John Ruskin – Writer and Artist

John Ruskin – Writer and Artist, was an English critic of art, architecture and society; who was a gifted painter and a distinctive writer of polemical prose, seeking to cause widespread cultural and social change.

Born in 1819, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was the era of the development of a prosperous and powerful Britain. Ruskin was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century and even following his death in 1900, up to the First World War. 

A polymath of the Victorian era, he also wrote on subjects as varied as geology, botany, myth, ornithology, education and political economics. Ruskin’s writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. He wrote essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, architectural structures and ornamentation.

The elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing on art, gave way in time to plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively to a new commercial middle-class.

In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.

For the Victorian public, no figure was more strongly associated with Venice, than John Ruskin (1819 -1900). He had made eleven visits and published numerous books about the city. He also produced drawings that recorded details of Venetian architecture. Ruskin completed his last major trip to Venice, returning to England in June 1877.

Soon after returning, he wrote a highly critical and damaging article, against James Whistler, the American artist living in England; that resulted in an infamous and highly publicised trial. Despite the judgement going against him, Ruskin surprisingly, suffered no significant financial ill effects; but his reputation as an art critic was seriously harmed. Whistler, on the other hand, depressed and financially bankrupt; left for Europe and eventually settled in Venice. Fortunately, this period proved restorative and transformational; releasing a flood of creativity, that enabled him to re-establish his finances, his reputation and to a degree his personal life.

Ruskin died in 1900, but it was in the 1960s, that his contribution in the Victorian era; to British painting, architecture, decorative art and to British prose literature; was favourably reappraised with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognised as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft.

  • Early formative years: Opportunities for Travel – First publications – Christ’s College, Oxford –  Art criticism and the publication of “Modern Painters – Vol 1” – The possibility of enjoying and collecting art
  • Art, Architecture and Society: Rediscovering the Gothic Middle-Ages, in Painting and Architecture – Marriage – “The Stones of Venice” – Gothic Architecture, Art and the importance of “Imperfection” – Dissolution of his marriage and the question of John Ruskin’s sexuality – Concerns regarding the “cultural condition” of his age – Death of his father – Whistler v Ruskin – A Sensational Libel Trial 
  • Ruskin’s reputation harmed.
  • Last work
  • Legacy
  • Links

John Ruskin, (b. February 8, 1819, London, England – d. January 20, 1900, Coniston, Lancashire)


John Ruskin – Writer and Artist. Early formative years

The end of the Napoleonic Wars, saw the development of a prosperous and powerful Britain and the rise of a new commercial middle-class.

His father, John James Ruskin (1785–1864), was brought up in Edinburgh, but moved to London and made his fortune in the wine and sherry trade; as founding partner and business manager of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq.

His wife, Margaret Cock (1781–1871), was the daughter of a publican in Croydon. John James and Margaret were engaged in 1809, but opposition to the union from his father John Thomas; an incompetent and deeply indebted businessman, delayed the couple’s wedding. They finally married in 1818.

Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819, in 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London. It was later demolished, to make way for the construction of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre, (somewhat ironically) a Modernist shopping and residential complex.

As an only son, he was predominantly home educated with some private tutors; that was to bring him links to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He gained a love of art; from his father’s collecting of contemporary watercolours of the English Romantic period. They also shared a passion for the works of Byron, Shakespeare and especially Walter Scott.  His Protestant mother, provided a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible; during this period of religious intensity of the Evangelical Revival. Both parents were ambitious for their child and their contributions; laid the foundations of Ruskin’s later views.

Left: Ruskin as a young child, painted by James Northcote


Ruskin’s childhood was spent from 1823, at 28 Herne Hill (demolished c. 1912); near the village of Camberwell in South London.

From 1834 to 1835, he attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive evangelical Thomas Dale (1797–1870). He completed his studies at King’s College, London, in preparation for Oxford; under Dale, the first Professor of English Literature,

From 1834 to 1835 he attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive evangelical Thomas Dale (1797–1870).[10] Ruskin heard Dale lecture in 1836 at King’s College, London, where Dale was .[4] Ruskin went on to enroll and complete his studies at King’s College, where he prepared for Oxford under Dale’s tutelage.

In his formative years, painters such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and John Sell Cotman were at the peak of their careers. At the same time religious writers and preachers such as Charles Simeon, John Keble, Thomas Arnold and John Henry Newman,were establishing the spiritual and ethical ideology; that would characterise the reign of Queen Victoria.


