168: John Ruskin at 200 (II)

Good Friends,

It has been a banner year for Mr. Ruskin, this year that has been dedicated to celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth. There have been many impressive appreciations of his genius and continuing significance: in the UK (in London, Durham, Sheffield, Lancaster, and his home, Brantwood, in the Lake District), in France, in Venice. On this side of the Atlantic, there have been similar applaudings (at Harvard and Yale, at The Roycroft Campus near Buffalo, The Gamble House in Pasadena, in Los Angeles and at The Huntington Library in nearby San Marino. Together, they seem to portend that, at last, after some few years of careful watering, the seeds of a true, much needed, Ruskin Revival, have not just sprouted, but are well on their way to becoming plants in good kilter, as evidenced by the appearance of the surprise shoot described below.


Sometime during the early months of this year, Gabriel Meyer, Executive Director of The Ruskin Art Club in Los Angeles, got a call from Stuart Denenberg, a fine friend, fellow Ruskinian, and dealer in fine art who lives in West Hollywood. It seemed, Stuart said, that a significant, beautiful, and extremely rare sculpture of Ruskin was going to be up for sale at a local auction. The piece, one of only six cast, was the creation of Gutzon Borglum, a sculptor now nearly forgotten, who achieved his greatest fame near the end of his life (1941) for sculpting the famous faces of the famous American presidents on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota (now a US National Landmark).


Gutzon Borglum working on an early model for Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore distant view

Mount Rushmore, Completed (1941)

Borglum, who studied with Rodin in Paris during his formative years, was much influenced by his master’s desire to image great literary figures (Balzac, Hugo) in sculpture. Among Borglum’s heroes was Ruskin.

Importantly for a bicentennial story, Borglum, who was already gaining fame in the art salons of Paris for his work, met the acclaimed organist, H. S. Roberts, who regarded Ruskin as a genius incomparable. At Roberts’ suggestion, the pair traveled to the Lake District in 1897 in hopes of having an audience with the then-clearly-in-decline master at Brantwood (Ruskin would die in January 1900). According to Willadene Price’s biography of Borglum, during their visit, “while Ruskin and Roberts talked, Borglum studied Ruskin and made several sketches of him. As Roberts later recalled it, he found that Ruskin ‘had drawn into himself. He knew his worth. He had full confidence in his own strength, but he was sad. [But still remained the] most marvelous, magnificent, unappreciated genius the world has ever known.’ From his side, the deeply impressed Borglum told his wife, ‘As soon as I have time, I will make a statue of Ruskin.”’

Which he did, exhibiting his finished, 14 inch high bronze at the  St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 (where he was awarded a gold medal for another of his sculptures). A cast of the sculpture was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1906; a second  gained a place at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1919, and a third went to the Rhode Island School of Design around the same time. The remaining three disappeared into private hands…

Borglum--sculpture portrait of Ruskin--1903

Gutzon Borglum, “Ruskin” (1903)

…until this year, when one of the unaccounted for castings, now regarded as dispensable by its owner, caught Stuart Denenberg’s keen collector’s eye in an auction ad. And so it happened that, not many weeks later, Stuart and Gabriel went to the auction where Borglum’s great tribute piece was being offered, and, at the moment of truth, in the name of The Ruskin Art Club, bought it! Following which, an appeal was made to the members of the RAC to assist, given that this was Mr. Ruskin’s bicentennial year, in defraying the cost of the work. The response made it possible, a month or two later, for RAC to offer the sculpture as a gift to Brantwood, where, on display, it would stand not only as an image making visual the nobility and greatness of the life Ruskin lived but as a permanent reminder of the connection between Ruskinians who live on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The offer was gratefully accepted, the sculpture shipped across the intervening 5200 miles, and is now on prominent display on Ruskin’s drawing room table.

