By the end of the 19th century, John Ruskin – sage, social critic, artist, scientist, environmental campaigner – was perhaps the most famous living Victorian apart from Queen Victoria herself (who was also born 200 years ago this year).
Yet after his death in 1900, aged 80, this remarkable polymath’s fame quickly faded. For much of the 20th century, his reputation seemed as dead and buried as the man himself.
For those who have heard of him, the Victorian age’s best-known, most controversial and most prolific intellectual is still a bearded old has-been: prudish, aloof, self-righteous, conservative to a fault, and resistant to progress.
Ruskin’s personal motto, stamped on later editions of his books, was, however, powerful, simple, and remains highly relevant: ‘To-day’. He rallied followers to take on practical challenges and to do now what they might otherwise put off until tomorrow.
Ruskin shaped – and still shapes – the world we live in, the way we think and work, the environment, built and natural, that surrounds us, and many of the services we enjoy. Two hundred years since his birth, we live in ‘Ruskinland’.
It becomes obvious that Ruskinland exists as soon as you pick up the trail of Ruskin, say in an art gallery or a museum. Those are the places where his legacy is most obvious, but he is also present in the work of craftspeople and artisans, the thinking of ecologists and scientists, and even in the dry regulatory crevices of modern finance, or the ambitious mission and purpose statements of big companies.
Many people know at least a little about John Ruskin or his work. Very few people, though, have sight of the whole of Ruskin – which is hardly surprising given the protean, polymathic nature of the man and his thinking.
As a teenager, studying the history of art, I acquired the best-known piece of the patchwork: his role as artist and art critic, a fixture in London artistic circles before he had turned forty. When I revisited Venice for the first time in decades, I found that the places and works that astonished and energised Ruskin in the 19th century – the Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Carpaccios in the Accademia – were on my itinerary in the second half of the 20th, when I first visited his ‘paradise of cities’, aged 16, with a school art trip. As a regular traveller in the Lake District, with a holiday home not far from Brantwood, I knew about Ruskin’s love of the region. I was well aware that Oxford boasted a Ruskin College and a Ruskin School of Art.
But even to those who know a part of Ruskin’s legacy, other parts remain obscure.
My quest to learn more about Ruskin’s influence really started, though, when I came across his social and economic criticism, and observations on the environment, which seem ever more relevant in an unequal and polluted world. It turned out that people who knew about those corners of Ruskinland were as eager to show me round as I was to explain my journey through other regions of his influence.
The whistlestop tour – which, incidentally, Ruskin, one of the greatest and most leisurely travellers in history, would never deign to join – goes like this.
Ruskin’s ideas sowed the seeds of the modern welfare state, universal state education and healthcare free at the point of delivery.
His acute appreciation of natural beauty underpinned the National Trust, while his sensitivity to pollution and environmental change, decades before it was considered other than a local phenomenon, prefigured the modern green movement.
He staked his reputation on Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites when they were under fire, ensuring their reputations have continued to burn brightly even as his has suffered.
His violent critique of free market economics, Unto This Last, was the title that most influenced the first intake of Labour MPs in 1906 – more than 40 years after its publication.Those articles, and a series of other writings and lectures in which Ruskin laid into the smug captains of Victorian capitalism, are striking precursors of the current debate about inequality, executive pay, ethical and purposeful business, and the perils and opportunities of greater automation.
Ruskin may have claimed not to enjoy a fight, but as a young man, he was not afraid to provoke and pursue debate, through all contemporary media, including books, magazines, pamphlets and letters to newspapers. His insights are often strikingly modern. For instance, his withering assessment of the contemporary condition, from the fifth volume of his book Modern Painters, is no less relevant than it was when it was published in 1860. People appear, he wrote, to have ‘no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast’.
In his prime, Ruskin was also a hugely popular public speaker, attracting sell-out audiences and lively press criticism with his controversial views and idiosyncratic approach. He would not have been an obvious proponent of the popular TeD talk, with its time limit of 20 minutes. His lectures often lasted over an hour. But as a speaker, he had a gift, as one modern biographer has written, for being ‘both combative and inspiring’.
As a man who wrote some nine million published words in his lifetime, Ruskin would have struggled with Twitter’s 280-character limit, that is for sure.
But I’m certain he would have been a regular and avidly followed tweeter.
What is more, his intense visual sense and interest in early photographic technology would make him a natural enthusiast for today’s image-based social media. Who would not want to follow the world’s most discerning eye for natural and manmade beauty on Instagram?
Ruskin is hard to categorise.‘I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times,’ he said. At different times described himself as a ‘violent Tory of the old school’ and ‘a Communist of the old school – reddest also of the red’, which always makes me think: that must have been some school.
Despite the contradictions – and his own often tortured personal life, which ended in reclusive, mentally troubled near-silence – John Ruskin reminds us of many positive ways to live better today.
He wasn’t the only 19th-century thinker preoccupied with how his world was changing and how to guide it down the best path. But he was among the most prescient and inspirational. Without him and his more pragmatic and campaigning followers – from William Morris to Mahatma Gandhi – many of the enlightened ideas of the modern world would have taken longer to evolve, probably developed differently, and in some cases might not have developed at all.
Andrew is an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times and author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World (Pallas Athene). He writes a weekly column for the FT on business, strategy and leadership, as well as contributing longer features, videos and podcasts and appearing regularly at conferences and on panels.
He was named Business Commentator of the Year 2016 in the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He is also the author of Leadership in the Headlines (2016). Andrew is a trustee of The Ruskin Foundation, which has been responsible for the UK’s largest archive of material relating John Ruskin, and chair of the Blueprint Trust, the charity behind Blueprint for Better Business, which challenges business to be a force for good.
Andrew will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about John Ruskin on Thursday, 27th June and tickets can be purchased here: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.