Dr. Sarah Casey, Senior Lecturer in Drawing and Installation at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, writes,
In his Elements of Drawing (1857), Ruskin wrote ‘I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw’ (John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, 1970 edition , p.13).
In other words, he advocated drawing as a means for seeing and understanding the world around us. This ethos of using drawing to better know the world also underpins the learning objectives of Lancaster University’s undergraduate module ‘Documentary Drawing’ taught by Gerry Davies and Sarah Casey to students in Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts. The module is structured around a series of weekly challenges each requiring students to adapt their graphic approach to best capture the specificities of the environment and subject matter presented to them. What better way to introduce this approach to drawing than visit the current exhibition The Ruskin Museum of the Near Future?
So, last week, a group of 20 students came to The Ruskin armed with notebook and pencil. Students were introduced to Ruskin’s approach to drawing and saw first hand examples of the way he and other artists examined a range of subjects – from environment to architecture – using graphic means. Their task was to explore the exhibition and identify drawings of particular interest from which to make a transcription. In keeping with the module aims, no cameras are allowed. The challenge was to identify point of interest and work out how to make a record of these using only their notebook and pencil.
In addition to viewing the exhibition, the students also had the opportunity to work from collection items in the study room. A number of notebooks and drawings from the archive had been brought out specifically for this purpose. For many students, this was their first archival experience. The opportunity to learn how an archive works, the protocol around studying archival material, such as restrictions on drawing materials, touching and liquids all formed part of their training as investigative drawers.
So, after two hours of almost hallowed silence and deep concentration, we were exhausted. But we had at least six of drawings each to take away as a reminder of this wonderful opportunity and of our capacity to see the world more clearly, when we slow down and take the time to draw it.
In this post, Dr Claire Nally (Northumbria University) reflects on the connections between Ruskin’s thought and Steampunk culture, a subject she explored as part of our recent research seminar series, Ruskin & Steampunk: Recovering Radicalism.
In The Steampunk Bible, Jake von Slatt’s article ‘A Steampunk Manifesto’ suggests that steampunk practice is a contestation of contemporary mainstream, mass–produced culture:
The only future we are promised is the one in development in the corporate R&D labs of the world. We are shown glimpses of the next generation of cell phones, laptops, or MP3 players. Magazines that used to attempt to show us how we would be living in fifty or one hundred years, now only speculate over the new surround-sound standard for your home theater, or whether next year’s luxury sedan will have Bluetooth as standard equipment.
This statement of steampunk’s rebellion against the mass-produced, sleek lines of contemporary commodity culture provides a useful comparison to the ways in which the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement can be used to read the steampunk subculture. Steampunk artists often take something from our modern-day culture, such as the computer, and retro-fit it, or imagine its aesthetic value when invested with nineteenth century images. So one famous example, a steampunk computer, may be fitted with an old typewriter keyboard for an antiquated look. Perhaps the most important example of this work is Datamancer (Richard Nagy), whose website explains:
The idea was to build a full computer station from every significant artistic decade in history. From Art Deco, to Victorian, and even back to Gothic design. It started with a Victorian style brass keyboard […] which pioneered the idea of typewriter key caps on a modern keyboard.
This combination of modern utility with historical style is a hallmark of steampunk design. These are practical everyday objects converted to a steampunk aesthetic: wood, brass, cogs, the inner working of machines.
Interestingly, many steampunked items are custom-made and marketed through the possibilities allowed by Web 2.0 sites such as Etsy’s craft community, promoting as it does an international network of small businesses and collective engagement. As David Gauntlett argues in Making is Connecting (2013):
Web 2.0, as an approach to the web, is about harnessing the collective abilities of the members of an online network, to make an especially powerful resource or service. But, thinking beyond the Web, it may also be valuable to consider Web 2.0 as a metaphor, for any collective activity which is enabled by people’s passions and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.
So part of the idea of collectivity and subculture in steampunk is communicated via very modern technology, whereas prior subcultures, such as punk or goth, originally had to rely on analogue methods.
Other steampunk manifestos seem quite emphatically embedded in presenting a steampunk which maps an awareness of the inequalities of the past onto the present, proposing social and aesthetic reform. The Steampunk Magazine is a foundational publication in this respect. The opening article of the first issue, ‘What then, is steampunk?’ articulates this most forcefully:
We seek inspiration in the smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless Empire. We find solidarity and inspiration in the mad bombers with ink-stained cuffs, in whip-wielding women that yield to none, in coughing chimney sweeps who have escaped the rooftops and joined the circus, and in mutineers who have gone native and have handed the tools of their masters to those most ready to use them.
