20th of this month, John Ruskin died, peacefully, at his Brantwood home in the English Lake District, the windows of his bedroom affording him in his last hours spectacular views of his beloved Coniston Water and, towering above the lake to the west, the mountain whose sleeping visage all in the vicinity referred to as The Old Man of Coniston. At the moment of his leaving, he was a fortnight and a bit more shy of his 81st birthday.
As I mentioned at this anniversary moment last year (Post 110), the outpouring of sympathy from around the world after the news became public was immediate, intense, and immense. One of the great icons of the age had died. Responding to all the letters and reminiscences took his beloved care-taker cousin, Joan Severn, years to complete.
But the posted condolences were only one element in the collective mourning. For many months after his passing, eulogies praising the wonderful contributions Ruskin had made to our collective life and culture were eagerly attended by attentive audiences in town and city halls, club rooms, lecture spaces, and, of course, churches. Recalling these, now usually overlooked, it seemed to me that this might be the moment, especially given that this is the year during which we are celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, to listen to one of these commendations.
The one I’ve chosen was given by Scott Holland, who, at that time, was Regis Professor of Divinity at Oxford. We met him briefly in Post 138 where he presented himself, in a much younger guise, in the January of 1878 as an invited guest, at Hawarden Castle, the country home of Prime Minister William Gladstone.Then an undergraduate student at Oxford, he had been invited because he was one of Ruskin’s most enthusiastic students, the occasion being the chance to spend a few evenings with the famous professor in a more informal setting. He had come with his fellow undergraduate, George Wyndham, who, like Holland, as we learned in that earlier post, would revere Ruskin and his work for the rest of his life.
After Oxford, Wydham went on to a life in politics, becoming in due course Under Secretary for War and, later, Chief Secretary for Ireland. Holland, more reverential, decided on advanced religious training, earning in his due course, the designation of Canonm. (For those reading outside the UK, a Canon the OED defines as: “in the Roman Catholic Church, a member of certain orders of clergy that live communally according to ecclesiastical rule in the same manner as monks.”)
Because of his undisguised admiration of Ruskin, and, surely, his blessed status, Holland was approached to deliver a eulogy not long after the sage’s death. His address was included as “the last words” at the back of Wyndham’s lovely little book from which I took the synopsis of Ruskin’s evening talks at Hawarden in 1878, The Letters of John Ruskin to M. G. and H. G. (Mary Gladstone and Helen Gladstone).
But that location is about all I can tell you about his marvelous speech. Wyndham includes it as a fitting–for that it surely is–tribute to the great man his book celebrates. But he doesn’t tell us who asked Holland to speak about his experiences with and admiration for vanished Ruskin, nor does he inform us where Holland spoke, what type of audience heard his words, nor does he even give us the date on which his friend’s sentences were spoken. Odd. Still, even without all those details, we can be fairly sure that the image below gives us a good sense of how the Right Reverend Canon Scott Holland looked on the evening (?) he stepped to his podium.
To which can be added this: that, having read not a few Ruskin eulogies over the years, Holland’s ranks with the best, partly because of his direct experience of having known Ruskin, and partly because, in one of the strangest choices in the eulogy genre I know, after he has said what he wants to say, he leaves it to Ruskin to say the rest, shunning any additional remarks so that the master’s words and their unavoidable message can do their work on those who have come to his talk. It would have been a marvelous moment indeed to have been present to evesdrop on the comments of the assembly as they left the hall, and to see how Holland, who surely saw himself as a poor player in comparison to the genius he had been asked to laud, exited after his brief hour on the stage had ended. But that was later. Here is how, in slightly jarring fashion, he began:
Ruskin is dead!
Our first instinct is to repeat the words over and over again, even as Charles Lamb went about saying nothing all day but “Coleridge is dead! Coleridge is dead!”
Death is such a strange context for these radiant souls, who flash, and kindle, and inspire. They seem to be part of our life-tissue, to have passed into our blood. We cannot strip ourselves of their presence. We cannot force ourselves to feel that this earth of ours holds them no longer. They belong to our vital force! How can we believe that they are dead? And then there comes the personal memory of the man [who has gone], with all the notable characteristics that made his presence among us memorable.
Who that had ever seen him could forget John Ruskin? He had the touch that goes straight to the heart. He came up to one so confidentially, so appealingly, with the wistful look in his grey-glinting eyes which seemed to say, “I never find anybody who quite understands me, but I still hope and think that you will!” How quaint, the mingling of this wistfulness in the face with the spotted blue stock [cravat] and the collar and the frock-coat, which made him look like something between an old-fashioned nobleman of the Forties and an angel that had lost its way.
The small, bird-like head and hands and figure had, nevertheless, a curious and old-world pomp in their gait and motions. The bushy eyebrows gave a strength to the upper part of the face which was a little unexpected, and which found its proper balance in the white beard of his last years. He somehow moved one as with the delicate tenderness of a woman, and he felt frail, as if the roughness of the world would hurt and break him, and one longed to shelter him from all that was ugly and cruel.
