Was the remarkable life of this man saved by the
mineral waters of Leamington Spa at the age of 21?
John Ruskin was a writer, artist, art critic and polymath who was precocious at all stages of his life. He championed J M W Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Gothic architecture and the Arts and Crafts Movement, and was the first Professor of Fine Art appointed at Oxford.
He was almost exactly a Victorian, having been born in London in 1819, the same year as the Queen, but he died a year before the Queen. He was the only child of wealthy high-minded parents. They greatly encouraged and protected him. His father John was a prosperous wine merchant who had worked his way up from clerk to become a partner in his company. He wanted his son to be a poet. On the other hand his mother, Margaret Cox, was the exceedingly pious and genteel daughter of the landlord of the Old Kings Head at Croydon. She wanted Ruskin to be a Man of God. His father took Ruskin with him when visiting business clients in country houses, exposing him at an early age to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of accomplished drawings of landscapes, buildings and maps; remarkable for a boy of his age.
In 1836 Ruskin matriculated to Oxford as gentleman-commoner at Christ Church college. His mother took rooms in Oxford to look after him. At this time he began thinking deeply about Life, God and Art.
In 1841 the life of this unique man was possibly saved by the waters of Leamington Priors. While he was up at Christ Church a haemorrhage, diagnosed as a symptom of consumption, gave cause for anxiety and he came to Leamington to consult Dr Jephson who put him on a course of baths and exercise. In the “small square brick lodging-house” at No 8, Russell Terrace where he stayed for most of the six weeks he was in town. During that time he worked on “The King of the Golden River” which is a fairy-tale he wrote for twelve-year-old Euphemia Gray, daughter of friends of his parents (in 1848 they were married). The story was about Christian morality and charity and was set in the Alpine landscape which Ruskin loved and knew so well. It remains the most translated of all his works. After the treatment, Ruskin wrote, “he (Jephson) told me, I doubt not truly, that my health was in my own hands.”
Ruskin soon abandoned the Honours degree and he was awarded an unusual Double Fourth Pass Degree in Classics and Mathematics. After Oxford he toyed with ordination but soon pursued his chosen career which was that of supreme amateur and inspired dilettante. He developed a defiant enthusiasm for J M W (William) Turner whose landscapes he admired but his passion soon moved from landscape to architecture.
Link to “Venice at Sunrise” by Turner
He quickly came to admire the true Gothic style although he had little contact with many other styles. However he did not like synthetic Gothic, eg Barry’s Houses of Parliament. The University Museum at Oxford is a fine example of the Venetian Gothic he especially admired. His “Seven Lamps of Architecture” identified the seven distinguishing characteristics of Gothic which he favoured.
A key moment was in 1849 when he arrived in Venice and began to write one of his masterworks, “The Stones of Venice”, a publication in three volumes including 450,000 words and many of his illustrations. At this time he was a man of debilitating inner torments which persisted for much of the remainder of his life.
As noted earlier he married Euphemia (Effie) Gray in 1848 although he was apparently sexually naïve. In 1854 his marriage to Effie was annullled. She soon married John Millais, a Pre-Raphaelite artist, and bore him eight children. Ruskin subsequently had a tempestuous love affair with Rose La Touche who was 30 years his junior.
Ruskin initially loved to write his exaggerated purple passages of prose. However the elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing on art was later superseded by a preference for plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In 1869 Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford and performed his duties in eccentric style. In 1871 Ruskin founded his own art school at Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, which continues to thrive.
In July 1877 Ruskin launched a scathing attack on paintings by James McNeill Whistler at the Grosvenor Gallery. He accused Whistler of “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin which Whistler won but the jury awarded damages of only one farthing to the artist. Ruskin’s share of court costs was paid by public subscription but Whistler was unable to pay and was bankrupted within six months. The episode tarnished Ruskin’s reputation, however, and may have accelerated his mental decline. Around this time he also lost his Christian faith.
Link to “Nocturne in Black and Gold” by Whistler
Ruskin is remembered as an artist, critic, pundit on aesthetics and ethics, thinker and seer. He was also a social revolutionary who challenged the moral foundations of Victorian Britain. He despised capitalism and the barbarians who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. A pioneering conservationist, he foresaw the ‘green-house effect’ more than a century ago. Ruskin was a true polymath. His interests were far-ranging, from the geological structure of the Alps to his observations of the malignant effects of the Industrial Revolution on the pollution of the environment and men’s souls. In 1900 he died at Lake Coniston in the Lake District where there is now a museum in his memory.
A selection of Works by Ruskin -
Modern Painters (5 volumes, 1843-60)
The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)
The Stones of Venice (3 volumes, 1851-3)
Primary sources for this article include -
Editor’s notes by Jan Morris in an edition of The Stones of Venice (1981)
The Ruskin Museum
The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art
Short article on Ruskin on Leamington Town Council website
The Blue Plaque at 8 Russell Terrace is sponsored by Royal Leamington Spa Town Council
Mick Jeffs, February 2015