This argument puts the injustices of Victoria’s reign – women’s rights, Empire, class distinctions, working children and poverty – at the forefront of steampunk practice, and aligns steampunk radicalism with the outsider in the nineteenth century. The ‘whip-wielding women’ (whilst being suggestively sexual), possibly refers to suffragette figures like Emily Wilding Davison, who famously attacked a vicar with a dog whip in 1913, mistaking him for the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Sympathy with ‘mad bombers’ is likely a gesture towards anarchist agitation in the period, and perhaps specifically references the Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894 (immortalised in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent). So in many ways, the magazine presents itself as an activist publication in this opening issue, and this version of steampunk is aided by its publication context, its status as an online zine, and its political content. And in addressing the production of the magazine as well as its content, we can uncover the radicalism which steampunk can represent.
So how does steampunk correlate with the work of Ruskin? Martin Danahay’s discussion of steampunk and Arts and Crafts, as influenced by Ruskin, highlights how both ‘rejected industrialised manufacturing and emphasized a return to small-scale production of handcrafted objects.’ Much of the DIY ethics of steampunk has a similar trajectory, even if it celebrates the industrial machinery which the Arts and Crafts movement rejected. Ruskin’s comment in The Stones of Venice (1851–53), that industrial production renders the worker akin to a machine, plainly espouses artistic freedom instead of mass-produced monotony:
Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.(10.192)
There is a tension here between such dehumanization, and the celebration of the prosthetic in steampunk performances. Steampunk arms, hands, and mechanical attachments to the body all suggest an uneasy negotiation of our relationship with machinery. But in each instance, the hallmark of the steampunk aesthetic is the imperfect, as the Catastrophone Orchestra article in The Steampunk Magazine makes clear: ‘Imperfection, chaos, chance, and obsolescence are not to be seen as faults, but as ways of allowing spontaneous liberation from the predictability of perfection.’
Danahay describes this correlation between steampunk and Ruskin’s work as the ‘as both the rejection of industrialized mass production and the promotion of humane conditions of labour’ (p. 42). These discussions of labour and exploitation, the role of technology, DIY and resistance, find a focal point in The Steampunk Magazine, which lasted for nine issues, and delivered interviews with writers, such as Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore, as well as musicians and bands. The magazine also published original fiction and poetry on steampunk themes, but a large part of the publication was comprised of non-fiction articles, including descriptions of the subculture, lifestyle advice, and hints and tips for makers and DIY practitioners (for instance, ‘It Can’t All Be Brass, Dear: Paper Maché in the Modern Home’, ‘Sew an Aviator’s Cap’, ‘Sew Yourself a Lady’s Artisan Apron’). At the heart of many articles is an incendiary plan to revolutionise society (‘The Courage to Kill a King: Anarchists in a Time of Regicide’, ‘Nevermind the Morlocks: Here’s Occupy Wall Street’, ‘On Race and Steampunk: A Quick Primer’, ‘Riot Grrls, 19th Century Style’).
One of the most compelling facts about steampunk is that despite its emphasis on material, tactile culture, its visibility online (through maker websites like Etsy, community forums such as ‘Brass Goggles’, online publications such as The Steampunk Journal, and designated groups on Facebook, among many other sites and forums) mean that steampunk’s digital footprint is extensive, as is now common to many subcultures. Indeed, in many ways, The Steampunk Magazine participates in constructing and maintaining the imagined subcultural community of steampunk. In his definitive statement on nationalism, Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson maintained that ‘[the nation] is an imagined political community […] because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or ever hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’ These subcultural communities function in a similar way. As Danahay again remarks:
There are no steampunk communities in the sense envisioned by […] the Arts and Crafts movement. Rather, there are steampunk websites, discussion groups, and Facebook groups, as well as frequent temporary gatherings at conventions and other social events. People involved often refer to the “steampunk community,” but this term refers to purely virtual and abstract social grouping. Thanks to the Internet, those involved in steampunk can believe that they are members of a group, even if their connection remains entirely virtual. (p. 42)
In many ways, this is a navigation of Ruskin’s theorisation of guilds and workers’ collectives. In part, there is a strong sense of community in steampunk practice, but there is also the valorisation of the cult of the individual: the name of the maker, akin to a brand, also acquires visibility, as with post-romantic art and literature generally.
