As Ruskin aged and his body left behind the supple, gazelle-like form that had allowed him in earlier decades the ability to bound up mountains and ford streams, as the debilitating mental storms which had begun in 1878 continued their onslaughts at roughly two year intervals, he started, as all of us eventually must, to give serious thought to the end approaching.
As ever, failure, even at this later hour, being impossible to contemplate (Post 145), he spurred himself on, using as prod a Bible verse long close to his heart–the fourth from John, Chapter 9: “I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is yet day–for the night cometh when no man can work.”
Convinced that the great majority of his books had failed to have the helpful effects he had envisioned for them, he began assiduous work on what he knew would be a last series of works that, at their core, had a “pulling it all together” intent: The Bible of Amiens (religion), The Art of England (lectures praising some artists while castigating others), The Pleasures of England (essays on Learning, Faith, Deed, Fancy, and Truth), Roadside Songs of Tuscany–with Francesca Alexander (stories of Italian peasant life that he believed were model illustrations for happy social life)–and started publishing, somewhat irregularly, the first chapters of his beautiful, almost elegiac, autobiography, Praeterita (an exercise he would never complete because of the visitation of yet other devastating mental attacks).
These efforts, while not on equal footing with the masterpieces of his past, still brim with marvelous arguments and passages. Below is one of the latter. Taken from The Bible of Amiens, it is a single sentence (how typically Ruskin!) in which, as we peruse it, we cannot help but think that, as the author addresses his readers, he is also speaking to himself, has close to mind that ever-closer moment when “the night cometh”:
But if, loving well the creatures that are like yourself, you feel that you would love still more dearly, creatures better than yourself, were they revealed to you; if, striving with all your might to mend what is evil, near you and around, you would fain look for a day when some Judge of all the Earth shall wholly do right, and the little hills rejoice on every side; if, parting with the companions that have given you all the best joy you had on Earth, you desire ever to meet their eyes again and clasp their hands where eyes shall no more be dim, nor hands fail; if, preparing yourselves to lie down beneath the grass in silence and loneliness, seeing no more beauty, and feeling no more gladness, you would care for the promise to you of a time when you should see God’s light again, and know the things you have longed to know, and walk in the peace of everlasting Love: then, the Hope of these things to you is religion, and the Substance of them in your life is Faith.
Ruskin at Brantwood, 1885 (photo: G. P. Abraham)
As it happened, for him, the night predicted by that previous John came early.
Ruskin suffered his fourth serious mental attack in 1886. Not yet fully recovered, after a number of upsetting confrontations at Brantwood with his beloved cousin caretaker, Joan Severn, the following year, he was banished, first to Folkestone, then to Sandgate, villages on the south coast of England. There, still much disturbed, he lived alone until the spring of 1888 when he determined that he must make what he knew would be his last trip on what he called his “Old Road”–through France, into the Alps and his beloved valley of Chamouni, before making a final descent into Italy to visit Francesca Alexander and her mother, Lucia, in Bassano, not far from Venice. His tour would conclude there, in the place he had famously called, the “paradise of cities.”
During the early days of the trip, while at Beauvais, he encountered two young admirers, Sydney Cockerell and Detmar Blow (both would go on to live lives of consequence). A mutual liking immediately established, he invited them to accompany him. Cockerell, because of other commitments, soon returned to England, but Blow stayed with him the rest of the way. With few exceptions, however, it was not a happy excursion. Although his inner clouds would occasionally clear–as when he wrote the beautiful “Epilogue” for a new edition of Modern Painters in Chamouni (Post 96: “All Great Art is Praise”), he never fully regained his mental equanimity. By the time the duo reached Bassano and the Alexanders, the little hold he still had over his thoughts began to crumble. Although he loved the Alexanders intently, to their great surprise, he suddenly decamped to Venice where, after a few days, he all but completely collapsed. With the always doting Detmar (still one of the much undersung heroes of the Ruskin story) by his side, he limped back to Paris where Joan, now aware that she must bring him back to Brantwood if he was to survive, collected him. With the exception of one brief outing, he would never leave its lovely, protective confines again. The night during which no one can work had begun.
