Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Hit on the Critic

National Post, 6 May 2000

Book Review
John Ruskin: The Later Years, by Tim Hilton
Yale University Press, 544 pages

John Ruskin: The Later YearsIf we judge a man by his disciples, then John Ruskin would have few rivals. No less a figure than Leo Tolstoy deemed him “one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times.” Mahatma Gandhi claimed that his life had been transformed by Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which he translated into the Indo-Aryan language of Gujarati.

In John Ruskin: The Later Years, the British art historian Tim Hilton completes his two-volume biography of one of the most prolific and influential critics of the 19th century. The only son of a London wine merchant, Ruskin was still in his early 20s when he began attracting fame and influence as a young art critic. A fierce champion of Gothic architecture and pre-Raphaelite art, Ruskin won over a glittering array of intellectual and artistic allies. Thomas Carlyle was a regular, if occasionally skeptical, correspondent. Artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Dante Gabriel Rossetti gained a significant part of their reputations through Ruskin’s efforts.

But Ruskin’s intended audience was often rather more humble. Hilton’s second volume covers the last half of Ruskin’s 80 years, a period during which Ruskin directed much of his creative and erotic energy toward Rose La Touche, a pious and high-strung Irish girl of nine when Ruskin first met her in 1858. Many of Ruskin’s most impassioned essays from this period were veiled attempts to win over her heart. When she was 18 (and Ruskin 48), he proposed. Her parents were aghast — especially when they learned from Ruskin’s first wife that he was impotent. (A rumour circulated that Ruskin, whose understanding of the female body derived from Greek classical sculpture, was horrified to learn that his first wife had pubic hair.) Ruskin remained devoted to Rose even after her tragically premature death at the age of 26.

The story of Rose La Touche is a troubling one, hinting at a world of uncivilized and ungovernable passions held only precariously in check by the Victorian superego. But Hilton, to his credit, resists the Freudian reflex. He follows a much more challenging path, reminding us of the high seriousness of Ruskin’s ideas, and why he was one of the most indispensable thinkers of his time. As Hilton wrote in his earlier volume, reading Ruskin means returning to two basic (and bracingly Victorian) questions: “What do you think about art? What do you think about the poor?”

Indeed, Ruskin’s life might be neatly and chronologically divided between these two questions. His most famous early work, The Stones of Venice (1851-53), is blessed with some of the most luminous writing on architecture in English. To sample it, pick up Ruskin’s Venice (Ashgate Publishing), edited by Sarah Quill, a new abridgement of the three-volume work intermixing Ruskin’s prose with his own drawings and watercolours. Purists needn’t sniff at such condensed versions: In 1877, Ruskin created his own “Travelers Edition” of the book for the edification of slack-jawed English tourists.

But The Stones of Venice is a Venetian Rough Guide underpinned by a stern moral and aesthetic argument: Gothic architecture embodied virtue. Ruskin adored the extravagant flights of fancy, the grotesquerie, the asymmetries and imperfections of Gothic style. He saw in it the hand of the common worker, indeed the hand of God Himself, for “no architecture can be truly noble which is not imperfect.” It is the cruellest of ironies that Ruskin’s enthusiasm for the individual and unpredictable would be translated throughout the colonial world into the horrors of cookie-cutter Gothic. Next time you see the dully predictable pointed arches of Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings, don’t blame Ruskin. (But I digress.)

As Hilton begins his second volume, Ruskin is beginning to focus more explicitly on social criticism. Few critics devote much time or respect to this Ruskin, whose economic arguments can seem puerile, his religious anguish tiresome, and his social analysis hopelessly utopian. Hilton’s biography is unusual — his second volume is almost twice the length of the first, and he considers the 96 pamphlets that make up Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera (1871-78) to be his masterpiece. “This preference is not easy to justify or explain,” Hilton allows. In fact, Fors Clavigera is a powerful and terrifying work of prophecy, with its nightmare visions of “horrible nests which you call towns, [which] are little more than laboratories for the distillation into heaven of venomous smokes and smells.” It is also a work of desperate hope, in which Ruskin attempts single-handedly to sow the seeds of environmental redemption, in both words and deeds: He established the “Guild of St. George,” whose members would devote 10% of their earnings toward “dressing the earth and keeping it, feeding human lips, clothing human bodies, kindling human souls.” The Guild still exists.

Writing a biography of Ruskin is a daunting task — his collected works alone fill up 39 fat volumes. Not every reader will enjoy reading about Ruskin’s endless travels between Venice, Paris and London, his tiresome whingeing about Rose La Touche, and the long periods of madness that punctuated, and eventually overwhelmed, his final years. When Hilton tells us that he “suspects that Ruskin’s relations with dogs might repay more study, though evidence about particular dogs is scanty,” we begin to suspect that the story might have been told in fewer pages.

But Hilton’s is a loving, sensitive and very readable biography of one of the most wide-ranging minds of the 19th century. As Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), the great Swiss historian who was almost a precise contemporary of Ruskin, once observed, “one should be a dilettante in as many fields as possible — at any rate, privately … Otherwise one remains an ignoramus in all that lies beyond one’s specialty, and, under the circumstances, on the whole, a barbarous fellow.” John Ruskin was as civilized as they come.