I was one of the final generations of English working-class schoolboys to receive a proper grammar school education. Having a talent for drawing I then made the awful mistake of attending Art College at a time when Modernism was being promoted as a weapon of the Cold War. My small talent was actually a handicap when representational art was seen as a totalitarian heresy and sticking ravioli ready-meals to canvas with resin glue was ‘experimental art’. Disillusioned and bored, I dropped out. I had never once heard the name Ruskin mentioned.
When I subsequently decided to apply for university I felt the need to refresh my mental muscles and rashly signed on for two A level courses, usually two years full-time, but in my case a crash course of just two terms at night school. In the English Lit. class the set book was Middlemarch by George Eliot. This great novel and the way it was taught opened up a whole new world for me. By a huge quirk of fate my first foray into a reference library turned up Eliot’s fulsome praise of, yes you guessed it, John Ruskin. I was intrigued that such a great novelist would lavish such praise on such an unknown (to me) person. Paradoxically some critics had identified Ruskin as Eliot’s Dr. Casaubon. It didn’t make sense. I made a brief attempt to discover more about this Ruskin chap. It was a very brief attempt: he had been far too prolific.
My interview for University was quite exciting. The students had occupied the admin block over some ideological grievance. I seem to remember lines of police and hundreds of hairy chanting students. My actual interview, much delayed and slightly alcohol-tinged, was conducted against a faint background of megaphone Marxism. Faced with a particularly tricky question, it seemed that somehow, some random thing that Ruskin had written had lodged in my memory and out it came at the critical moment. My interviewer later admitted that he had been quite impressed by my knowledge of Ruskin. So was I. Essex was to be the formative experience of my academic life. Joseph Rykwert was teaching architecture and Jules Lubbock was teaching his ground-breaking Victorian design course and in the heady mixture of Art and economics I met Ruskin’s ideas head-on for the first time. Because of the fierce arguments I had with Jules regarding Ruskin and Adam Smith, I made a mental note to avoid Mr. Ruskin in future.
The subject of my PhD thesis was to have been ‘The Roots of Modernism’ because I intended to discover where the West had taken the catastrophic wrong turn that had ended up replacing The Awakening Conscience with a Ravioli TV dinner. Jules, by now involved with Prince Charles’ post-modern architectural campaigns, had inspired me to debunk the idiotic ideas of so-called ‘pioneers of modern design’ such as Christopher Dresser and Adolf Loos. However it was not to be. I began work on a general introductory chapter which was to have included a couple of short and obligatory paragraphs on John Ruskin’s ‘outdated’ architectural theories. One rainy day in November 1980 I picked up The Seven Lamps of Architecture, started to pair the lamps of the chapters with their respective Latin seals on the original cover and fell right into Ruskin’s trap. It was a true revelation. My dissertation switched topic to Ruskin. There followed five years of fierce debate with my Ruskin-resistant supervisors before a heavily edited dissertation was grudgingly accepted. Twenty-nine years later in 2017 what began life as my PhD dissertation was finally published as A Torch at Midnight. This book is my personal journey into the beautiful, controversial, mysterious, occult, magnificent world of John Ruskin. Read it if you dare.
Last modified April 9, 2019