This context is especially important for The SteampunkMagazine, which was initially published in 2007 online and in print, and remains one of the best examples of resistant steampunk practice. The Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, publishing in Issue 1 of The Steampunk Magazine, suggests that ‘Steampunk rejects the myopic, nostalgia-drenched politics so common among “alternative” cultures […] Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk, in all its guises.’ This also summarises the ethos of the magazine very effectively. As a manifesto to steampunk practice, this perspective neatly situates itself against an uncritical nostalgia which replicates the Victorian age without any political critique. Relatedly, in some ways, steampunk more generally also carries the implicit burden of Ruskin’s critique of the nineteenth century. Steampunk has much to say about aesthetics in the contemporary moment: how we relate to machinery, the status of the individual in contemporary culture, and the ways in which subcultures engage with these key cultural themes. We might also say that in dialogue with historical figures like Ruskin, steampunk acquires a new level of depth and complexity.
In 1822, at the age of three and a half, Ruskin was taken to the London studio of James Northcote to sit for his portrait. We know about the making of this picture because more than half a century afterwards Ruskin wrote about it, in an instalment of Fors Clavigera (1871–84) which he later incorporated into his autobiography Praeterita (1885–9). Northcote was seventy-six when the portrait was painted: as Ruskin describes him in retrospect he is emphatically old, ‘old Mr Northcote’, ‘the old painter’. Ruskin himself was fifty-six when he recalled this episode in Fors, and ten years older when the opening chapters of Praeterita were published. In various ways this memory of the portrait offers a tiny emblem of the work of autobiography: staging, and restaging, the continuing encounter between youth and age, self and others, that culminates in the autobiographer’s encounter with his own child-self, and locating the origins of adult qualities and accomplishments, the well-springs of character (often, for Ruskin, associated with real remembered wells and springs).
The immediate context for the portrait sitting in the first chapter of Praeterita is Ruskin’s consideration of his very early upbringing. He was generally left to his own devices by his mother, so long as he was ‘neither fretful nor troublesome’: he recalls being ‘always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs’. He was allowed only the simplest toys (a ball, a bunch of keys, some wooden bricks), and was strictly required to occupy himself: ‘the law was, that I should find my own amusement’. As a consequence, by his fourth year he was content to pass a day at home in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury by ‘tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;—examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses’. Without quite saying so, Ruskin is describing an education in looking, patiently and closely and accurately. And he tells us that his eye for visual detail was so acute that when he was brought for the first time to Northcote’s studio in Argyll Street, Soho ‘I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet’.
The intensity of the child’s gaze is funny but also disconcerting: he is there to be looked at, after all. As the passage continues, too, Ruskin brings to bear the grown-up version of that faculty, turning the practised gaze of an art-critic and teacher on Northcote’s work in the past, and good-naturedly picking holes in it. Looking at the portrait now he sees ‘a very pretty child with yellow hair, dressed in a white frock like a girl, with a broad light-blue sash and blue shoes to match; the feet of the child wholesomely large in proportion to its body; and the shoes still more wholesomely large in proportion to the feet’. Those sound like faults of proportion, noted with amusement; but more striking in the picture than the relative size of body, feet, and shoes is the perfect stillness of the child’s head atop a rushing body. As Ruskin notes, ‘I am represented as running in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds; while two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance’. Surely he means he was misrepresented as doing so: the romping pose is no more faithful to sitter or occasion than is Northcote’s reproduction of the mannerisms of the artist who had been his own teacher a generation before. And indeed Ruskin notes that Northcote found him a convenient sitter exactly because of his stillness, his ability to remain ‘contentedly motionless, counting the holes in his carpet’; a quality visible in the finished portrait only in the placid immobility of the child’s expression, unmoved even by the little dog in the foreground who so clearly wants to play with him, and about whom the grown-up Ruskin, oddly, says nothing at all.
He does tell us that the hills in the background ‘were put in by the painter at my own request’, and that he had asked specifically for blue hills, not so that they should match his shoes but because ‘I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland; and my Scottish nurse having always sung to me as we approached the Tweed or Esk,—
“For Scotland, my darling, lies full in thy view,
With her barefooted lassies, and mountains so blue,”
the idea of distant hills was connected in my mind with approach to the extreme felicities of life, in my Scottish aunt’s garden of gooseberry bushes, sloping to the Tay.’ The river at the bottom of that garden, Ruskin has already told us in this chapter, ran ‘clear-brown over the pebbles three or four feet deep; swift-eddying,—an infinite thing for a child to look down into’. It is one of many streams that flow through the early pages of Praeterita, affording the young Ruskin ‘occasional glimpses of the rivers of Paradise’: ‘the delicious dripping’ after the water-carts were filled from a stand-pipe in Brunswick Square; ‘the spring of crystal water at the back door’ of another aunt’s house at Croydon; ‘the cress-set rivulets in which the sand danced and minnows darted above the Springs of Wandel’. The couplet endearingly repeated by Ruskin’s nurse comes from Robert Bloomfield’s ‘Song, For a Highland Drover returning from England’ (1801), a cattle-drover’s joyful apostrophe to the River Tweed on a homeward journey through the Scottish Borders. Yet when the Ruskins visited Scotland they both were and were not returning from England, and his aunt’s house at Perth was not home for Ruskin: home, rather, already, seems to have been no place in particular but just the visible, whatever lay full in his view, the infinite felicity of moving water, the mountains rising before him.
