“All literature, art and science are in vain, and worse, if they do not allow you to be glad.” John Ruskin.
Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather John Ruskin (1819-1900). Watercolour on paper, 1873 Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield
“I have to draw a peacock’s breast feather, and paint as much of it (as) I can, without having heaven to dip my brush into.”
John Ruskin was not an easy man. When he took up his post as the first professor of fine art at the Slade in 1870 he informed his listeners- a group of affluent, athletic students who included Oscar Wilde- that anyone wishing to be a fine painter had come to the wrong place. Instead he lectured on ideas of reform, identity, economy and passion. He really believed that the act of making art could lead to someone becoming not just a better artist but a better and happier person and that anyone looking at the work afterwards would have these benefits passed on to them. Young people should “set themselves to grow in a carrotty or turnippy manner, and lay up secret store, not caring to exhibit it until the time comes for fruitful display.” He educated himself through active observation and questioning rather than getting involved in the fierce debate popular at the time. The truth was out there if he looked hard enough. This ability to look was something that he wanted everybody- however disadvantaged they were- to have and he established a museum, a single room on one of the Sheffield hills, so that workers could be raised up out of their dreadful living conditions for just a short while- all the time they had- and be shown how to look at beauty. The city was full of craftsmen and revolutionaries so the site was well chosen. He saw that by understanding and respecting the environment they could find a sense of contentment and peace through a moment of stillness and calm.
The exhibition John Ruskin, Art and Wonder at Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is part of the Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. It is a beautiful show showcasing his delicate and fastidiously observed work alongside others who were also looking and recording. Images were not freely available at the touch of a keypad back then. If you wanted to find out about an object or creature you had to use your eyes and make them for yourself. That applied to a single thorn branch preserved in graphite and watercolour by George Allen in 1859, or Ruskin’s study of dead oak leaves from 1879, just as much as it did to Audubon’s huge fold out images from Birds of America. These are birds as rock stars, big, bold and showy. They are set into relief- and perhaps put in their place- by a group of fragile, delicate Ruskin bird images close by. The Audubon birds are spectacular but they represent a species, what Ruskin gives us is a single bird- the one in front of him when it was painted all those years ago. There are a lot of beautiful images to wonder at but it is Ruskin who gives his subjects heart alongside a forensic attention to detail.
Study of a Spray of Dead Oak Leaves by John Ruskin, 1879. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper. Size: 295 x 418 mm; support: 144 x 188mm. Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield,
Ruskin was a strange man in some ways, especially for his time, and what seem like self evident principles now were not universally accepted by those around him. People are more comfortable with those who accept being put in a box and run with the pack. He was a polymath, interested in everything and didn’t accept the boundaries and conventions which others lived by. He disliked much of what he saw in the capitalist society around him and gave his opinions fearlessly. None of those characteristics make you popular with your contemporaries, although his influence in the long run has been enormous. He might have done better on that score now. In the thick of the industrial revolution he foresaw what the modern world would do to our psyche and how very much we would all continue to need moments of stillness, observation and calm. I think I would have liked him and he would certainly have plenty of people today eager to tell him how right he was.