Opportunities for Travel

Ruskin’s family background, allowed him privileged and extensive travel, both in Britain (often with his father to fine country houses) and Europe. He also learned how to target his writing, towards the growing wealthy middle-class audience; their tastes and appreciation for collecting art and craft works.

As early as 1825, the family visited France and Belgium and later in 1833, they visited Strasbourg, Schaffhausen, Milan, Genoa and Turin; places to which Ruskin frequently returned.  He developed a lifelong love of the Alps and in 1835 visited Venice for the first time, that ‘Paradise of cities“; that provided the subject and symbolism of much of his later work. These tours gave Ruskin the opportunity to observe and record his impressions of nature. He composed elegant, though mainly conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship’s Offering. His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings; remarkable for a boy of his age.

Given as a as 13th birthday present, he was profoundly affected by Samuel Rogers’s poem Italy (1830); with much admired accompanying illustrations by J. M. W. Turner.  Indeed, his own art in the 1830s, was in imitation of Turner and of Samuel Prout; whose Sketches “Made in Flanders and Germany” (1833), he also admired.

Ruskin was publishing short pieces in both prose and verse, in magazines and in 1836, provoked by an attack on Turner’s painting, by the art critic of Blackwood’s Magazine; he set about drafting a reply, that disappointingly went unpublished.


First publications

Ruskin’s journeys also provided inspiration for writing. His first publication was the poem “On Skiddaw and Derwent Water” published in the Spiritual Times (1829). Later in 1834, three short articles for Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History were published; that show early signs of his skill as a close “scientific” observer of nature, especially its geology. From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in Loudon’s Architectural Magazine. It was a study of cottages, villas and other dwellings ; centred on the argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials, anticipating key themes in his later writings. In 1839, Ruskin’s “Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science” was published in Transactions of the Meteorological Society.


Christ’s College, Oxford

In 1836, he had entered Christ’s College, Oxford University.  The university failed to fully inspire him and he was plagued by periods of ill-health and required heavy supported by his parents. He did however, make some close and influential friends and his most significant success came, when in 1839; he won the “Newdigate Prize” for poetry and even met with William Wordsworth at the awards ceremony.

During a period of absence from college due to ill-health, he attended a six week break at Leamington Spa to undergo a celebrated salt-water cure. During this time and by request of Effie Gray, his future wife; Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction, the fable “The King of the Golden River” (not published until December 1850, with illustrations by Richard Doyle). A work of Christian sacrificial morality and charity, it is set in the Alpine landscape Ruskin loved and knew so well. It remains the most translated of all his works.

Back at Oxford, in 1842 Ruskin sat for a pass degree and apparently was awarded an uncommon honorary “double fourth-class degree”; in recognition of his achievements!


Art criticism and the publication of “Modern Painters – Vol 1”.

In 1843, Ruskin published the first of five volumes of books that would occupy him until the publication of his fifth and final volume in 1860.

Essentially, neoclassical critics had attacked the later work of Turner, with its somewhat “proto-impressionist” concern; for the effects of light and atmosphere. They claimed that it did not represent the “truthsand essential criteria”; as seen during the age of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Ruskin’s writings, were to shift concern from the generally accepted, to a new conception of truth; as a key feature of Romantic thought. Thus, his first major achievement, was to bring the assumptions of Romanticism, to the practice of art criticism.

On the publication of “Modern Painters – Volume 1″, avant-garde painters had been working in this new spirit for several decades; but criticism and public understanding had lagged behind.

Ruskin brought 19th century English painting and 19th century English art criticism, into sympathetic alignment. It was his strong contention that the British had in Turner, working in contemporary London; not only one of the greatest living painters in the history of Western art, but also represented a major modern art movement, in the broader school of English landscape painting.

At the time, there was limited reproductive illustration and no easy access to well-stocked public art galleries. Ruskin’s prose style was peculiarly well adapted to the discussion of the visual arts. His strengths lay in the creation in words, as an effective sensory and emotional substitute; for the lack of visual experience. Most readers attitude had been shaped by a puritanical religious tradition; so, Ruskin knew that acceptance of any claims for painting, that stressed its sensual or hedonic qualities, would not come easily.


The possibility of enjoying and collecting art.

Thus, Ruskin introduced the newly wealthy commercial and professional classes of the English-speaking world; to the possibility of enjoying and collecting art.

He defined painting as “a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.” What that language expressed, in Romantic landscape painting, was a “Wordsworthian” sense of a divine presence in Nature: “a morally instructive natural theology, in which God spoke through physical types“.

