Portrait of Ruskin by H. S. Uhlrich.
rthur Munby recalled having been present at the inaugural meeting of the Working Men's College in Red Lion Square in 1854, and from 31 May 1858 he held regular Latin classes at its next premises in Great Ormond Street. While he was becoming more involved with the college, one of its founder members, John Ruskin, was beginning to bow out. Ruskin had taught drawing there from the beginning, but now did so only "intermittently" (Hudson 30, n.3). Nevertheless, he was still a guiding light there. On 13 April 1859 Munby and some of the others visited him at his home on Denmark Hill. Munby admired his Turners, and was highly gratified when Ruskin agreed with him that "some one ought to paint peasant girls & servant maids as they are — coarse & hearty & homely" (31). Munby must have betrayed something of his personal obsession here.
On 8 November of the following year, Munby attended a talk on political economy given by Ruskin at the College. On this occasion, Munby was less impressed by him, partly because of the content of the talk. He sympathised with Ruskin's concern for the poorer classes, but was startled by his outspoken criticism of iconic figures like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, and his complaint that "the object of the science was to make men rich, and that by setting them against each other" (81). That is, in fact, precisely what Ruskin argued in Unto This Last: "the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is ... equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor" (44). But Ruskin's socialist ideas were ahead of his time. They seemed like heresies then, as Derek Hudson points out in a useful footnote on the same page. Munby was also irked by Ruskin's delivery. While acknowledging the power of Ruskin's writings, and his "vastly superior intellect," Munby took umbrage at his "scornful, self-sufficient manner" (82).
About seven months later, on 1 June 1861, came an incident which showed Ruskin's vulnerability, and aroused Munby's sympathy. It really was sad and rather shocking: while attending Ruskin's talk "On Tree Twigs" at the Royal Institution, Munby saw Millais and his wife (Ruskin's former wife) Effie come into the room, and sit right in front of the speaker. The annulment and remarriage had taken place several years previously, but Ruskin blanched and had to stop the lecture. Munby was outraged on his behalf, not so much because of Millais's thoughtlessness (he felt that he might not have anticipated such a reaction) but because of Effie's. "it is about the most shameless, barbarous, and unwomanly thing she could have done. A divorced adulteress & her paramour would not do it" (97). Poor Ruskin! Soon Munby would forget that he had ever been at all critical of him.
The real turning point was the next talk he attended. It was the last that Ruskin would give at the Working Men's College. Munby had already heard that Ruskin's "Calvinistic faith" was deserting him, "leaving him in a state of great spiritual desolation" (124). So he was prepared for what followed when F. J. Furnivall, a scholar and reformer who was one of the founders of the college, gave Ruskin a suitable opening:
Saturday, 29 November  ... After dinner went to our College [the Working Men's College], where Ruskin had promised to give a farewell talk. I had a few minutes’ téte a téte with him, and he described to me the house he has taken, on the further slope of the Grand Saléve near Geneva, looking towards the Alps. Here, he says, he means to live, quite alone among the peasantry — except for his intelligent English man, and think, and take his two hours’ climb to the mountain summit. As we were talking, Litchfield [R. B. Litchfield worked with Munby at the Office of Ecclesiastical Commissioners] came and said the men were ready; so Ruskin went to the dais — the rooms being crowded with teachers and students — and began a friendly & familiar discourse. He suggested that any one who chose should ask him questions; and accordingly Furnivall and several others did so: on art, on political economy, & several other subjects. To all these enquiries he replied with wonderful readiness; with great power and aptness of language, and with thoughts always deep and clear; and, as usual, with an intense dogmatic assurance, of one who sincerely believes himself an oracle. On political economy he spoke thus for half an hour or more; giving the same ingenious and amiable but as I think fallacious views of it, that he has put forth in "Fraser" [Fraser's Magazine] As to art, he admitted — without cause, I thought, — an imperfection in his teaching. He had taught the men to see rightly, but not to reproduce what they saw, direct from Nature: and he was going to consider in his seclusion how to do this latter. After more than an hour’s talk from him, Furnivall (not knowing, I think, what he did but merely anxious that nothing should be unsaid) asked Ruskin if there were any other subject he wished to speak on. I and a few others knew what was coming, when Ruskin gravely and with hesitation said there was one thing he had hoped to be asked about; but as no one had mentioned it (as if they could!) he would speak unasked.