Oliver Herford is Birmingham Fellow in Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century at the University of Birmingham, where he co-directs the Centre for Literary Editing and the Materiality of the Text. He is the author of Henry James’s Style of Retrospect: Late Personal Writings, 1890–1915 (OUP, 2016) and a number of articles on related aspects of James’s non-fictional style, and is currently editing the Prefaces to the New York Edition for the Cambridge Edition of The Complete Fiction of Henry James (CUP, forthcoming). He was President of the Henry James Society for 2018. Oliver has also published on the links between portraiture, letter-writing and life-writing in the circle of John Keats, and his next research project will be a study of nineteenth-century literary correspondence.
In this post, Kelly Freeman (UCL) and Thomas Hughes (The Courtauld Institute of Art) discuss ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’, the interdisciplinary seminar series and workshop delivered in collaboration with The Ruskin in the Spring. These events have paved the way for a forthcoming book, Ruskin’s Ecologies, and reflect The Ruskin’s commitment to supporting the development and publication of new research.
Can Ruskin’s ideas inspire new thinking in art history, material culture and environmental studies? Our recent seminar series and workshop, ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’, certainly suggests that it can.
This series was a collaborative undertaking. Working in partnership with The Ruskin, we brought together scholars and Ruskin enthusiasts from across the UK and from the US for an extended consideration of Ruskin’s thinking about the relation between nature, society, art and architecture.
Over the course of three seminars and a workshop, we discussed and debated topics ranging from Ruskin’s garden to pollution and climate change, and from organicism in art and architecture to interrelations between surface and depth.
Thomas brought both of these latter subjects to the fore in the paper he delivered at our first seminar, ‘Surface, Depth and Form in Ruskin’s Gothic Naturalism’. This paper placed a familiar subject in a new light by formulating an interpretation of Ruskin’s ideas about the gothic through fleshy metaphor and organic analogy. Building on the work of Anuradha Chatterjee, Thomas explored the ecological relationship between architectural surface and depth by considering Ruskin’s presentation of the ‘wall veil’ in The Stones of Venice as a kind of ‘interpenetrative skin’.
Taking up Ruskin’s notion of ‘surface gothic’, Thomas proceeded to consider how, for Ruskin, architectural surfaces become ‘layers that thicken’ and that, in thickening, interpenetrate within and beyond architecture itself. Such surfaces, as Thomas concluded, not only shape their environment, but also become an active part of the ecology of human existence.
John Ruskin, The Walls of Lucerne, c. 1866, Graphite pencil, watercolour and body colour on grey-green paper, 34.0 x 48.0 cm. The Ruskin, Lancaster University, 1996P1376.
Our second event was a workshop that featured talks by five invited speakers from Manchester, Cardiff, London and the US. Dr Pandora Syperek introduced many of the key themes of the session with her consideration of Ruskin’s pedagogical aims at Oxford’s Natural History Museum.
In a marvellous excavation of what could be called Ruskin’s crystalline ecology, Pandora highlighted Ruskin’s ideas about the bodily nature of stones (the smell and taste of crystals, with their ‘shimmering, tactile and potential deliciousness’) and she explored how, for Ruskin, such qualities presented a breaking down of the hierarchy of things.
Bringing us back above ground, Caroline Ikin (Manchester Metropolitan University) approached Ruskin’s relationship with nature from the perspective of little-known archival material, including personal correspondence. Drawing on her doctoral research, Caroline put new spins on old questions with striking effect. Many of us were particularly intrigued to learn of a letter in which Ruskin discussed the practice of kissing flowers.
Caroline also considered Brantwood (Ruskin’s Lake District home) as a site of ecological thinking and as the location for many of Ruskin’s more profound environmental judgements. She showed how Brantwood provided Ruskin with a home in which to ‘nest’ and ‘rest’ as well as a ‘pasture’ in which to lie down and ‘become earth’.
Dr Rachel Dickinson (Manchester Metropolitan University) extended this line of thought in her paper, which proffered the significant observation that Ruskin was at the cutting edge of developing the concept of ‘pollution’. Rachel drew particular attention to how Ruskin’s reflections on pollution convey some of his deepest moral and environmental concerns.
