Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud. Ed. Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns. York: York Art Gallery and Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Association with Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019.

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he exhibition (which I have not seen) has a very attractively produced catalogue with 20 essays embracing art, biography, geology and metereology. A question I have, however, is whether these all cohere and whether the introduction of Turner is more to attract visitors than to illuminate the scientific theme, albeit the impact of science on Turner has become a subject of scholarly study.

Whether the “storm cloud” for Ruskin was a metereological or a psychological phenomenon is not altogether clear. (The artist Emma Stibbon finds the “slippage” between the two “resonates with contemporary anxieties about our relationship with the environment”). In either case the example of Constable is more relevant than that of Turner. Constable's late Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (following an earlier view of the building “under a cloud”) has been variously interpreted as a scientific observation of English weather, the result of depression after his wife's death, or symbolical of the Church of England under attack. Ruskin, visiting the cathedral on a wet day and suffering from a cold, had a correspondingly damp response, comparing the building unfavourably with Giotto's glowing campanile at Florence.

Ruskin did not appreciate Constable any more than he did Salisbury Cathedral (did he make a subconscious connection between the two?), and probably for the same reason. Instead he preferred those “life-enhancing” artists who used brilliant colour and dynamic, if sometime tragic, compositions, such as Turner and the Venetians, unlike the “muddy struggles of the unhappy Germans”.

Sir Kyffin Williams, of whose own paintings Ruskin would surely have joined the band of haters, came to admire Turner late in life, doing so for “the really late Turners with their incredible poetic quality” which Ruskin so loved. On Desert Island Discs he made a pertinent distinction between two types of painters.

I do like the contrasts of dark and light. It stimulates me … I love the more neurotic painters. I love Géricault, Tintoretto, people like that, and in all Romantic art there is an underlying violence, dark clouds blue-black skies, flashes of lightning … an underlying melancholy ...I am a melancholic. There are two types of painters. There is the Van Gogh type … and then you have another man like Bonnard, a nice old pussycat, all his tones are very, very close. The signs of the neurotic painter are that the tones are wide apart, strong darks against the lights, but in so much lovely French painting - they are probably very well balanced – all the tones are very close and they murmur beautifully to you.

Visitors to Italy in Turner's day were divided between those who most admired Titian or Tintoretto, who might be said to typify these two types. Turner himself at various times exemplified both sorts, and was under the spell of Claude as well as of the Romantics. (It has been claimed that he abandoned chiaroscuro and contrast in his late works, but that was not always so). Ruskin saw him as a fellow “neurotic” prone to depression like himself, for which he had reason to be in his last years, but was not true of his life as a whole.

For a long time people reacting against the Victorians disliked Ruskin as someone who was a moralist and a preacher, though Sickert, perhaps surprisingly, commended him on those grounds. Michael Kitson wrote a perceptive essay on “Ruskin and Turner.” He had wanted to speak on that at the Turner symposium which I organised at York in 1980, but for some reason I persuaded him to choose “Turner and Claude” as his subject instead. In that he began, “John Ruskin was the most profound, the most committed, the most comprehensive and in some ways the most misleading critic of Turner who ever lived. Though he would have recoiled in horror at the comparison, no one fulfilled more completely Baudelaire's definition of true criticism as 'partiale, passionnée, politique'.” (In my talk on 12 June I voiced my partial dissent from the idea that Ruskin was misleading rather than just, at least initially, ignorant; I think Kitson, who preferred Claude to Turner, did not fully appreciate the Romantic spirit).

I am reminded of what one of his musicians said of Sir Thomas Beecham – that one should not take all his outrageous remarks about composers and conductors too seriously. It might seem strange to compare Beecham, who was characteristically insincere, with Ruskin, who was the opposite. However to some Ruskin's view of Byron is surprising: “I call him one of the sincerest … of men. I think we should have got on with each other.” But all three said things for effect, exaggerating what they really thought. (The leading qualities of painting at the time were called “colour and effect”). Ruskin was not a historian (in 1858 he expressed a fear that he might become a “perfect Dryasdust”), but a polemicist and his words have to be seen in that context. Thus he attacked Claude and Canaletto because Sir George Beaumont and others who disparaged Turner claimed that their paintings were truer to nature than Turner's. He famously attacked Whistler. This may have been in part because Whistler's works were uniformly in a low key and, in the example which was the specific object of his attack, wilfully unrealistic and unstructured. But another factor was surely that Whistler made sarcastic remarks about Turner which had no doubt come to Ruskin's ear. Whistler had early on copied a Turner, but evidently suffered the common phenomenon of resenting the domination of a predecessor. His reaction prompted an equal reaction in a “neurotic” Ruskin. Meanwhile it is suggested here by Jan Zalasiewicz that the fact of the scientist John Tyndall being “the alter ego of Ruskin” “might help explain the virulence of Ruskin's attacks” on him.