“Brantwood, 1880” (watercolor), Alexander Macdonald, showing Ruskin’s turret room, upper right hand corner (Ruskin Museum, Coniston)
As the months passed, he improved a little, but never to the point where he was completely himself again. Haltingly, he composed a last, beautiful installment for Praeterita, a testament of love, “Joanna’s Care,” dedicated to the cousin who had given–still gave, every hour of every day–so much of her life to helping him. But that was the last. The bright nimbus of genius that so many who had known him well often noticed had disappeared; the pen that had composed over six million words for publication (in the 39 volume–!!–Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn) was, excepting for a precious few letters, set down forever. Occasionally, Joan would allow old friends to visit, like Henry Acland, long a beloved colleague at Oxford and the person who had been responsible for proposing Ruskin, in 1869, for the position of First Slade Professor of Fine Art at the great university; and, as we saw recently [Post 168: John Ruskin at 200 (II)], H. S. Roberts, and the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. But they were only part of a carefully controlled trickle.
As the years slid by, most days passed gently. When the weather was fine, he would walk in the woods and fields about Brantwood (he particularly cherished the coming of Spring when the flowers began to poke their heads above the ground). When it was unclement–and just as often when it wasn’t–he would mount to his bedroom on the second floor and sit in a chair for hours in the turret room he had had built so that he might watch nature’s daily progression over his beloved Lake District view. (Today, the turret room is open to all of Brantwood’s visitors and, all through the night, a light symbolizing his enduring presence, burns.) In the evenings, after dinner, everyone would assemble to read the classics, Ruskin delighting especially in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Then, after a nightcap of sherry, he would retire to his bedroom.
The View from Ruskin’s Turret Room on a Cloudy Day
As the last moments of the nineteenth century over which Ruskin had had so great an impact drifted away, the long night inched toward its end. Though various descriptions exist, to my mind, the best description of these days has been given by Lady Sheila Birkenhead in her fine book dedicated to telling the story of the Severn family, Illustrious Friends. Here is part of what she had to say:
The faithful Sydney Cockerell [arrived in late 1899 and, with Joan’s blessing, went to find Ruskin in his study. He had] a little book on his knee, his hands encased in fur mittens. He was not sure that he was recognized. Did [Mr. Ruskin] remember Detmar Blow? No. “He looked tranquil, [Cockerell later recalled in a memoir,] “rather wistful, shrunken, but very little changed. In fact, since I had last seen him in 1892–his hair still dark and very thick…his beard still with a trace of brown, [he was little changed]. It was like interviewing a ghost, but very wonderful.”
Sydney Cockerell, long-time Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University
Ten weeks after Cockerell’s visit the end came. Joan and Arthur [Severn, Joan’s artist husband,] were at Brantwood with him. It was mid-January and several of the servants were ill with influenza. On the morning of the 18th, Ruskin seemed particularly well, but when Joan went in as usual after tea to read to him, he had a sore throat and admitted that he felt pains all over. Baxter [Peter, Ruskin’s long-time and deeply devoted personal servant] immediately helped his master to bed while Joan sent for Dr. [George] Parsons and then sat by her cousin’s bed-side, singing one of his favorite songs. When the doctor arrived he found that Ruskin had a high temperature. He diagnosed influenza and told Joan that unless his strength could be kept up, the illness might be very grave.
That evening Ruskin ate a good dinner, of sole and pheasant and champagne and seemed much better the next day. But on the morning following, Saturday, there was a sudden marked deterioration and the doctor was alarmed. Ruskin became unconscious, his breathing slowly lessened in strength until, in the afternoon, with Joan holding his hand and Baxter and Dr. Parsons standing by, it gradually faded away.
