John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most ambitious and impassioned English social reformers of the 19th century. He was also – at first sight – a deeply improbable reformer, because he seemed to care mostly about one thing – beauty – which has a reputation for being eminently apolitical and removed from ‘real life’. And yet the more Ruskin thought about beauty – the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes – the more he realised that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially. In a world that is nowadays growing not only ever more polluted and more unequal but also, though we seldom remark upon it, uglier, Ruskin’s emphasis on beauty and his understanding of its role in political theory make him an unusual yet timely and very necessary figure. Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy very accurately described Ruskin as, “one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times.”
John Ruskin in 1863
Ruskin was born in London in 1819 into a wealthy and cosseted home. He was an only child of parents who devoted much of their energies to nurturing and developing his precocious talents in art and literature. His father was an immensely successful wine and sherry importer, with a taste for Byron, Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Turner. Ruskin’s parents decided to educate him at home, fearing that other children might encourage coarse habits in their son. He spent most of his days alone in his parents’ huge garden, drawing flowers. As a treat in the evening he would be allowed to sit quietly in the corner of the drawing room, sketching illustrations for scenes in the Bible. Every year, during his teens, he went with his parents on long tours of France, Switzerland and Italy. They travelled slowly in their own large coach, stopping at every town along the way.
Young Ruskin particularly liked the French Alps (and the delicious trouts which they often ate for dinner in Chamonix). But the place that most impressed him and changed the course of his life was Venice, which he first saw when he was 16 and to which he returned almost every year during long periods of his adult life. In Venice, he spent his days visiting churches, floating in gondolas and looking at paintings. He also loved to make highly accurate drawings of his favourite architectural details.
John Ruskin, Casa d’Oro, Venice, 1845
John Ruskin, North West Porch of St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, 1877
Venice was, he said, ‘the paradise of cities’. And he declared the Doge’s Palace to be ‘the central building of the world.’ He was entranced by its beauty, its dignity and the splendour of its craftsmanship. ‘It would be impossible, I believe, to invent a more magnificent arrangement of all that is in building most dignified and most fair.’
John Ruskin, The Doge’s Palace, Venice, 1852
On his return to England, Ruskin was struck by the contrast between the glories of Venice and the often dingy realities of British urban life. It’s a familiar phenomenon. We too are liable to come back from the Grand Canal to Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow or Acton High Street and feel our spirits sink. And yet, although we may mutter a few disparaging remarks, on the whole, we leave it at that; feeling that the ugliness that surrounds us is some sort of inviolable phenomenon we would be best to resign ourselves to.
This wasn’t Ruskin’s way. The more he experienced the contrast between Venice and modern Britain, the more it broke and enraged his heart. He couldn’t get over the appalling realisation that, in one place, human effort had led to such delightful results and that elsewhere (in fact, in most places) the same quantity of labour, the same (or more) money and similar human beings had produced dismal and soul-destroying results. Why were modern humans so bad at creating liveable environments? Why was the contemporary world so dispiritingly, monstrously ugly?
Street of terraced houses in Loughborough, England
Ruskin had begun his career as an art critic, his ambition had been to open his audience’s eyes to the beauty of certain paintings and buildings, but in middle age, a more direct and urgent goal came into view. He realised that the ugliness of most things in Britain (from the factories to the railway stations, the pubs to the workers’ housing) was the clearest indication of the decadence, cruel economic ideology and rotten moral foundations of his society.
Attempting to change this was to be his life’s work. He devoted the remainder of his career to an urgent, vocal fight against the underlying principles of modern Capitalism. He attacked property developers for putting profit before the interests of the community. He lambasted industrialists for degrading the lives of their workers. And he laid into the whole of the Victorian bourgeoisie for neglecting their responsibilities towards the poor, for shortening their days and coarsening their spirits.
Partly his attacks were delivered as lectures. Ruskin spent a good part of every year giving talks up and down Britain. He was always off to harangue some group of industrialists in Birmingham or Sheffield about their crooked value systems and the immense heart-rending superiority of Venice to modern England – a fact which was all the more shocking to his audiences since Britain was, just then, getting into its stride as the workshop of the world.
But he was also interested in practical action. When his father died, he was left an enormous fortune, which he set about spending on good causes. In 1871, he founded The Guild of St George. He had long admired the medieval guild system, where workers were well-organised within trades that offered them both job security and pride in their work. Ruskin’s Guild was an attempt to reorganise economic life along pre-capitalist lines. He tried to set up a network of farms creating sustainable, unadulterated foodstuffs (for a time, he was a leading maker of apple juice). He built workshops to produce woollen and linen clothes. He encouraged businesses turning out high quality but affordable pottery, cutlery and furniture. And he wanted the Guild to act as a property development company that could be content with breaking even rather than aiming for the usual profit margins that he believed were incompatible with beauty. And finally, he wanted to set up a network of schools offering evening classes as well as a number of museums for workers, as an alternative to the numbing mass media otherwise pushed their way. Along with diverting the lion’s share of his wealth to the Guild, he also encouraged wealthy people around the country to contribute their riches to the project.