And then it all came out. He did not indeed say aught of a change of opinion in himself: but those who believed him still an artistic Calvinist(!) must have been astonished when he began. He spoke of the grave religious doubts and searchings of nowadays; and said that he for his part had been greatly enlightened therein by a recent suggestion from a friend (Helps [Arthur Helps, clerk to the Privy Council], Vernon thought it was); which was, that the attempt to combine religion & ethics was foolish and fatal. On this text he preached for half an hour with intense earnestness; a mixture, as it were, of unitarianism and positivism, as he himself said, in an "audacious and impudent" way of God: not that he was the least irreverent — far from it — but apostlewise, as if he were telling out a new revelation. God, says he, hates you to be unhappy: hates selfdenial therefore: will have men not pry into another world and sacrifice everything to that; but will have them look at this world, enjoy and fulfil their being here, be manly and brotherly, and take delight in, when once they have comprehended it, the unique nobleness and splendour of Humanity. All this and much more that he said is full of profound truth; but it is not all the truth; it leaves out of count, makes no provision for meeting, the sadness and the struggles of our double nature. It is with Ruskin somewhat as with Colenso (only Ruskin is infinitely abler): having escaped from the pit of Calvinism, he has swung himself up into the free air, and thinks it always sunshine there: and it was just like his strong selfconfidence and fearless candour, to speak out what he felt and thought just because he could not bear to hold it in. A solemn thing and significant, truly, to see a man like him stand in such a place, and give out a creed absolutely opposed to so much of what we call Christianity. Neither Maurice nor Hughes was there, happily: and the tremendous implications in what was said would not be thought of, at least at first, by his audience; who would simply be rejoiced to see and hear (as Litchfield afterwards expressed it) a great soul who, after all doubt or even disbelief, had attained to so much clearness and freedom and tranquillity. And though I know that his present posture of mind is not permanent, and though I differed much from some of his sayings, yet what he did say was so manly and sincere and showed him to be so much better off for convictions than I had thought, that in saying farewell when it was over I could not but grasp his hand and thank him heartily for saying it.
Vernon Lushington and I walked down to the Temple together, talking of what we had heard, and specially of that backhanded blow to Christianity conveyed in the maxim about religion and ethics. Vernon thought, with his usual kindliness, that Ruskin should not have spoken so freely before the students, lest haply the faith of some should be disturbed or wounded: and if they did see all the purport of his speech, I should say so too. But quaere, are they not also in like case? [141-42]
Introducing this entry, Hudson explains its special interest as the only first-hand record of this farewell talk. Ruskin was now, as Munby had heard previously, and as Hudson puts it in his selections from the diaries, in a "disturbed state" (140), and about to seek refuge in Switzerland. Indeed, he had been talking to Munby about this just before going into the room. As on the previous occasion at the College, though presumably with less surprise, Munby sat through his discourse on political economy and other subjects. But what really impressed him was what Ruskin had to say next, about religion.
This was a subject of greater interest to Munby, whose maternal grandfather had been a Rector, and who numbered ordained clergymen among his closest friends. Hudson sums him up as a "sincere though not unquestioning believer" (10) Ruskin's acknowledgement here of the "grave religious doubts and searchings of nowadays," so soon after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, struck a chord in him, and this time he admired his "strong selfconfidence and fearless candour" in speaking out about them — specifically, in promoting what he had come to believe was the necessary separation of religion and ethics (142). Perhaps we could add another epithet to Munby's: courage. Ruskin's presentation of his beliefs, to any audience, took that above all else.
Apart from the religious issue here, it is moving to see Munby, with his unusual double life, talking about "the sadness and the struggles of our double nature" (142). It is also moving to see his friend Vernon Lushington worrying about the effect of the talk on the students, whose faith might have been shaken by it.
This was not the last time that Munby met Ruskin. Their next encounter was in June 1863, when they bumped into each other at a concert in the Crystal Palace [in its Sydenham reincarnation]} to celebrate the Queen's birthday. Ruskin, recently returned from Switzerland, talked animatedly on a variety of subjects, from the Crystal Palace itself, of which he heartily disapproved, describing it as a "base and formless shed," to contemporary portraiture, which he also deplored, "because there were no faces worth painting" (166). There is a distinct impression here of someone on the edge. The next two mentions of Ruskin in the diaries only serve to confirm the impression: in February 1864, Munby reports that Ruskin has upset one of the women who had hoped to set up a Working Women's College by vetoing the project "in his wild way" (177). Then in early 1866, Munby says that Ruskin wrote to Arthur Severn "bitterly & savagely lamenting the death of Mrs Newton" (Severn's younger sister, an artist in her own right), blaming "the gods" for it. This prompts Munby's exclamation, "So this is what 'evangelical' teaching has led John Ruskin to" (216).
Munby's last words on Ruskin are gracious and deeply sympathetic. They come not from the diaries, but from a letter of 7 March 1894, now lodged at Yale University Library. The letter was to yet another of Munby's many friends, a later one this time, the engraver William James Linton. Linton had originally sold Brantwood to Ruskin:
To me, & to the men of my generation, & especially to those who have known him personally, as I have, Ruskin must always be an object of the deepest respect and love. I feel that I owe him more than I can tell, not only in Art, but in Religion, in Politics and Ethics, in the imaginative enjoyment of natural beauty. Alas, his brain has been too much for him: he worked it so intensely in youth and earlier manhood, that now it is all awry. Sometimes, I am told, he wakes up and talks, but only on ordinary subjects; and then, his mind collapses, and he sits "like a grandfather of 90" unconscious of all around him. My friend Litchfield, whom he has known since 1853, was not at all sure that Ruskin knew who he was, though Mrs Arthur Severn thought he did know, and when his great friend Dr Acland came to Brantwood, Ruskin (as I hear) stared at him, unconscious; then suddenly embraced him, saying "I know you — but I don't know who you are!"
Is that not sad and touching?.... [qtd. in Hudson 421-22]
Letters are not the same as diaries. They are adjusted according to the intended reader, and Munby would have known that his friend too looked up to Ruskin. But there is nothing here that does not reflect his own respect for Ruskin, and his deep regret that he should be suffering in this way.
Hudson, Derek. Munby: Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby, 1828-1910. London: Abacus, 1974.
Created 27 April 2020