From here, Professor Stephen Kite (Cardiff University) led us on a fascinating journey through some of the afterlives of Ruskin’s ecological thinking about surface. Combining considerations of the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, Professor Kite reminded us that the aesthetic – and indeed the architectural – are integral to Ruskin’s legacy.
John Ruskin, Trees and Rocks, c. 1845. Pencil, ink, ink wash and body colour on paper, 33.5 x 27.5 cm. The Ruskin, Lancaster University, 1996P1566.
Midway through the workshop, all attendees were invited to participate in a group discussion of Ruskin’s ‘The Law of Help’ (from Modern Painters). This text is a crucial point of reference for any discussion of Ruskin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of the environment, aesthetics and politics, and our discussion raised challenging questions that cut to the quick of Ruskin’s concerns. Throughout our discussion, the Ruskinian ecological adage that in all things cooperation is life rang true, and there was plenty of progress made, new light shed and fresh perspectives shared.
Taking the time-honoured Ruskin Seminar slot, Dr Jeremy Melius (Tufts University) concluded our workshop with a keynote, ‘Ruskin and the Art of Relations’, which focused on Ruskin’s reading of Veronese’s Adoration of the Virgin by the Coccina Family (c. 1571).
Jeremy offered an eloquent exploration of Ruskin’s practice of decoding political, aesthetic and indeed ecological meanings from pictorial composition. More than just providing insights into this crucial dimension of Ruskin’s methods, Jeremy also helped us to appreciate the warmth of heart and cast of mind that informed so much of Ruskin’s finest criticism.
A particular highlight of the evening was Jeremy’s exposition of Ruskin’s reading of the dog portrayed in Veronese’s painting. Jeremy’s commentary on this seemingly minor detail provoked laughter all the more for its profundity.
The series concluded with our third seminar at which Kelly delivered a paper entitled ‘The Mountain’s Anatomy: Articulating Skeletons in Ruskin’s Ecological Imagination’. This paper took us to the heart of Ruskin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of nature, architecture and the human body by exploring the use of bone and skeleton metaphors in his works.
Ruskin’s use of such metaphors, as Kelly showed, resonates in all sorts of interesting ways with wider conventions in architectural theory and practice – from Alberti to the Eiffell Tower. At the same time, however, Kelly revealed how Ruskin’s osseous metaphors also depart from these conventions, spin wonderful, elaborate contradictions and seem to be doing a whole lot more.
It’s been pointed out that ecology is not a word that Ruskin is known to have used. Collectively, though, the participants in ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’ have proven that Ruskin’s ideas about the vital relations between art, architecture, society and nature are very much in keeping with the broader meaning that the word ‘ecology’ possesses today.
We are grateful to our speakers and to our attendees. We were really pleased to have such a great turn-out at all of our events (despite the at times inclement weather), and it was terrific to have so many Ruskin devotees engage in the discussion. Above all, we would like to thank Professor Sandra Kemp and Dr Chris Donaldson for allowing us to organise these events.
Below we include a list of suggested reading, though it omits one important publication: Ruskin’s Ecologies, a collection of essays we are editing, which, when it comes out later this year, will stand as a monument to a memorable term of new thinking about the significance of Ruskin’s ideas for some of the biggest questions now facing art and society.
Readings Mark Frost, ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment and the Ecological Impulse’ in Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives, eds L. W. Mazzeno and R. D. Morrison (New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2017), 13–28.
Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: John Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
Jesse Oak Taylor, ‘Storm-Clouds on the Horizon: John Ruskin and the Emergence of Anthropogenic Climate Change’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 26 (2018) [doi: http://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.802].
Michael Wheeler ed., Ruskin and Environment: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).
Author biographies Dr Kelly Freeman completed her doctoral thesis ‘Skeletons of Iron & Bone: Architecture and Display in the Nineteenth-century Museum of Natural History’ at UCL in 2018. This project examined the dynamic relationship between the materials and metaphors of iron and bone in nineteenth-century Britain and France, as presented in the iron ‘skeleton’ architecture of certain museums of natural history and the skeletal specimens housed within them.
Dr Thomas Hughes is Associate Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art. He is an art historian specialising in nineteenth-century British art and art writing. He completed his PhD at The Courtauld in 2018 on John Ruskin, Walter Pater and the art of the Aesthetic Movement, and he is currently transforming his thesis into a book called Curious Beauty.