It is now realised that Turner and Ruskin quarrelled in the last years of the former, though after Turner's death his housekeeper said that he loved Ruskin. (Turner, of course, quarrelled with quite a few people, though usually eventually resumed friendly relations). It has been very improbably suggested that the quarrel was over money. Ruskin's father, however, made the purchases of Turners and through Turner's agent Thomas Griffith (whom Ruskin trusted, but his father did not). Much more likely Ruskin's propensity to lecture and direct was resented by Turner, who had very firm views of his own. (Some today speculate that Turner would like this or that – usually in conformity with their own ideas, such as ignoring his expressed wishes for his bequests – which must be treated with considerable scepticism). Though Ruskin reported his injunction to him to “keep together” his works, when it came to it, Ruskin did not follow that to the letter. Though the film Mr Turner gave a grotesque picture of the young Ruskin, that had a grain of truth in it. Timothy Spall in his essay on Turner the man rightly highlights the contradictoriness of his character (elements of which were beyond his powers to act out, though he made a good stab at it), and both artist and critic were people of complexity impossible to reduce to a caricature.

Kitson remarked that Ruskin had a very limited idea of Turner's early work, which was often sombre, until the whole of Turner's Gallery began to be put on view at Marlborough House in 1856. Ruskin's published notes on the first tranche of those Kitson told his students of Turner to read before anything else, and they deserve to be better known. (We published Ruskin's comments as a booklet with the arrangement following that at the Clore Gallery when it opened, but the treatment of the Turners at the Clore has been so disruptive that that quickly lost its validity). In that he wrote of Peace – Burial at Sea “Spoiled by Turner's endeavour to give funereal and unnatural blackness to the sails... There are several pictures of this kind in the National collection, which are all but valueless among so many beautiful ones, but which would be precious to students in our provincial towns...” This picture is now one of the most admired, whereas its companion, The Exile and the Rock Limpet, has been less so. Of that Ruskin wrote, “once a noble piece of colour, now quite changed … The conceit of Napoleon's seeing a resemblance in the limpet's shell to a tent was thought trivial by most people at the time; it may be so (though not to my mind) ...” Ruskin's preference of the second picture over the first lay surely partly in the scarlet hues of the second as against the unrelieved blackness in the first. This poses the question of whether, when years later he conjured up “the storm cloud”, he might have thought differently.

This deviation from Turner's wishes did not mean that he did not fundamentally agree with Turner. In 1867 he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton about the Liber Studiorum: “... every touch in these plates is related to every other … and … each of these designs is connected by all manner of strange intellectual chords and nerves with the pathos and history of this old English country of ours; and on the other side with the history of European mind from earliest mythology down to modern rationalism – or ir-rationalism ...” Nor was Ruskin cavalier about the sanctity of wills. In 1869 he wrote to Norton, his literary executor, when planning to leave his Turner and other oils to Oxford, “if my next of kin go into chancery, fight them until there's no money left – and then give up the Turners for my drawings – it will be a lovely lesson to the nation of the beauty of the law – far more useful to them than any Turners.” (In the case of Turner's will, however, it was his executors, not his next-of-kin as often stated, who “went into chancery”).