The Guild was in some ways a success. Quite a few industrialists gave Ruskin their surplus wealth. Some cottages were bought on the Welsh coast where a group of Ruskin’s devotees started a business making jumpers. Near Scarborough, a farm was bought which made a variety of jams. A museum was started in Sheffield. His most devoted disciple, William Morris, set up a highly influential furniture and interior decoration company, William Morris & Sons, whose chairs and wallpapers remain successful.
William Morris, Sussex chair, 1865
And the Guild itself has survived today – it can be found at www.guildofstgeorge.org.uk – and still performs some of the work that Ruskin had championed.
But of course, Ruskin did not manage single-handedly to reform Capitalism. It seems a general law that people who can think well aren’t the most adept at organising change. They aren’t good with the accounts, they get impatient with meetings – and because of these procedural flaws, the world doesn’t change as much as it should. However, Ruskin is as close to a thinker-activist as the 19th century produced and he remains an inspiration to anyone who seeks not just to reflect on the world, but also to alter it in the direction of beauty and wisdom.
To zero in on only one of his schemes, in the mid 1870s while he was a professor at Oxford, Ruskin got increasingly bothered that his students didn’t understand the meaning and pleasure of work. They went to parties and wrote essays but never did anything very productive with their hands, which he believed had a detrimental effect on their characters. There was a road in a nearby village of Hinksey which had become so filled with ruts and potholes that it was more or less unusable. The carts had to avoid it and make their way over the village green, messing up the grass. The local children didn’t have anywhere to play.
So Ruskin got together sixty students and organised them to mend the road and tidy the green. Eyewitnesses described Ruskin on a wintry morning ‘wearing a blue cloth cap with the earflaps pulled about his ears, sitting cheerily by the roadside, breaking stones not only with a will, but with knowledge, and cracking jokes the while.’ Mending the road took them a long time and they made very imperfect progress. There were complaints from the local landlord and a general conviction that Ruskin was a touch unhinged.
But the underlying point is crucial. Out of fear of seeming ridiculous, we often end up not tackling the challenges around us. The road mending was a small instance of a larger idea that animated Ruskin’s life: that it is the duty of creative, privileged people to direct their efforts towards making the world more pleasing and tidy, more convenient and beautiful, not just for themselves, but for the greatest good of the greatest number. He also believed that we should not (cannot) leave this to the forces of the market, because they will never get round to planting wildflowers by the edges of roads and making sure that village greens are pretty.
Throughout his life, Ruskin contrasted the general beauty of nature with the ugliness of the man-made world. He set up a useful criterion for any man-made thing: was it in any way the equal of something one might find in nature? This was the case with Venice, with Chartres Cathedral, with the chairs of William Morris… but not with most things being turned out by the factories of the modern world.
So Ruskin thought it helpful for us to observe and be inspired by nature (he was a great believer that everyone in the country should learn to draw things in nature). He wrote with astonishing seriousness about the importance of looking at the light in the morning, of taking care to see the different kinds of cloud in the sky and of looking properly at how the branches of a tree intertwine and spread. He took immense delight in the beautiful structures of nests and beavers’ dams. And he loved feathers with a passion.
John Ruskin, drawing of a peacock feather, 1873
There was an urgent message here. Nature sets the standard. It provides us with particularly intense examples of beauty and grace. The plumage of a bird, the clouds over the mountains at sunset, the great trees bending in the wind – nature is ordered, beautiful, simple, effective. It is only with us that things seem to go wrong. Why can we not be as it is? There is a humiliating contrast between the natural loveliness of trees by a stream and the bleak, grimeyness of an average street; between the ever-changing interest of the sky and the monotony and dreariness of so much of our lives. Ruskin felt that this painful comparison was instructive. Because we are part of nature we have the capacity to live up to its standard. We should use the emotion we feel at the beauty of nature to energise us to equal its works. The goal of human society is to honour the dignity and grandeur of the natural world.
John Ruskin, drawing of the Mont Blanc, France, 1856
By championing beauty so intensely, Ruskin rescues bits of our own experiences that we rarely take too seriously. Most of us have at points felt that trees are lovely, that somewhere else (and it could be Venice) is far more beautiful than the place we live in day to day, that there are too many shoddy things in the world, that work really isn’t enjoyable enough, that often we are misemployed – but we tend to dismiss these thoughts as too personal, minor, not really of significance to anyone other than ourselves. Ruskin argues us into a more ambitious and more serious attitude. It is, he says, just such thoughts and experiences which need to be given proper weight, which need to be analysed and understood. They provide crucial clues as to what is really wrong with the world and can therefore lead us towards moves that may make it genuinely better.
Ruskin’s approach to politics was to hold resolutely on to a vision of what a really sane, reasonable, decent and good life would look like – and then to ask rigorously just how a society would need to be set up for that to be the average life, for an ordinary person, and not a rare piece of luck only for the very privileged. For this he deserves our, and posterity’s, ongoing interest and gratitude.