This blog, by Rebecca Mitchell, University of Birmingham, draws on new research to reveal a previously undocumented link between John Ruskin and Constance and Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde’s connection with Ruskin is well known but surprisingly under-explored. One famous episode from their shared past, a story on which Wilde dined out for decades, was the young man’s participation, while an undergraduate at Oxford, in Ruskin’s Hinksey road effort. But the Slade Professor’s influence was by no means confined to Wilde’s Oxford years, and scholars including John Unrau have called for more attention to be paid to the role that Ruskin played throughout Wilde’s adult life, a role that extended to friendship with Wilde’s wife Constance. As Unrau has detailed, in April 1888 Ruskin suggested that Constance present an award on his behalf at the Whitelands Training College. In a letter to the Reverend J. P. Faunthorpe, principal of the college, Ruskin wrote, “I think perhaps Mrs Oscar Wilde might like to do it Oscar has always been a most true friend to me, and she, more than I knew.” Ruskin’s enduring friendship with Constance was built in part on mutual acquaintances from beyond Oscar’s circle: in February 1895, to give one example, Constance and Georgina Mount-Temple—confidante of Ruskin as well as Constance—hosted a party for Ruskin’s 76th birthday.
Another instantiation of their friendship has escaped scholarly scrutiny. In the months before his letter to Faunthorpe, Constance apparently saw Ruskin in Sandgate, where he moved in August 1887 and lived through the following spring. The visit is documented by an inscription in Constance Wilde’s visitor’s book, now held in the Eccles Bequest at the British Library. In her biography of Constance, Franny Moyle writes that Wilde’s wife, “ever the collector, and impressed by fame and success…made sure that she captured the signatures of some of her visitors” in the book. It must be noted that in 1888, Constance and Oscar were still a united couple, well on the way to fame and socializing in rarefied literary and artistic circles. Indeed, signatories of the book comprise a who’s who of Oscar’s friends, colleagues, mentors, and idols, including Walter Pater, Robert Browning, George Meredith, James McNeill Whistler, and Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. Constance’s acquaintances, cultural luminaries, and passers-through also make appearances: George Grossmith, G. F. Watts, John Bright, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mark Twain, Marie Corelli, and Vernon Lee all signed the book, among many others. Even Pablo de Sarasate penned the first few bars of his “Zigeunerweisen” above his signature.
Ruskin’s contribution is comfortably situated among such starry company. It appears a few pages after A. C. Swinburne’s contribution—a holograph copy of “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” here titled “Children”—and a page featuring the signatures of William and Jane Morris.  Morris’s inscription seems wholly representative of his longstanding ethos: “The secret of happiness | To take pleasure in all the details of Life and not to live vicariously.”
Written in a clear hand, and occupying its own page, Ruskin’s entry is in many ways similarly typical:
It is thought that Imagination reigns in a
world lovelier than we have known.
But no imagination is clear or bright enough
to conceive the glory of the world we see,
yet know not.
Ruskin engages (albeit briefly) with the analyses of the imagination that extended throughout his long career. An 1849 diary entry captures an early iteration of this theme. Considering the impact of ignorance and knowledge on the imagination—in particular, the impact of his geological knowledge on his ability to experience the sublimity of the Alps—he muses on ‘two things’ that determine the relationship: “firstly whether this knowledge, carried out or accompanied by further knowledge of God’s works (astronomy, &c.) would not, in the end, open still nobler fields to the imagination; and secondly, supposing it would not, how much the ignorant Imagination is really worth.” Nearly fifty years later, writing in Constance’s book, Ruskin seems still to conclude that imagination alone is insufficient to know the “glory” of the world around us.
Ruskin’s line might cast into relief Oscar’s own relationship to the imagination, the complexity of which far exceeds the limits of this blogpost. Perhaps the most Ruskin-appropriate touchstone from this period is Wilde’s children’s story “The Remarkable Rocket” (1888), in which he skewers James McNeill Whistler—represented by an insufferably pompous firework rocket—whose famous altercation with Ruskin over his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold—the Falling Rocket was still a familiar memory. The self-deluded rocket insists, “Why, anybody can have common sense, provided they have no imagination. But I have imagination, for I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different.” For the rocket, complete disregard of fact (namely his arrogance and uselessness) leads to his ruin. Elsewhere in Wilde’s writing, his full-throated embrace of “beautiful, untrue things,” and his insistence that truth was not necessarily allied to fact, suggest that his notion of the imagination and its role in artistic vision was not the same as Ruskin’s.