An editorial note later remarked that Ruskin's idea of sending the more unpopular paintings to the provinces was permitted by Act of Parliament in 1883, the disastrous first step in the dispersal of Turner's Gallery and nullification of Turner's conditions for it. Lady Eastlake in her attack on Ruskin charged him with dereliction of duty in resigning as an executor of Turner's will. She had various reasons for turning against Turner, whom she once admired, and one may have been that her husband, Sir Charles, had not been made one of the executors. Another who had been, the Keeper at the RA, George Jones, had challenged Eastlake to a duel. Turner, who had been a good friend of Sir Charles and Lady Eastlake, was said to be thinking of quitting the RA at the end of his life (he probably, among other reasons, resented not even being offered the Presidency in 1850 when Sir Charles was elected). Meanwhile Ruskin, when championing Turner in 1843, had characterised Eastlake's paintings by some lines of verse which now, if not then, sound insulting and in 1855 was openly critical of Eastlake's painting. So at Turner's death there was an open breach between part of the Turner circle and the Eastlakes. Meanwhile there was an impasse over the future site of the National Gallery, a Turner wing to which the artist had specified should be built.

It has been suggested that Ruskin resigned as executor because the legal questions were merely a distraction for an intellectual such as himself from more important work. But Ruskin was not a cloistered academic but a hands-on campaigner on artistic and social matters, taking time off to repair an Oxford road etc. There are other more plausible reasons (besides his views not being identical to Turner's). First, he was under pressure from his wife, father, and father's solicitor not to get involved. Second, he would have been part of a committee of executors, whereas he was never a committee person, but, as was said of Sir Lawrence Gowing, always wanted to be in charge and at the head. The senior executor, the Revd Henry Scott Trimmer, he had probably never met. With others he got on well enough - Rogers, Harpur, Griffith — but two of these resigned. Griffith, the first to do so before Ruskin, had at first disagreed with the Ruskins in believing that the watercolours were included in the bequest to the National Gallery, and, when that was disproved, and it was thought that they should be sold, no doubt thought that he would have a conflict of interest as both executor and agent. Charles Turner Ruskin called a liar. And there was Munro of Novar, like Ruskin a Scot and graduate of Christ Church Oxford, who was a Turner collector in rivalry with Ruskin; he eventually resigned from the ad hoc committee appointed by Eastlake (with Roberts and Stanfield) to arrange the display of the oils.

Amy Concannon of the Tate in her essay on Ruskin and the Turner Bequest wrongly states that Eastlake was one of Turner's executors. (Others have claimed the same with regard to Charles Stokes, who was on good terms with the Eastlakes and sometimes misleadingly called “Turner's stockbroker”). She no doubt copied that from someone else. The history of these events continues to be written by the art establishment which is keen to uphold its heroes and maintain the status quo and so ignores the facts. Eastlake was a well-meaning man who helped the National Gallery expand its collection of Old Masters. But, as both Director of the gallery and President of the Royal Academy, had a conflict of interest when it came to deciding which body should be booted out of the Trafalgar Square building. This helped lead to a fatal stasis until after his death. This was the cause of the failure to create the Turner Wing within the ten-year period set by Turner and so of its being postponed for ever. It had nothing to do with Turner's cousins or muddles over the will, which only affected Turner's unfinished works and second great aim, damned by Lady Eastlake, of creating an almshouse for “decayed artists”. So far from all the money for that going to the cousins, as usually stated, a large chunk, following Eastlake's intervention in the Chancery case, went to the RA, whose Turner Fund today (worth £1 million?) is spent, not as was settled then against Eastlake's wishes, on Turner's objectives, but in recent years on quite different ones.

Ruskin from the start had the valuable insight that the only way to preserve Turner's main objectives was to abandon the wing to the National Gallery and build a separate museum for the Turner Gallery (as Turner had in effect provided for in the years 1832-48, when he despaired of the National Gallery). Of course this had the attraction for him that he might become its curator, and not subject to the hopeless Eastlake (in the event Ruskin dealt only with Eastlake's no.2, Wornum). He might be criticised – I think unfairly – for preferring again his own ideas to Turner's. Of course his own ideas developed over time, including those for how art galleries should be organised (not fully appreciated by Tristram Hunt in his lecture on “Ruskin & the Idea of the Museum” to be repeated next November).

An example of how he could contradict himself is in the matter of conservation, on which he is rightly seen as a major champion. However when Sir J.C.Robinson complained that the National Gallery had allowed Turner's watercolours to fade from overexposure, Ruskin sided, against all the scientific evidence, with what might be described as the Turner coterie. (I wrote up the dispute some years ago in ArtWatchUK Journal). The reason for this is that Ruskin had conflicting aims – to preserve the watercolours and to educate people by circulating and exhibiting them. It was only after Turner's death that he realised that Turner had two aims which conflicted (the gallery and the almshouse), inasmuch as he had to sell pictures to endow the second, whereas some, probably including Ruskin, thought the money so accumulated would have been better spent on paying for the erection and endowment of the gallery.