Borlum Sculpture at Brantwood 2019 (Jacob Lewis)

  Borglum’s Ruskin in the Drawing Room at Brantwood (Photograph: Jacob Lewis)


A portrait sculpture is a symbol, a creative interpretation intended to remind us of the mind, heart, and soul of its subject, a subject chosen because of the admiration the artist has had for the qualities that once lived in his subject. That Gutzon Borglum recognized the presence of exceptional qualities in Ruskin is evident from even a cursory examination of his image. The Ruskin he has given us, even seated, is immense in stature, powerfully noble in visage, understanding in his gaze over the world he has worked all his life to help, a world which, in the end, the plaintive eyes tell us, he has failed to save.

In which frame, perhaps it will be useful, as we depart this second decade of the twenty-first century, if we recall a few sentences where Ruskin reminds us of a critical lesson he had learned: that our life is, in effect, a series of choices about how we will live it, choices which, in one way or another, help or hinder ourselves and others.

He voiced the reminder on the evening of 13 January 1858. Because of his reputation as Britain’s most famous art and architecture critic, Ruskin has been asked to give the inaugural lecture at the opening meeting of the Architectural Museum in South Kensington in London. The title for the talk he will deliver is imposing: “The Deteriorative Power of Conventional Art over Nations”! (It will soon become the first of five lectures collected under the title, The Two Paths.) His argument will not be new. He will reprise a central theme he has made over and again in his four Modern Painters books, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice. It is an argument which needs repeating, he tells those who have come to hear him, because of its centrality to everything he has learned. Even so, despite all his efforts, he has not yet convinced those who need most to be convinced of its truth. Here it is in a nutshell, he says, as he nears his conclusion: For art and architecture to live and be eternally new, it must recognize and then represent in the works its artists create the infinite variety and beauty of nature and natural objects, whether these be trees, flowers, clouds, or people. To not do this, to rely on conventional representations and the already tried, because people “like it,” or because–much worse!–“it sells” leads, quite literally, to the death of art, a demise which, in its terrible turn, leads inevitably to the expiring of the imagination, creativity, and all that makes us uniquely wonderful as human beings. No small matter.

A matter, he says, arriving at his last sentences, about which, I beg you to note, each of us has a choice to make, a choice in which there much more is at stake than the vibrancy of art: the vibrancy of life itself.

Make, then, your choice: boldly and consciously–for one
way or other, it must be made. On the dark and dangerous side
are set the pride which delights in self-contemplation—the
indolence which rests in unquestioned forms—the ignorance
that despises what is fairest among God‘s creatures, and the
dullness that denies what is marvellous in His working. There is a
life of monotony for your own souls, and of misguiding those
of others. And–on the other side–is open to your choice the life
of the crowned spirit, moving as a light in creation—discovering
always—illuminating always, gaining every hour in strength,
yet bowed down every hour into deeper humility. Sure of being
right in its aim, sure of being irresistible in its progress. Happy in
what it has securely done; happier in what, day by day, it may
as securely hope. Happiest at the close of life, when the right
hand begins to forget its cunning, to remember, that there was
never a touch of the chisel or the pencil it wielded, but has added
to the knowledge and quickened the happiness of mankind.

All but surely, it was passages like this that Mr. Borglum had close in his mind as he and his chisel created their representation of Mr. Ruskin.

Until next time.

Be well out there as we slide into the third decade of this still new millennium, a transition which, happily, coincides with the beginning of Mr. Ruskin’s third century.


P.S.: Many thanks to Gabe Meyer for his picture of Borglum’s sculpture and his notes telling of its history.



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3 Responses to 168: John Ruskin at 200 (II)

  1. James G. Hanink says:

    Thanks for the great background, the powerful sculpture, and the words of hope.

  2. Howard Hull says:

    The Borglum looks magisterial in the Drawing Room at Brantwood and catches the eye of all our visitors. It is the perfect bicentennial gift. We are so grateful to our friends in the Ruskin Art Club, Los Angeles. Grateful, too, to you Jim for your inspiring words and all you do to bring people together through Ruskin.

  3. jimspates says:

    Thanks very much for this on-site reply, Howard. It’s wonderful to hear that Borglum’s Ruskin has such an effect on those entering the room.
    [Howard Hull is the Director of The Brantwood Trust. To find out more about Ruskin’s former home in the lovely English Lake District, see http://www.brantwood.org.uk.

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