Later, when the first shock was over, Lily [Joan’s daughter] persuaded her mother to look at the sunset from the window of the little turret room, as her cousin had so often done. [Joan later described it thus:] “The brilliant, gorgeous light illuminated the hills with splendor, and the spectators felt as if Heaven’s Gate itself had been flung open to receive its teacher into everlasting peace…
Now that the long dreaded moment had come, Joan was not able to rest. Immediately, pressure was brought on her to agree to her cousin being buried in Westminster Abbey. Letters were written to The Times, a memorial signed by many distinguished men was presented to the [Abbey’s] Dean and Chapter. The Chapter was unanimous in agreeing [to the proposal. A] grave in Poet’s Corner, close to that of Tennyson, was suggested. But Joan refused the offer. Her cousin had told her that if he died at Brantwood he would like to rest in Coniston, and she was determined to do as he had wished.
As soon as her refusal became known, various friends protested, and George Allen, who was responsible for the sale of Ruskin’s books, wrote, urging her to change her mind. “The occasion of his funeral calls for more public obsequies than those at Coniston,” he said. He added that he hoped public opinion would be allowed its way. The Dean [wrote] that evening asking Joan to waive her objections. The position of the position of the grave in Poets’ Corner had been settled. “Even the undertakers have been consulted and there is no difficulty whatever.” Joan steadfastly refused to change her mind. To the last, she would do what her “Beloved Coz” had wished.
So Ruskin was buried in the quiet churchyard at [St. Andrew’s, at Coniston, next to the grave of his old friend, Susie Beever]. “Why should we wear black for the guests of God?” he had once written to her. He had always hated black. Now his coffin was covered with a pall given by the Ruskin Linen Industry, near Keswick. On the natural linen were embroidered the words “Unto this Last” and the initials “J.R.,” surrounded by a border of wild roses. It was lined with crimson silk.
The grave was heaped high with flowers, from royalty and scholars, from famous artists, from the village tailor. Two wreaths were much remarked upon: one of olive [symbolizing the collection of lectures known as The Crown of Wild Olive] sent by the artist [George Frederick] Watts, from a tree in his garden which had been cut only three times before, for Tennyson, [the artist, Frederick] Leighton, and [Ruskin’s dear friend, the artist Edward] Burne-Jones, and the other a cross of red roses from Joan.
Ruskin’s funeral, St. Andrew’s Church, Coniston (photo: Armitt Museum, Ambleside)
There was a service in Westminster Abbey at the same time as the funeral service at Coniston. Georgiana Burne-Jones [the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward’s, wife] was there and wrote that sunshine had streamed in on the pillars, [reported that] there were as many men as women among the congregation, both young and old. Joan had been to him what no one else in the world could be, [Georgiana] said, “the joy of his good days and the comfort of his evil ones.”
[One of the greatest friends of Ruskin’s life, another Georgiana,] Lady Mount-Temple, now very old and infirm, sent a dictated letter [to Joan] from Torquay: “Oh! How I feel for you–his sister, his friend, his child!” Sydney Cockerell wrote too, offering condolences, and added that if [Joan] was in a position to part with [Ruskin’s] St. Louis Psalter, which he had so much admired on his last visit to Brantwood…he could find her a purchaser for £1000. He would not have mentioned it so soon, but remembered that “when [William] Morris died we were in some trouble about obtaining ready money to pay the heavy duties–and you may be in the same position.” He offered his help and advice if she wished to dispose of any other books.
Joan had little time for letter writing. Everything was made more difficult by several of the servants still being ill, and, after the funeral, Arthur also went to bed with influenza, which was of a severe type. But she found time to write to [Harvard] Professor [Charles Eliot] Norton, who, as one of Ruskin’s oldest and most intimate friends, must have priority: “I still feel almost too bewildered by the sorrow and desolation of my Darling’s death to write, even to you…” [she said.] “His end was perfect peace, and for him, just what I have always prayed for! I cannot wish him back, tho’ it is so heart-breaking for me to be without him, and he no longer my chief care and thought.”
John Ruskin and Joan Severn in the 1890s (Getty Images; Fred Hollyer)
The long night was over, and the man who, all his life, had tried with his every breath to mend all evil, had, at last, gained the chance to clasp once again the hands of his earlier departed loved ones, and see God’s light again.
And so, on this, the 120th anniversary of Ruskin’s death, I wish that you all will be well out there wherever you are, until our next time.