What Constance might have made of Ruskin’s entry is even less clear. Her limited published writing of this period—primarily children’s stories and a few articles for periodicals—does not address imagination; Moyle’s biography has precious little to say about Ruskin. There is an unfortunate tendency of among some of Oscar’s biographers to regard all moments of his life as leading inevitably to his trial and imprisonment, and in this vein, it might be tempting to read Ruskin’s inscription as an ominous foreshadow: Constance would likely have been unable, even with a clear and bright imagination, to conceive of the realities of the devastation awaiting her family just a few years later. But it was clearly the overlooked glories of one’s time that concerned Ruskin, not its potential miseries, and his inscription is better understood as an artefact of what was still a promising time in the Wildes’ lives.
Rebecca N. Mitchell is Reader of Victorian Literature and Culture and Director of the Nineteenth-Century Centre at the University of Birmingham. She has published widely on Oscar Wilde, Victorian realism, print culture, and fashion. Her recent books include Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Drawing on the Victorians: The Palimpsest of Victorian and Neo-Victorian Graphic Texts (co-edited with Anna Maria Jones, Ohio UP 2017) and Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (co-authored with Joseph Bristow, Yale UP 2015). She is currently co-editing Wilde’s Unpublished, Incomplete, and Miscellaneous Works for the Oxford English Text edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.
The author wishes to thank Merlin Holland and the British Library for permission to quote from and use the image from Constance Wilde’s autograph book, and to Lucy Evans and Hannah Francis for research assistance.
 e.g. John Unrau, “Ruskin and the Wildes: The Whitelands Connection,” Notes and Queries 29, no. 4 (1982): 316-317.
 Lot “98 Ruskin’s Modern Painters, vol. 2, and other books, Juvenal with plates, &c.” and Lot “102 Five vols. of Ruskin’s Works, blue calf, Ruskin’s Elements of Drawings, and other vols. Ruskin, etc.” Bullock Auction House, Catalogue of the Library of Valuable Books…Wednesday April 24th, 1895, reprinted in A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vol. 1, Poets and Men of Letter (London: Mansell, 1971), p. 381, 382.
 Quoted in Unrau, p. 316. Punctuation and italics as in Unrau. At the time of the article’s writing, the then-unpublished letter was held in the Wellesley College Library.
 Franny Moyle, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (London: John Murray, 2011), p. 253. Later that month, Oscar received the accusatory calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury that ultimately led to Wilde’s arrest.
 Unrau mentions the autograph book (p. 317), citing Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Wilde (Life of Oscar Wilde [London: Metheun, 1952] p. 262). Ian Small also records its existence in Oscar Wilde Revalued: An Essay on New Materials & Methods of Research (ELH Press, 1993), p. 110.
 Swinburne’s poem first appeared in Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1882) as poem XXII of “A Dark Month”, p. 341. It appears as “Children” in the 1887 collection Select Poems (London: Chatto & Windus), p. 97. Though undated, context suggests the page was written in April 1887, when Wilde’s sons Cyril and Vyvyan would have been nearly two and six months old, respectively. Constance Wilde, Autograph book, Eccles Bequest. Vol. CXXXVII A; British Library Add MS 81755, p. 16. Used with permission.
 Jane offered lines from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát: “My tomb shall be in a spot where the | north wind may scatter roses over it.” The entry is dated 23 March, 1888. C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 23.
 C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 22. As far as I know, the lines are published here for the first time.
 W. G. Collingwood, The Life of John Ruskin (London: Methuen, 1893), vol. II, p. 316. Neither Collingwood’s nor John Dixon Hunt’s biography of Ruskin mentions a visit from Constance at or around this time. Oscar Wilde’s published correspondence from the period shows him based in their family home on Tite Street in London, but letters from January 1888 are sparse and there certainly could have been time for travel. Constance’s biographers also do not detail a visit around this time, though there are records that the couple did respond to Ruskin’s invitations in March of the same year. Again, Unrau is the lonely source who recounts the episode.
The Diaries of John Ruskin 1848-1873, Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse, eds., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) p. 416.
 Oscar Wilde, “The Remarkable Rocket,” in The Happy Prince and Other Tales (London: David Nutt, 1888), p. 100.
 Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” Nineteenth Century 25 (January 1889), p. 55-56.
This blog, about her exhibition at Brantwood, ‘Ruskin’s Good Looking!’ is written by Dr Sarah Casey, Senior Lecturer in Drawing and Installation at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University
All over the country, indeed all over the world, we are currently celebrating Ruskin’s birth and reflecting on his legacy for the 21st century and beyond. This year, 20th February marked 200 years since Ruskin’s christening. The christening gown worn by the infant Ruskin on that day is one of several garments belonging to Ruskin now on display at Brantwood as part of the exhibition Ruskin’s Good Looking!, which celebrated its opening on 24th February. This event is the culmination of a two-year Lancaster University research project, examining Ruskin’s clothes through drawing. The project included testing ideas in The Ruskin’s 2018 seminar series (which took its title from this project, Ruskin’s Good Looking!) and public drawing workshops as part of the Being Human festival 2018. The questions driving this activity are: What is it about drawing that continues to make it a valuable tool of investigation in fields ranging from natural history, to medicine, archaeology and fashion? How might Ruskin’s ideas about drawing be applied in the 21st century to develop new contemporary approaches to object based research?
