These comments first appeared in 2016 in a special “Tribute Issue” of The Companion, the annual publication of The Guild of St. George, which was dedicated to the life and work of Van Akin Burd. I am grateful to the editor for permission to reprint it here. I am also grateful, as always, for Jennifer Morris’s willingness to use her fine editorial eye to scrutinize these paragraphs before I sent them on to Stuart Eagles.
On the 19th of April of this year, 2014, Van Akin Burd turned 100. Few, as we know, live so long. Of these, an extremely small percentage, probably a percentage barely above zero, still publish at such an age. Thus, it is all the more remarkable to be able to say that, during the last decade, Van Burd has published no fewer than six new papers on Ruskin. Surely, there is not a soul in the Ruskin world who would disagree that Van is the living dean of studies done in that great Victorian’s name. His scholarly career—his official title, so very appropriately, at The State University of New York at Cortland, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus—stretches back more than sixdecades into our collective past, as the following short but significant story pertinent to that career’s beginning shows.
It was the summer of 1953 and Van was doing his required annual stint for the U. S. Navy Reserves in New York City. His work for that august company finished by mid-afternoon, he decided to go directly to the Pierpont Morgan Library to have a look at one of the treasures of Ruskin’s legacy, the manuscript of Modern Painters. Two years before, he had finished his Ph.D dissertation on this work at the University of Michigan. Finding the Morgan’s Reading Room, he asked that the manuscript be brought up from the vaults. Minutes later, he was deeply engrossed. Here is how he recalls what happened next: .
I must have made an unusual sight as a Naval officer in dress blues with my white visored cap on the mahogany study table in the Morgan Reading Room. Before long, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I looked up to see a gentleman who, I learned later, was Frederick B. Adams, then the Director of the Library. Apologizing for disturbing me, he said, ‘I am curious. Why would an officer in the Navy want to see the manuscript of Modern Painters?’ When I told him I had recently completed a dissertation on Ruskin and Turner, he understood my motive, and we became acquainted. I told him I was seeking a topic for post-doctoral research and that I had read of the Morgan’s recent acquisition of the Bowerswell Trunk from the Millais family, a purchase filled with letters on Ruskin’s ill-fated marriage. Mr. Adams explained that this project had already been assigned to the English scholar, Mary Lutyens. He would keep my interests in mind, however, when they acquired something else pertaining to Ruskin. Within a year, I believe, he called me to say that the library had just purchased, from Sotheby’s, Ruskin’s extensive correspondence with Margaret Bell of Winnington Hall—letters found in the London attic of one of the former teachers at the school in Cheshire. Was I interested in the project? Happily, I accepted. —Van Akin Burd, ‘How I became acquainted with the Morgan Library’ in The Friends of Ruskin’s Brantwood Newsletter (Spring, 2014).
The meeting with Mr Adams was one of those pivotal moments in a life, a turning which, at the moment of its occurrence, as is so often the case, was not seen at the time for the critical encounter it was. But the meeting was much more than that singular moment which led to the discovery of one scholar’s true calling. It marked a turning point in Ruskin studies. From it, after a decade and more of assiduous work arrived at its end, came a remarkable volume, The Winnington Letters of John Ruskin (Harvard University Press, 1969), a book which all but singlehandedly relit the then barely smoldering candle of serious work on Ruskin. To say that the sum of Winnington many reviews (which I have read) was uncommonly laudatory is an understatement. One—distinct in its wording but hardly in its sentiment—remarked that the book opened ‘a new era of Ruskin scholarship’ because it brought the all-but-forgotten genius of its subject’s writing--in the form of his beautiful, deeply personal missives—into the public domain in a way that had not been the case since the years that immediately followed Ruskin’s death in 1900, a time when reading his glorious prose (as Sir Kenneth Clark put it in his fine collection, Ruskin To-day) was still de rigueur for anyone wishing to think of him or herself as in possession of a soul!
But, as we know, Winnington was only the beginning.
Not long after it was printed, Van was again hard at work on another monumental task, a project which, four years later, would result in The Ruskin Family Letters, 1801-43 (Cornell University Press, 1973, 2 vols. [review]). Once again, the reviews glowed, praising Van’s pages not merely for bringing to light what had previously been “lost” information on Ruskin and the critical role his intense upbringing had played in the development of his thought, but because, like Winnington, it had been edited in such a masterful way that the entire era in which the letters were written came “to life again.”
Three major works followed: John Ruskin and Rose La Touche (Oxford University Press, 1978)—still the only study dedicated to understanding this core relationship in Ruskin’s life; A Tour to the Lakes in Cumberland: John Ruskin’s Diary for 1830 (Scholar Press, 1990; co-edited and written with James S. Dearden), the first publication of one of Ruskin’s important childhood diaries (he was 11 when he wrote it); and Christmas Story: John Ruskin’s Venetian Letters of 1876-1877 (Delaware University Press, 1990), a study of a critical moment in Ruskin’s life not long after the death of Rose, the love of his life, during weeks when, alone in the great city on the Adriatic about which he had written so effusively, Ruskin was barely holding on to his sanity. And this list of books says nothing of the dozens of articles Van has published in academic journals over the course of his career, not a few of which, as mentioned above, were written in his nineties!
Here’s another way to think about why Van Burd is so important to Ruskin studies. For reasons much too complex to go into here, the story of Ruskin’s life has been, in one way or another, perennially mis-told or distorted. Because of this, the great Ruskin biography, eleven and a half decades after his passing, has yet to be written. Of these distortions, Van—and, before him, his close friend in Ruskin studies, Helen Viljoen—has been long aware (all one has to do is to read Van’s penetrating introductions to the principal sections of The Winnington Letters to verify the point). However, rather than tackle the all-but-impossible task of writing a massive biography—as Viljoen did, failing in the effort—Van chose instead to do each of his projects with an attention to detail, a commitment to “getting it right” by means of his unflagging determination to use only the original documents (a determination not always in evidence in much of the literature purporting to shed light on Ruskin’s life) to tell the story at hand. It was this intense focus and commitment to accuracy—one quite literally feels that “this is the way it was” when reading Van’s works—that has occasioned, over the decades, the panegyric reviews. In his books and articles we have example after example of works which will, by any yardstick, scholarly or biographical, stand the test of time. To put yet another way: while all the current and antique biographies of Ruskin will eventually have to be rewritten, Van Akin Burd’s Ruskin studies will never be subjected to such a dubious distinction, because all of them are like the man himself: Distinguished.
Realizing the importance of Van’s Ruskin work, It hardly needs noting that we, readers of The Companion and the enduring beneficiaries of Van’s work, could not be happier that a thirty-nine-year-old Navy Reserve officer decided on that long-ago summer afternoon not to change into civilian clothes before going to the Morgan Library to examine the manuscript of Modern Painters V; which unusual dress caught the eye of the Morgan’s Director, F. B. Adams, who then, out of curiosity, decided to have a chat with the man in the navy dress blues; which chat led to The Winnington Letters; which masterful volume served as “prologue” to another half-century’s impeccable work; work which, considered as a whole, has transformed studies in Ruskin’s name. “How things bind and blend themselves together!”
And still the praise is inadequate.
Finding Van Burd’s books today
Van’s books, as I’ve tried to say, are all superb. I recommend that anyone who is interested in Ruskin who has not yet done so read them. They are, however, increasingly hard to find. Diligence can sometimes turn up some on the web: try addall.com. However, it has been my long-time experience that Mike Salts, who lives in Coniston not far from Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, is extremely adept at ferreting out such volumes, often at prices below those on the internet. You can reach him at: email@example.com.
Last modified 19 August 2020