Conscious of the spiritual significance of the natural world, young painters should “go to Nature in all singleness of heart…having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.

Three years later, in “Modern Painters Vol 2″ (1846), Ruskin would specifically distinguish this strenuously ethical or theoretic conception of art from the “Aesthetic, undidactic, or art-for-art’s-sake” definition; that would be its great rival in the second half of the 19th century. Despite his friendships with individual Aesthetes, Ruskin would remain the dominant spokesman for a “morally and socially committed conception of art”, throughout his lifetime.


John Ruskin – Writer and Artist. Art, Architecture and Society

Rediscovering the Gothic Middle-Ages, in Painting and Architecture.

After the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, Ruskin turned his attention to the rediscovery of another avant-garde artistic movement; the painting of the Gothic Middle Ages.

In 1846, at the end of the second volume of Modern Painters and the third edition of the first volume; he wrote about the Idealist painters: especially Giotto, Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli. He argued that these medieval religious artists, could provide an inspiring model for the art of the “modern” age; in a way in which the 17th and 18th century Dutch, French and Italian painters, could not.

His medievalist enthusiasm, was one reason that Ruskin was so ready to lend his support to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), founded by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; a group of young English artists formed in 1848; to reject the Neoclassical assumptions of contemporary art schools. The Pre-Raphaelite commitment, was to “naturalism” or painting from nature only; depicting nature in fine detail, had been influenced by Ruskin.

His contention was that, Medievalism was even more important in the field of architecture, where the Gothic Revival; was as direct an expression of the new Romantic spirit, as the landscape painting of Turner or Constable.

In 1844, Ruskin had been involved in a major Gothic Revival building project; when George Gilbert Scott redesigned Ruskin’s parents’ parish church, St. Giles’s Camberwell.


In 1848, married Euphemia (Effie) Gray and embarked on a honeymoon tour of the Gothic churches of northern France. This inspired him to write his first major book on buildings, “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849). Within the  context of the European revolutions of 1848, the book lays down seven “Lamps“.  According to Ruskin, the leading principles of architecture are the “lamps” of Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience.

He saw Gothic, as the noblest style of architecture; but he noted that over time, medieval architecture had lost the power to resist innovation.  Ruskin equated this loss of vitality, to the spiritual decline of Christianity, during the materialistic Renaissance. The essay, provided a general framework and a moral flavour to the studies of a generation of medievalists. One, “The Lamp of Memory”, articulates the scrupulous respect for the original fabric of old buildings; that would inspire William Morris and through him, the “Conservation Movement” of the 20th century.


“The Stones of Venice” – Gothic Architecture, Art and the importance of “Imperfection”.

In November, Ruskin went abroad again to Venice, in order to research a more substantial book on architecture.

The Stones of Venice” was published in three more volumes: Volume 3, in 1851 and Volumes 4 & 5 in 1853.  The year of 1851, saw the death of Turner and from 1856 to 1858, Ruskin took on a considerable administrative workload; as the chief artistic executor of Turner’s estate.

Partly, the book is a laboriously researched history of Venetian architecture, based on long months of study of the original buildings, that at the time; were in a condition of serious neglect and decay.

But also, it is a book of moral and social polemic; with the imaginative structure of a sublime epic. Ruskin’s narrative, charts the fall of Venice from its “medieval Eden”, through what he saw as the lack of reverence and arrogance of the Renaissance; to its modern condition of political impotence and social frivolity.

As such, the book is a distinguished late example of the political medievalism found in the work of William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Carlyle, and the Young England movement of the 1840s. Ruskin approach, differs from these predecessors, both in the poetic power of his prose and in his distinctive and widely influential insistence; that “art and architecture are, necessarily, the direct expression of the social conditions in which they were produced”.

The Stones of Venice, was influential in other ways as well. Firstly, it celebrated the use of Italian Gothic elements, in English Gothic Revival architecture. His writing played a key part in establishing the view, that the architectural style of Venice, the great maritime trading nation of the medieval world; was particularly appropriate for buildings in modern Britain.

Secondly, the other enduring influence derived from a single chapter in the second volume, “The Nature of Gothic.” Ruskin identified “imperfection” as an essential feature of Gothic art; contrasting it with the mechanical regularity of Neoclassical buildings and modern mass production. Gothic architecture, he believed, allowed a significant degree of creative freedom and artistic fulfilment to the individual workman – “we could not and should not; take pleasure in an object that had not itself been made with pleasure”. This proposition underlined, not only Ruskin’s own quarrel with industrial capitalism; but also, of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century.