I make these criticisms here not for the sake of criticising, but because I think these questions are important for the biographers of Ruskin, if they are concerned with his motivations. Moreover, while the flowering of Ruskin studies has been remarkable, these have latterly focused little on his interest in Turner. In September we shall be commemorating the centenary of a Ruskin biographer who took a considerable interest in them, Sir Edward Tyas Cook. Another who also publicly intervened was William White. Whitehouse at least once took a party of Ruskinians to the British Museum to view the Turners there. In more recent years the late Luke Herrmann produced a beautiful catalogue misleadingly called “Ruskin & Turner” which James Dearden rightly criticised. More recently still Dinah Birch has written Ruskin on Turner (1990), which condemned the non-fulfilment of Turner's testamentary conditions. Of course Ruskin comes into a number of Turner exhibition catalogues, just as Turner comes into a number of books on Ruskin. But was not there a plan to produce a catalogue raisonné of all the Turners which Ruskin owned?

There have been two reasons for the neglect. First, Ruskin's interests were so diverse that no one person today is going to share all of them. George Landow has had the good idea of asking Ruskinians to describe how they first became interested in our hero. In my case it was not to do with Turner. Secondly, the literature on both people has expanded so greatly that it is difficult for any one person to master both corpuses.

However in the case of this exhibition, it is disappointing that no reference is made to William Rodner's J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution (1997). I arranged for Rodner to give a talk on this at the Courtauld Institute, and was entranced by all the images of steam boats crossing rivers and lakes, the smoke billowing away very picturesquely. He also reproduced an early photograph of a lone steamer on the horizon which I find very poignant. It is possible to view these without any thoughts of pollution. Nor is mentioned James Hamilton's Turner and the Scientists (1998). Nor indeed David Hill's Turner and Leeds: Image of Industry (2008). The last is about a panorama of Leeds with its chimneys pouring out smoke, not least from the factories of the Marshalls, who went on to escape to the Lake District, where they built villas on almost every lake, some considered almost as great a blot as the introduction of the railway.

Although a few patrons of Turner are quite widely known, such as Fawkes and Egremont, a host of others are not, though some might rightly be said to constitute the Turner Circle, which overlapped with the Ruskin one. Some belonged to the same learned societies of which Ruskin was a member; though Turner was not a member, he was a guest of many societies and clubs. Two of these will be the subject of talks we are holding in November – Elhanan Bicknell and Benjamin Godfrey Windus, both industrialists and both intimates of Ruskin. In the oft-quoted passage from the catalogue of the exhibition of Ruskin's Turners at the Fine Art Society in 1878 Bicknell and Windus are listed as the main collectors of Turner along with the Ruskins in the 1840s, though for long they have shared comparative obscurity along with others.

There were others who were not wealthy enough to be counted among the main collectors, but yet were enthusiastic Turnerians. One such was the Revd William Towler Kingsley, the centenary of whose death in 2016 was marked by informative essays by Helen Gleave and Clive Wilmer. (In 1980 I called at his Yorkshire parish and met a nonagenarian who said he had known Kingsley and had his table at which Ruskin and Turner had sat; no one followed this up and the table has now disappeared!). Kingsley was for years a science lecturer at Cambridge and there are letters in which Ruskin and Kingsley hotly dispute a scientific question. Sandra Kemp mentions Ruskin's interest in telescopes. Kingsley had them in every room of his Yorkshire rectory. Are there more letters that await to be unearthed? In 2018 a biography was published of a son of Elhanan Bicknell, Clarence, by the late Valerie Lester (Marvels: The Life of Clarence Bicknell, Botanist, Archaeologist, Artist). His life paralleled that of Ruskin, Kingsley and other Victorians who grew up in a very Christian environment, which then became challenged by the discoveries of science. Clarence abandoned his vocation as a clergyman and took up the study of flora and geology, producing beautiful watercolours of the first, exhibited at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Trinity College Cambridge.

