Get to know more about this prolific polymath in just three – amazing – rooms at Two Temple Place
If, like me, you suspect you should know rather more about John Ruskin than you do, then the new exhibition at Two Temple Place is a good place to start.
Held to celebrate the bi-centenary of his birth, John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing, is an ideal way to get an overview of this true polymath, taking in his own artwork, his influential writings on art, architecture and beauty, his thinking on social and political reform, and his great love of nature and the outdoors. All this is told through more than 190 exhibits, most either works by Ruskin himself, or collected or commissioned by him.
There’s a great deal to cover in just three rooms – and that’s without dwelling on his role as a champion of the pre-Raphaelite movement, his personal life (notably his much-speculated about unconsummated marriage), his legal battle with the painter James Whistler or his long struggle with depression.
We learn of his early life as a delicate, molly-coddled and precocious child who ‘was destined to be a poet or bishop’ before finding his way as an art critic. This interest was inspired when he encountered at the age of 13 the work of JMW Turner. Ruskin was to become a great champion of Turner, impressed by his ability to capture the ‘visual truth’ of what he saw, whether it be the grime of the city or a sublime seascape.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Oxford in 1842, Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters as a defence of the work of Turner. This was followed by the Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849, his first work on architecture. Ruskin disliked classicism and instead famously embraced the craftsmanship of gothic. For Ruskin, the hands-on collective work of the anonymous artisans at work on these buildings was, we’re told, the ‘embodiment of moral practice’. Venice, which he visited many times throughout his life, had a major impact on Ruskin’s views on conservation and restoration, which he first set out in the 1851 book The Stones of Venice. He was dismayed by the heavy-handed approach he saw there to restoration, which prompted much drawing and painting of architectural details that he feared would soon be lost forever. This section of the exhibition is richly illustrated, with works including John Wharlton Bunney’s striking Western Facade of San Marco.
We get some insight into Ruskin’s forceful character – from descriptions of his highly animated lecture performances to his always strongly held and sometimes curmudgeonly opinions. Famed for his rhetoric, his sentences could run to 26 lines. In a collection of rants against things he loathed, it’s not so surprising to read his disdain of Palladio and Venetian renaissance buildings but quite why he took so stridently against cycling, iron railings and being photographed is less easy to fathom. An advocate of lifelong learning, he was a founding member in 1854 of the Working Men’s College in north London, where he taught for several years. Later, he became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford where he founded a drawing school.
The exhibition title refers to his belief in the importance and reward of close observation. He advocated an intense study of nature in particular, with students encouraged to explore the abstract lines, shadows and textures in the subject matter. Clearly drawing for him was a highly emotional and instructive experience. In a letter to a friend about one of his own attempts, he writes ‘if only you knew of the good your peacock’s feathers have done me’, as well as the challenges of capturing their iridescence ‘without having heaven to dip my brush in’.
Drawings of botany, birds and landscape are particularly well represented in this exhibition. Ruskin’s belief in the beneficial effect of nature, art and landscape in particular on wellbeing come through strongly and he was keen that others should experience this too. This desire led to his remarkable philanthropic endeavour of opening the St George’s Museum in Sheffield in 1871, located on a hilltop in a cottage on the outskirts of the city and stuffed full of work from his collection of drawings, paintings, illustrated nature books and minerals. Open long hours and on Sundays so that workers would be able to visit, it was intended to draw people out of the city into the clear air of the countryside, where they could look at art, peruse the books and maybe go for a walk to take in the natural landscape.
‘Ruskin cared about people’s wellbeing and happiness,’ says curator Louise Pullen, adding that he saw love, joy and admiration as the key to happiness rather than money.
She hopes visitors to the exhibition who are unfamiliar with his work will take away something of this idea of finding wellbeing by ‘slowing down and looking closely at nature and enjoying what we have around us’ – sentiments that sit just as well today.
I’d have liked more on Ruskin’s influence and legacy – William Morris was a particular devotee and Ruskin is also considered to have influenced Garden City pioneer Ebenezer Howard, the founders of both the National Trust and the Labour Party and also Mahatma Gandhi – although that’s probably another show in itself. But this engaging and wide-spanning exhibition is an eloquent taster for further enquiry – with the added bonus of the splendid neo-Gothic surroundings of Two Temple Place thrown in to boot.