He contributed both financially and physically to the construction of a major Gothic Revival building, the Oxford University Museum, by Benjamin Woodward. In 1856, he published the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, with their penetrating inquiry into the reasons for the predominance of landscape painting in 19th-century art and their invention of the important critical term pathetic fallacy. (Ruskin coined this term in Modern Painters III (1856) to describe the ascription of human emotions to inanimate objects and impersonal natural forces, as in “Nature must be gladsome when I was so happy” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre).


Dissolution of his marriage and the question of John Ruskin’s sexuality.

In 1854, Ruskin’s marriage lasting six years; was dissolved on grounds of non-consummation. This left Effie Gray, free to marry the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

The grounds for divorce, led to much speculation and critical comment, as the following examples below:

His wife, in a letter to her parents, claimed that: “he found her “person” (her body) repugnant….He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty“….. and finally this last year he told me his true reason: “that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.

On his wedding night, John Ruskin was so shocked by his discovery of his wife Effie’s pubic hair that he rejected her, and the marriage was later legally annulled.” – Sholem Stein.

It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.” – John Ruskin.

The cause of this mysterious “disgust” led to much speculation, by critics and even his biographers. This included: his disgust about her pubic hair, menstruation and body odour. That his only previous experience of women’s appearance; was gained through his love of female classical statuary and painting, where women lacked pubic hair. Perhaps the most damaging comments, were suggestions that he was a paedophile, because of his attraction to young girls. However, there is no evidence that Ruskin ever engaged in any sexual activity with anyone at all.


Concerns regarding the “cultural condition” of his age

By 1858, Ruskin began to move on from the specialist criticism of art and architecture; to a wider concern with the cultural condition of his age. Together with his friend, the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle; Ruskin began to adopt the “prophetic” stance, familiar from the Bible, of a “voice crying from the wilderness and seeking to call a lapsed people back into the paths of righteousness“. He took on a role of a marginalised and disenchanted outsider; adopting a ferocity and oddness of approach, that would become conspicuous features of his later career.

In 1858 Ruskin lectured on “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy” (published in The Two Paths, 1859). Here, Ruskin linked both artistic contrast and social contrast; comparing the exquisite sculptured iron grilles of medieval Verona with the mass-produced metal security railings, that modern citizens protect their houses. Ruskin believed, that people might lead lives of greater aesthetic fulfilment; in an environment less degraded by industrial pollution.

His social and cultural values were persistently restated, in Ruskin’s books of the 1860s. Ruskin wielded a critique of 19th-century political economy, principally on the grounds that it failed to acknowledge complexities of human desires and motivations (broadly, “social affections”).

“Unto This Last” (1862) and “Munera Pulveris” (1872), were attacks on the classical economics of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Not about a study of economics; both works, expressed Ruskin’s moral outrage at the extent to which their materialist and utilitarian ethical assumptions, made in their understanding of human behaviour; had come to be accepted as the norm.

A quote from Ruskin “Unto this last”…..”the art of becoming “rich,” in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less”. In accurate terms, it is “the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.”

“Sesame and Lilies” (1865), would become notorious in the late 20th century; as a stock example of Victorian male chauvinism. In fact, Ruskin was using certain conventional traits of the feminine, to articulate yet another symbolic assertion of his anti-capitalist social model.

“The Crown of Wild Olive” (1866, enlarged in 1873), collects some of the best Ruskin’s writings in the manner of Thomas Carlyle; notably the lecture “Traffic” of 1864. Here, Ruskin draws his audience’s attention; to the hypocrisy manifested by their choice of Gothic architecture for their churches, but Neoclassical designs for their homes.

Gradually abandoning the dogmatic Protestantism of Ruskin’s earlier years, in a moving lecture on “The Mystery of Life and Its Arts” (1860); Ruskin returned to the theme of the spiritual and transcendent. In “The Queen of the Air” (1869), he re-introduced his old concept of a divine power in Nature; but in in new terms, designed for an age in which beliefs in the Christian faith, were no longer automatic or universal. Through an account of the Greek myth of Athena, Ruskin sought to suggest both an enduring human need and recognition for the supernatural authority; on which the moral stresses of his artistic, political and cultural views were dependent on.


Death of his father.

His father’s death in 1864, had left Ruskin a wealthy man. He used some of his wealth to promote idealistic social causes; notably the Guild of St. George – a pastoral community, planned and constituted between in 1871 and 1878.

Also in 1871, he bought “Brantwood”, a house in the English Lake District (now a museum of his work) and lived there for the rest of his life.