One mischief of all the current intellectual activity is that it promotes loan and circulating exhibitions such as this one. Turner is a particular victim as his name helps promote an exhibition, whether or not his works are really necessary for it. Everyone is keen to have a piece of Turner, while Turner's wishes are regarded as rather a boring irrelevance. When I first approached Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran about the Turner Bequest, he was mainly concerned to borrow some Turner watercolours to promote Brantwood. Of course there were no testamentary provisions against lending the watercolours or the unfinished oils in the “bequest”, but, as we have seen, there are issues of conservation which Ruskin was the first to champion. Lloyd did however say it was disgraceful for the Severns to sell off Ruskin's Turners contrary to Ruskin's wishes. Ruskin himself strongly deprecated sending Turners around “for a show”, as I mentioned in my talk on 12 June.

In the case of this exhibition, I think there could have been a choice of more relevant Turners. For example his panoramas of London. First the large very early watercolour from the direction of Clapham, which I was very sorry to part with, when its then owner lent it to me. This showed a still largely rural scene, with any smoke rather distant and sparse. Then a decade later there are the views from Greenwich, of which the watercolour one in particular shows a city wreathed in smoke from ships and other sources. This poses the question of when the London smog really became a major issue rather than just a fact of life and why it was only late in life that Ruskin wrote about the “storm cloud”.

Ruskin as critic – whether of art or society – should not be the subject of just academic study, but of people who are “engagés”, as Baudelaire said critics should be. Ruskinians have been in the social field – and the concern here with climate change is an example – but less so in the art field. Kyffin Williams was outspoken in his condemnation of modern art as either being bad or not art. Brian Sewell too was outspoken. Both shunned the art establishment. Is there a way to apply Ruskinian ideas fruitfully to a critique of contemporary art, which must also involve criticism of society? There are of course conservatives who attack contemporary art, mainly because it has abandoned tradition, but Ruskin was a champion of art that was revolutionary. But some revolutions are more constructive than others.

David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw, has been fearlessly independent. While others have been reluctant to criticise the art institutions, he has not. In its July/August 2019 issue he begins, “The Museums Journal is a cowardly servant of State Art policy”, in an attack on Manchester Art Gallery and its politicisation. Artists in the past, including Turner, have made art which has a political message. And in his day the creation of museums had a political purpose – to tranquillise the populace by making it more civilised or to put before it images of heroes people should strive to emulate. But the purposes today are to disrupt and in conflict with the enjoyment of the historical art which such museums may have been created to keep and show. This is something quite new and to be deplored. It smacks of the Iconoclastic movements which were so negative and so damaging to the idea that art, rather than gesturing, is of positive social value.

Maybe in the Fine Arts there has been an irreparable break with tradition as has occasionally occurred in past ages. But in the case of architecture there is still a need to promote the beautiful and functional and to condemn what fails on those scores. Modernists such as Sir Richard Rogers and traditionalists can agree that some buildings have no merit at all. Of course subjective issues of taste prevent universal agreement, as Ruskin showed. His denunciation of classical architecture, as of classical painting, does not receive general assent. Quite possibly he was prejudiced against the first by its association with Rome and the Roman church. His championship of Gothic, on the other hand, produced buildings that he condemned. But, even if not entirely successful in his advocacy, his writings raised awareness of the importance of good architecture, and there is surely a field here today for Ruskinians to band with those with similar concerns.

Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud reproduces many works which are not in the exhibition, and which seem to be introduced for local rather than thematic reasons. One such is Turner's beautiful Windermere of 1821, which was given to Abbot Hall Art Gallery through my late friend the dealer Duncan Campbell. One may contrast this with a later watercolour of the same lake at Manchester Art Gallery – a contrast not only of styles but of different states of preservation, the Manchester one being sadly faded.

The foregoing may sound unduly critical of a show which is primarily designed to celebrate a bicentenary, which for most people it does very well. My aim, however, is to suggest that there is scope for a great deal more research – not least among the correspondence of Ruskin and others of his circle. Alan Cole, onetime chairman of the old Turner Society, tells me he has a book of letters on the stocks. I have come across a number of unpublished Ruskin letters which are either informative or highly descriptive. I imagine that there must be hundreds more. It must be hoped that the Ruskin Library will encourage the discovery and publication of these and of ones by others that help to cast light on Ruskin's complex and changing ideas and on the way his life influenced those.

Last modified 6 July 2019