I was much struck once by the effect of music upon him. He knew, as Plato did, its educational value. But, as an art, he was not inside it. It moved him from without. One day at Hawarden [in 1878], he had tired himself in a long delightful talk to us about St. Ursula and his beloved Carpaccio.
[Vittore Carpaccio, one of the greatest of Venice’s great painters, created a series of large paintings honoring St. Ursula and telling the story of her martyrdom; Ruskin loved the pictures and never lost a chance to tell anyone who would listen about them. During one of his evenings at Hawarden, he did just this, taking everyone into the drawing room, and there, using his own copies of the originals (which hang in Venice’s Accadamia), held the assembled rapt with his mesmerizing descriptions of each painting. (We will return to this special moment in a following post.) Holland:]
After tea, as dusk came on, [Ruskin] lay back in a big chair to rest, while M. G. played to us in the dark with a magical touch peculiar to herself. We thought that he would sleep, but he grew absorbed, and, at last, rose from his chair and walked over to the piano, and hung over it until she had finished. As she ended, we all waited for him to speak, but he was so moved that he could find no words, and could only say, “Thank you! Thank you! “
It was in such sharp contrast to the wonderful speech he would pour out on a matter of Art whenever he was moved, that one [was amazed at] how this world of [music] had never passed into his speech. It had deep effect, but the effect was dumb. Afterwards, as the trouble grew in his brain [a reference to Ruskin’s attacks of “brain fever,” the first of which would pay its unpleasant visit less than a month after the days to Hawarden], he [sought relief] in music. He would send for M. G. to play for him in bad hours, and he would have the [Oxford] Cathedral at Christ Church closed at times for him to roam up and down it and listen to the organ. It may be that this unknown art had more soothing power over him than [the world of more material art] which he had himself mastered.
His social message grew directly out of his Art teaching under the stormy influence of Carlyle. Good Art could only spring out of right living he knew, and Carlyle had showed him that there could be no right living under the utilitarian individualism of industrial competition. The remedy for the bad Art of the day must begin in the healing of the national life. “Have you seen Keble Chapel [at Oxford], Mr. Ruskin?” we innocently asked him. “No!” “Are you going to see it?” “No! If it is new, it is hideous. Or if it is beautiful, it ought not to be. We don’t deserve it. You clergy ought not to have any beautiful churches. You ought to be out in the wilderness with St. John the Baptist. When you have converted England [to a compassionate form of Christianity], it will be time to think whether we may have any beautiful things again.”
That was his verdict. It was no day for Art while our filthy cities cried to Heaven against us (Post 53; Post 136 ). So he preached with ever intenser vehemence and skill, giving precision and reality and exquisite utterance to that which had been, in Carlyle, but a thunderous roar. To this teaching, he gave close study and thought, and ever perfected, for its expression, his amazing skill over language. His style freed itself from the overloaded consciousness of its earlier forms, and, without losing any of its beauty, became more concise, well-grit, muscular.
It was delightful to hear him, in his Oxford days, roll out his magnificent [passages] from Modern Painters and then explain to us their defects and their mannerisms, while still on the defensive against undue deprecation of them. “I wrote that sentence over five times before I was satisfied,” he exclaimed; “and even then, the young ladies called it ‘gush’!”
We cannot better recall him, than by rehearsing a great passage from his writings, taken from the lectures called “A Joy For Ever,” given in Manchester in 1857 [lectures first entitled, “The Political Economy of Art”; an image of the title page of its first edition is to the left]. It marks the moment when his interest in Art was just passing into his interest in political economy. He has [been invited to] come down to talk on pictures and a picture-gallery; and, to the surprise of his hearers, is found to be [critiquing] the well-worn economic fallacy that luxury gives beneficial employment to the poor. The fallacy was never more forcibly exposed, and, as it still haunts the thievish comers of our streets to-day, we may well suffer the great preacher to speak to us once again from his grave, in his own incomparable utterance:
Granted that, whenever we spend money for whatever purpose, we set people to work–and passing by, for the moment, the question whether the work we set them to is all equally healthy and good for them, we will assume that whenever we spend a guinea we provide an equal number of people with healthy maintenance for a given time.
But by the way in which we spend it, we entirely direct the labor of those people during that given time. We become their masters or mistresses, and we compel them to produce, within a certain period, a certain article. Now, that article may be a useful and lasting one, or it may be a useless and perishable one; it may be one useful to the whole community, or useful only to ourselves.
And our selfishness and folly, or our virtue and prudence, are shown, not by our spending money, but by our spending it for the wrong or the right thing. And we are wise and kind, not in maintaining a certain number of people for a given period, but only in requiring them to produce during that period the kind of things which shall be useful to society, instead of those which are only useful to ourselves.
Thus for instance: if you are a young lady, and employ a certain number of seamstresses for a given time in making a given number of simple and serviceable dresses—suppose, seven–of which you can wear one yourself for half the winter, and give six away to poor girls who have none, you are spending your money unselfishly. But if you employ the same number of seamstresses for the same number of days in making four, or five, or six beautiful flounces for your own ball-dress—flounces which will clothe no one but yourself, and which you will yourself be unable to wear at more than one ball—you are employing your money selfishly.
