John Ruskin: The power of seeing

The most eminent victorian of them all

Michael Prodger

“Study of Spray of Dead Oak Leaves”, 1879, by John Ruskin.
Images all © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield.

Where to start with John Ruskin? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts & Crafts movement, the National Trust, garden cities, the Labour Party, the reputation of J.M.W. Turner, working mens’ colleges, the environmentalist movement, the Ashmolean Museum, the discipline of art history . . . all, and more, bear the stamp of the most eminent Victorian of them all.

The extraordinary breadth of Ruskin’s concerns and influences are characterised by his most celebrated mantra:  “truth to nature”, which, he explained, meant “moral as well as material truth”. What’s more, he believed that truth encompassed both beauty and religion. The most obvious dwelling place for these concerns was art and therefore: “The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues.” Because he found so little virtue in the modern, industrialised world, his role was to be a sage, since “the teaching of Art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things.”

It was this conviction in particular that lay behind his founding in 1875 of the St George’s Museum for the working people of Sheffield. He gifted not just paintings and drawings, but medieval manuscripts, geological specimens, botanical and ornithological illustrations and architectural plans and casts. By giving the cutlery workers of Sheffield access to the cultural hinterland of the rich, he could provide them with the moral fortification and dignity to improve society as a whole.

Opal minerals from John Ruskin’s collection

Now, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, many of the museum’s original items, plus some of his own paintings and those of his circle are gathered in John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing (until 22 April) at Two Temple Place, a Gothic Revival fantasy building by the Thames, that, although delightful, is a bit too whimsical to have met with Ruskin’s approval.

The exhibition title comes from his dictum that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.” Among the best examples of what he meant are his own watercolours of the natural world. He was a significant artist in his own right and his studies of moss on a riverbank rock, a peacock’s breast feather, or curling autumn oak leaves are images of total concentration that, artful in their seeming artlessness, give the lie to his gloomy belief that men “wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty”.

“Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank”, 1875-79, by John Ruskin

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