I went to a comprehensive school in Reading which was marked out by educational league tables when they were introduced in the 1990s as ‘struggling’—and that was the charitable view of it. But I enjoyed school and had a good time there. There was always a lot of laughter with friends. The most inspiring of the teachers—particularly my favourite English teacher, John Beasley—encouraged me to read things that never made it into the classroom.
Consequently, as a teenager I learned about the ‘pathetic fallacy’; I began to understand something about a late Victorian revival in Gothic architecture which was connected in some way, I vaguely thought, with those who had inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement; and, as I indulged an appetite for political biography, I kept coming across someone called Ruskin, who seemed to have inspired a lot of trade-unionists and politicians to embrace socialism.
Yet it wasn’t until I was studying English at Lancaster University that I realised all these things were connected to one-and-the-same John Ruskin. I quickly learned that, improbable as it seemed, I hadn’t yet scratched the surface of Ruskin’s immense range and influence. I hadn’t been keen to tackle the selection of Ruskin readings set for my Victorian Literature class by Prof. Michael Wheeler. This was mainly because, as a visually impaired undergraduate, I dreaded reading from the 2500-page sixth edition of the Norton Anthology to English Literature, seemingly composed of microscopic type printed on tracing paper. Ruskin was bang in the middle of the volume, causing the text to fold into the mammoth binding. But I dutifully set about the task nevertheless. I soon forgot the practical difficulties and found myself carried off on the gentle breeze of Ruskin’s uniquely eloquent prose, and then poked and prodded by his jabbing finger, and finally blown this way and that by his storm-cloud. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read anything by him before—I’d seen him referred to so often, and this was such good stuff!
I ventured into the student bookshop, and managed to buy two Penguin Edition Ruskin anthologies. Both were a little yellow from more than a decade lying undisturbed on the shelf, but then as Ruskin wrote to his friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in November 1860, in a wholly different context, ‘One cannot be angry when one looks at a Penguin.’ These Penguins were awe-inspiring. One volume was Clive Wilmer’s edition of Unto this Last and other writings, and the other was Kenneth Clark’s Ruskin To-Day, re-branded as Selected Writings. These granaries of selected treasures stimulated all sorts of feelings and thoughts. Here I was, in Unto this Lastt, reading the most powerful articulation of so many things I had thought myself but could never have put into words. Ruskin crystallised previously incomplete ideas and triggered many personal epiphanies. Even more numerous were the revealing connections Ruskin made, casting light on all manner of things. It was all wrapped in a beautiful prose-style that compelled me to read on, page after page, far longer than I had ever intended when I set out. I could scarcely believe that writing so fresh and appealing and relevant was over 130 years old.
When I came to consider applying to undertake a Master’s degree in English Literary Research, I was uncertain what to do. Ruskin seemed altogether too awesome a writer to study. Besides, I had always loved the work of Dickens, and I really wanted to write about him. Help came in the form of Prof. Robert Hewison, whose lectures and seminars on Literary Modernism I had enjoyed enormously. Indeed, at the first of these I was asked out of the blue to give a five-minute summary of the introductory lecture given by Hewison himself—no pressure. Meeting him at an Italian restaurant in west London—in a building, significantly or not, that had formerly served as a public toilet (bon appetito!)—I explained my dilemma. He asked me what else I was interested in, and after a short pause, I answered: politics. ‘Right!’ said Robert. ‘Why not combine these interests and write about Ruskin, Dickens and Victorian political economy?’ Bingo! Why hadn’t I thought of that? It was a surprise to discover how little had been written about the affinities between these two giants of Victorian Literature, especially given how much Ruskin admired Dickens’s novels.
As I read more and more of Ruskin’s work—lectures and essays, public letters and multi-volume treatises, private diaries and even a fairy tale—my wonder at how much he was revealing to me grew. How many people had written that Ruskin had pointed out the road on which they should travel, or opened the gates to new ways of seeing, doing and thinking? The more entirely right they all seem in this judgement as the years roll by.
After leaving Lancaster, my MA completed, I studied for a doctorate in the Faculty of Modern History at the University of Oxford under Dr Lawrence Goldman. My thesis, on Ruskin’s social and political legacies in Britain, in the period 1870-1920, was later published, lightly revised, as After Ruskin, by Oxford University Press. Most of my work on Ruskin since then has focused on the influence of his ideas and values, both in Britain, and abroad. I have published short accounts of Ruskin’s past impact in Denmark and the Netherlands with another—on Spain—to come, and a longer study of his influence on Tolstoy, and in Russia more widely.
I served as Secretary of The Ruskin Society, and enjoyed organising gatherings to celebrate Ruskin’s life, work and legacy. I also served as Secretary, and then as Communications Officer, of Ruskin’s utopian charity, the Guild of St George, edited their magazine, The Companion, and managed their website and social media presence. My proudest achievement was to connect the Guild with a mental-health charity for young people in Manchester, called 42nd Street. By doing so, I helped them to re-engage with their local cultural heritage which is firmly rooted in Ruskinian values emphasising the creative inspiration derived from beauty in nature, art and craft. This is what I like to call Applied Ruskin. The practical realisation of his ideas offers to make a real difference in all sorts of ways in all manner of communities today.
That is not to ignore Ruskin’s shortcomings. He is frequently impenetrably allusive. Some of his sentences famously go on … and on … and on. He cheekily excuses inconsistencies by joking that he isn’t happy he has dealt with anything properly until he has contradicted himself at least three times. But here, as so often, Ruskin is winking at us, and like all good humourists, he is telling us something serious as he delivers the punchline. There is a vulnerability in him. He is flawed. He makes mistakes. But he is disarmingly honest about this. He pours so much of himself into his writings, and into his projects, that two hundred years after his birth I find myself writing this in the present tense. He remains among us, his message resonating with us still.
Some of my friends are puzzled by how I, having been registered legally blind for most of my adult life, can appreciate such an intensely visual writer. Charlotte Brontë famously wrote that Ruskin gave her eyes. His writing, in its multiple forms, seeks by turns to invite, implore, provoke, challenge or even bully us into seeing through his eyes. He delighted in—and was often frustrated to distraction by—his relentless appeal to us to share fully in his breathtakingly close and careful observations. He looked so piercingly at physical objects that he could almost see into them, and through them. His thoughts penetrated so deeply that he gained insights and made connections unequalled by anybody else. To read Ruskin is to enjoy the companionship of the finest guide. However knowledgeable we are, however sharp our eyesight is, Ruskin repaints for us every canvas he describes so that we notice things we could never have spotted without his help: he rebuilds every edifice, reshapes every sculpture, re-forms every stone, re-grows every flower, re-imagines every natural scene—so that we can see how and why as well as what they are.
What if the audio descriptions which help visually impaired people like me to enjoy television and films, art galleries and museums, were written by Ruskin? Yes, they’d be too long. But Ruskin’s descriptions are so much more than the sum of the elegant and dazzlingly lyrical beauty of the prose in which they are written—they are appeals, lessons, arguments, and journeys which licence us, if we are lucky, to look at the world through his eyes. Who could resist such temptation?
Why do I read Ruskin? Why doesn’t everyone?
Last modified April 18, 2019