Over the long period from 1866 to 1875, he had become besotted with Rose La Touche a woman 30 years his junior; (a subject that had brought him speculation regarding his sexual motivations, after the dissolution of his marriage). Sadly, her physical and mental deterioration, caused him acute distress; to the point that he began himself, to show signs of serious psychological illness.

Ruskin’s appointment as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1870, was a welcome encouragement at a troubled stage of his career. In the following year he launched a one-man monthly magazine “Fors Clavigera”, in which, from 1871 to 1878 and 1880 to 1884; he developed his idiosyncratic cultural theories. Like his successive series of Oxford lectures (1870–79 and 1883–84); Fors, is an unpredictable mixture of striking insights, powerful rhetoric, self-indulgence, bigotry and occasional incoherence.


Whistler v Ruskin – A Sensational Libel Trial.

For the Victorian public, no figure was more strongly associated with Venice than John Ruskin. He had made eleven visits and published numerous books about the city. He also produced drawings that recorded details of Venetian architecture. Ruskin had completed his last major trip to Venice, returning to England in June 1877.

Soon after, he published a review of paintings in the Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street, London. Focusing on Whistlers exhibited work; he admonished the gallery, over why they had presented work of such dubious quality; made vitriolic comments about the artist himself and questioned the prices asked!  Quoting from part of his report in “Fors Clavigera”, 2nd July 1877: he….. “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Left: Whistler.  Right: Ruskin.


In July, Whistler issued a claim for libel against Ruskin for damages of a £1000 and costs; they case was heard in November 1878. The trial made the conflict between Ruskin’s moral view of art and Whistler’s Aestheticism; a matter of wide public interest.

The decision went in Whistler’s favour, but only a farthing in damages were awarded; together with shared costs.


Ruskin’s reputation harmed.

Ruskin suffered no financial ill effects, (except the sharing of costs); but his reputation as an art critic was seriously harmed.

After this date, there was a growing tendency to see him as an enemy of modern art: blinkered, eccentric and out-of-date. Modernist artists and critics rejected Ruskin. His persisting position on the moral, social and spiritual purposes of art and his Naturalist theory of visual representation; were unpopular in the era of Impressionism, Cubism and Dada. Gothic Revival buildings became unfashionable. Indeed in 1914, the architecture critic Geoffrey Scott; would dismiss Ruskin’s architectural theory as “The Ethical Fallacy.


Last Work


As a by-product of his “Fors” project, Ruskin wrote his last major work; his autobiography “Praeterita” (1885–89). Unfinished and omitting all mention of his marriage and somewhat chronologically incorrect; it does provides the development of his distinctive, if often controversial sensibility.

John Ruskin died, on the 20th January 1900 and is buried in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church in Coniston, Lancashire.(Left)






Since around 1914, Ruskin’s work fell out of favour. However, in the 1960s, his work was favourably reappraised with the publication of numerous academic studies.  His range of strongly argued concerns from ecology, the conservation of buildings and environments, to Romantic painting, art education and over the human cost of the mechanisation of work; started to become more widely shared in society.

Furthermore, thequality of his own drawings and watercolours (somewhat underrated during his lifetime) was increasingly acknowledged; along with his role in raising the importance of British painting, architecture and decorative art, in the second half of the 19th century.

Perhaps most importantly, Ruskin was rediscovered as a great writer of English prose; despite being over-moralistic, often self-contradictory and insufficiently informed. His unusual capacity to see things and to say what he saw makes Ruskin’s work, not just an important episode in the history of taste; but also an enduring and distinctive part of English literature.

Aiguille de Blaitière   Lauffenbourg  Sunset seen from Goldau (after J. M. W. Turner)

Drawings: Aiguille de Blaitiere. France                              Laufenburg, Germany.                                            Goldau, Switzerland.

River Seine and its Islands    Rocks in Unrest  Zermatt

Paintings:   River Seine and its Islands                                         Rocks in Unrest                                                               Zermatt Switzerland


LINKS: (internalexternal)

Foreign Artists working in Venice:

Turner in Venice

Whistler in Venice

Monet in Venice

The two great period of Venetian art:

The Venetian School of Art   

Venetian Artists-18th Century.

Admirers and scholars of Ruskin, can visit the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University,

Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, and the Ruskin Museum, both in Coniston in the English Lake District. All three mount regular exhibitions open to the public all the year round.

 Ruskin’s Guild of St George     continues his work today, in education, the arts, crafts, and the rural economy.



John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist

John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist

John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist    John Ruskin – Writer and Artist

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