This exhibition celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin (1819-1900), arguably the finest prose writer of non-fiction of the Victorian age. High among his wide-range of achievements and interests was his role as art critic, and he was also one of the greatest non-professional artists of his time.
The artists included here either helped him hone his aesthetic and skills or received his praise and support. The variety and quality of their works help to emphasise Ruskin’s place within the history of art.
His father, the wine importer, John James Ruskin, took him on trips across Britain and the Continent, introduced him to artists and encouraged him to share in interests in collecting, including the watercolours of J M W Turner. Among others: Copley Fielding gave him some of his earliest lessons in watercolour; Samuel Prout was a frequent guest at his family’s table; and William Henry Hunt produced works that were among the first that he and his father acquired together.
In taking up the cause of J M W Turner in his twenties, in the five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-60), Ruskin explored many aspects of landscape painting and of the natural world that it sought to represent. His emphasis on 'truth to nature' influenced more than one generation of artists towards a meticulously mimetic approach; they included many for whom landscape was often a setting for narrative, as with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Some were perplexed at Ruskin’s admiration for such seemingly opposed tropes as Turnerian atmospherics and Pre-Raphaelite precision. However, such others as Albert Goodwin and Alfred William Hunt attempted to understand and synthesise the two, and so develop a vision that they could apply to an ambitious range of places.
Ruskin knew both Goodwin and Hunt, but had a particularly strong and direct influence on the former. In 1872, Goodwin accompanied Ruskin on a tour of Switzerland and Italy. For Goodwin, it proved a seminal experience, perhaps the seminal experience of his career. Not only was it his first taste of foreign travel; seeing Europe with Ruskin helped him define himself in terms of the critic’s aesthetic and so synthesise the disparate elements in his own practice. That Ruskin often travelled in the company of artists is further instanced by a sketching tour of Amiens in 1880, which he made with Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and others.
In responding to contemporary artists, Ruskin did not confine himself to exhibiting painters. From early in his life, illustrators had been significant to him in many ways: from the gifts that he received as a child, through his developing interests in art, literature and the relationship between them, and on to the images that appeared in his published writings, some of which he produced himself. As early as the age of 10, his imagination was fired by the receipt of German Popular Stories (1823; 1826) illustrated by George Cruikshank. In turn, he would write his own fairy tale, The King of the Golden River, which was published in 1851 with illustrations by Richard Doyle.
Ruskin so continued to value contemporary graphic artists that, in lectures that he gave as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in the 1870s, he discussed them in the context of such Old Masters as Hans Holbein. In so doing, he considered cartoons by John Tenniel to contain 'as high qualities as it is possible to find in modern art'. His general view was that Tenniel and his fellow Punch cartoonists, John Leech and George Du Maurier, contributed to a 'softening of the English mind', a term of approval that suggested a gain in balance and grace. This 'softening' was developed by the next generation of children’s illustrators, including Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, and painters of children, including Helen Allingham - both of whom he appreciated as providing an antidote to disturbing visions of urban life. By his later years, he had become equally supportive of female and male contemporary artists.
This exhibition is one of a wide range of exhibitions and other events begin held this year to celebrate the bicentenary of John Ruskin, which falls on 8 February 2019. For an updated list of these events, please see the website, ruskinto-day.org.