Since 2019 marks the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth, there has been an explosion of interest in the form of events, books, articles, etc. The Radio 4 In Our Time episode devoted to Ruskin in 2005 wondered if 2019 would see as much enthusiasm for him as his centenary year in 1919: i can’t compare but I’ve been impressed with the range of celebratory events on offer this year. And rightly so: Ruskin was a polymath, a man whose writing cover an extraordinary range of areas, from art to economics, climate to education. And, Suzanne Fagence Cooper argues, we ignore him at our peril.
This is a fairly short, delightful book which must have a wide appeal. Whether you are a seasoned reader of Ruskin, or a complete newcomer to his work, it has some things to say to you. It’s impressive how effectively Fagence Cooper has managed to cover the breadth of Ruskin’s ideas here; it gives a taste which leaves one wanting more (I am about to reread Fors Clavigera now). This is managed by providing chapters which focus on certain things (‘Seeing’, ‘Drawing’, ‘Building’, ‘Travelling’, ‘Loving’, ‘Losing’, ‘Working’ and ‘Learning’). But rather than dividing up Ruskin’s ideas into neat chunks which are too easily digested and forgotten, she emphasises the interconnectedness of these ideas, opening with a discussion of Venetian glass, and how its beauty correlates with the hard, underpaid labour of the workers who produced it. And one thread that runs through all of the discussion is the emphasis on seeing:
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.
Seeing, that is, properly seeing, not glancing, is how we might learn about the world: how nature changes with the seasons, how a leaf is constructed, how a building is ornamented or supported, how workers suffer when they are not paid a living wage, how the world’s climate is suffering because of human actions. If you see thoroughly, it forces you to take responsibility. And it also enables you to represent the world truthfully, in drawing, writing, speaking, and in your dealings with others.
Ruskin’s ideas, his life, his writing, and how he came to develop the ideas he had, are covered sympathetically, even lovingly, but what sets this book apart, in my view, is its (appropriate) insistence on the value Ruskin’s ideas have today. Fagence Cooper does not dismiss or excuse the problems the 21st century has with Ruskin (his friendships with young girls, his supposed attitudes towards women, his religious faith, etc) but instead works with them, analysing them and making them a part of her – and our – understanding of a complex Victorian man. He is not, perhaps, as misogynistic and elitist as he is sometimes painted, though of course he is embedded in the patriarchal class system of his time, and from a privileged family, but he acknowledges his privilege and points the way towards a fairer economic and educational system; as the book points out, his work inspired more 19th and 20th century socialists than Marx and Engels, despite our modern conceptions of this.
And his political ideas all stem from this careful looking: from trying to see the world as it really is, in all its beauty and misery. His first love, and first observations, were of the natural world, in a small garden as a child with no toys available. From this small beginning he saw further and more deeply until he became the most influential art critic and lecturer of his time, which provided a platform for his views on society. His position also gave him the opportunity to do good, from personally repaving roads with his Oxford students to setting up museums where those who have neither leisure nor money to look at Venetian buildings could examine drawings, photographs and replicas. He is an inspiration for our troubled times, and I am seeing with fresh eyes after reading this book.