You have maintained, indeed, in each case, the same number of people; but in the one case you have directed their labor to the service of the community, [while,] in the other case, you have consumed it wholly upon yourself. I don‘t say you are never to do so. I don‘t say you ought not sometimes to think of yourselves only, and to make yourselves as pretty as you can. Only do not confuse coquettishness with benevolence, nor cheat yourselves into thinking that all the finery you can wear is so much put into the hungry mouths of those beneath you. It is not so.
It is what you yourselves, whether you will or no, must sometimes instinctively feel it to be; it is what those who stand shivering in the streets, forming a line to watch you as you step out of your carriages, know it to be. Those fine dresses do not mean that so much has been put into their mouths, but that so much has been taken out of their mouths!
The real politico-economical signification of every one of those beautiful toilettes is just this: that you have had a certain number of people put for a certain number of days wholly under your authority by the sternest of slave-masters: hunger and cold. And you have said to them, “I will feed you, indeed, and clothe you, and give you fuel for so many days. But during those days you shall work for me only. Your little brothers need clothes, but you shall make none for them. Your sick friend needs clothes, but you shall make none for her. You yourself will soon need another and a warmer dress, but you shall make none for yourself. You shall make nothing but lace and roses for me. For this fortnight to come, you shall work at the patterns and petals, and then I will crush and consume them away in an hour. You [may] perhaps [respond]: “It may not be particularly benevolent to do this, and we won‘t call it so; but at any rate we do no wrong in taking their labor when we pay them their wages: if we pay for their work, we have a right to it.”
No! A thousand times no! The labor which you have paid for does indeed become, by the act of purchase, your own labor.You have bought the hands and the time of those workers. They are, by right and justice, your own hands, your own time. But have you a right to spend your own time, to work with your own hands, only for your own advantage? Much more when, by purchase, you have invested your own person with the strength of others, and added to your own life a part of the life of others?
You may, indeed, to a certain extent, use their labor for your delight–remember I am making no general assertions against splendour of dress, or pomp of accessories of life. On the contrary, there are many reasons for thinking that we do not at present attach enough importance to beautiful dress as one of the means of influencing general taste and character. But I do say that you must weigh the value of what you ask these workers to produce for you in its own distinct balance–that on its own worthiness or desirableness rests the question of your kindness, and not merely on the fact of your having employed people in producing it. And I say further, that as long as there are cold and nakedness in the land around you, so long there can be no question at all but that splendor of dress is a crime.
In due time, when we have nothing better to set people to work at, it may be right to let them make lace and cut jewels. But as long as there are any who have no blankets for their beds, and no rags for their bodies, so long it is blanket-making and tailoring we must set people to work at—not lace.
And it would be strange, if, at any great assembly which, while it dazzled the young and the thoughtless, beguiled the gentler hearts that beat beneath the embroidery, with a placid sensation of luxurious benevolence, as if by all that they wore in waywardness of beauty, comfort had been first given to the distressed, and aid to the indigent; it would be strange, I say, if, for a moment, the spirits of Truth and of Terror, which walk invisibly among the masques of the earth, would lift the dimness from our erring thoughts and show us how—inasmuch as the sums exhausted for that magnificence would have given back the failing breath to many an unsheltered outcast on moor and street—they who wear it have literally entered into partnership with Death, and dressed themselves in his spoils.
Yes, if the veil could be lifted not only from your thoughts but from your human sight, you would see—the angels do see!—on those gay white dresses of yours, strange dark spots, and crimson patterns that you knew not of, spots of the inextinguishable red that all the seas cannot wash away; yes, and among the pleasant flowers [that decorate your dresses, see too] that crown jewel which no one thought of: the grass that grows on graves.
Here, if we are holding Wyndham’s book, as we presume was the case in real life, we are surprised to find that the eulogy just ends, its audience, as ourselves, left to wonder if there has been some mistake, some omission. There hasn’t been. Scott Hollard had read his Ruskin well.
Above: Ruskin in 1861; a watercolor; more precisely, a self-portrait; painted just a few years after the lectures of 1857, from which our good canon had selected his passage illustrating the remarkableness of thought and heart which was, and still remained, embodied in the departed Ruskin. It is a portrait which shows unmistakably the shift away from the idealistic youth who had started writing his Modern Painters books twenty years before, to the angry and unflinching social critic who had come to assume his place, a critic who, on that first lecture night in Manchester, and four decades later on a second night in another English lecture hall, had informed his well-dressed audiences, without the slightest mincing of words, that even the poorest among them were infinitely richer in the purse than the desperate poor who lived but moments away from all of them, had informed them further–and once more without palliation–that they had all become marvelous adept at using whatever excess which was to be found in their coffers not to help such indigents, but only to outfit themselves more finely.
A fine eulogy. There is little doubt that he who was honored by it would have liked it.
Until next time.
Be well out there in this long-anticipated Bicentennial Year.!