Over the past two years I have had the extraordinary privilege to get up close and intimate with Ruskin’s clothing in the Brantwood collection and at nearby Keswick Museum. The research was based on the premise of using Ruskin’s belief in drawing as a means of seeing the world – a view he clearly expressed in The Elements of Drawing (1857): “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” Drawing requires us to look and this helps us to understand. I applied this view to his own clothing.
The first stage was simple – look, look again, and draw what you see. Using this elementary method, I made 1:1 scale pencil drawings of each garment on graph paper. I called these garment maps. Reflecting on the process, I came to realise a parallel with Ruskin’s methods of ‘true topology’, delineating what is observed in the landscape leaving ‘no stone unturned’ … although in my drawings, the landscape was the more intimate terrain of personal clothing. This was to reveal nuances in the clothing’s construction that might be read as fingerprint of Ruskin’s specific physiology. Artist Louise Bourgeois has described clothing as being like an envelope of a person, bearing the imprint of their body, a history so clear she calls garments ‘road signs’ to the past.
These ‘road signs’ are evident if we know how to look. Close looking through drawing is a method promoted by curator and ‘dress detective’ Ingrid Mida from Ryerson University, Toronto who visited Brantwood with me in April 2018 to examine the garments. This provided valuable specialist insight into their use and wear. It was a magical moment when Ingrid first unfolded the shirt to find the laundry mark JR 12 95, which, as she writes in her catalogue essay, dates the shirt to December 1895, towards the end of Ruskin’s life.
An equally exciting moment was when, studying the seams and crevices of a tailcoat, I discovered a tailors label marked ‘ John Ruskin Esq.’ affirming that the garment was indeed Ruskin’s and its provenance from his tailor (Stultz Wain & Co. 10 Clifford St London, for those of you interested).
From these intense observational studies, I went on to make a series of wax drawings of the garments. Each garment map was transcribed onto a sheet of Japanese paper soaked in wax, using a simple dressmakers pin. The white marks that are visible are made by nothing more than the pressure of touching the surface.
Like breath, or memory, the drawings have a fragile existence and will literally melt away if exposed to heat. As Anuradha Chatterjee’s catalogue explains, Ruskin believed clothing to reflect a person’s soul. The wax drawings embrace this idea, taking on a spectral quality that evokes the uncanny sense of absent presence that is felt when examining a person’s clothes and looking into the past. As Ruskin said drawing enables us “to preserve something like a true image of beautiful things that pass away, or which you must yourself leave.”
So, if you’re near Brantwood between now and 7th April, do take a look before they disappear…
To find out more about how this Ruskinian approach to drawing might benefit research in the 21st century, look out for Drawing Investigations: graphic relationships with science, culture and environment by Sarah Casey and Gerry Davies due for publication by Bloomsbury later this year.
 Sponsored by AHRC, the British Academy and Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London
 Louise Bourgeois in Marie Laure Bernadac, Louise Bourgeois, Paris: Flammarion, 2006, p.155.
 Supported by a grant from the Arts Council and British Council Artist International Development Fund.
 Ingrid Mida ‘A portrait of John Ruskin through his clothes’ in S. Casey (ed.) Ruskin’s Good Looking! (Lancaster University and Brantwood, 2019), p.13.
 Anuradha Chatterjee ‘Wearing the Soul John Ruskin’s theory of ideal dress’ in S. Casey (ed.) Ruskin’s Good Looking! (Lancaster University and Brantwood, 2019), pp.16-19.
 John Ruskin Elements of Drawing (1857). Letter 1, On First Practice.
Our third blog is by Francis O’Gorman, Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Honorary Visiting Professor, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University and Chairman of the Ruskin Society.
I’m a habitual visitor of graves. Most particularly, of the graves of writers and musicians. Because as a critic I am always writing about the actuality of an author—not as a mere ‘function’ of a text but as a once living and complex human being—graves have a particular significance. The material reality of an author is affirmed in some genuine, touchable way: there he or she is, on this spot, beneath this stone, beneath this grass. It have found it peculiarly moving to visit, for instance, Trollope’s grave and Wilkie Collins’s at Kensal Green;
Wilkie Collins’s grave at Kensal Green Cemetery, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, August 2015, author’s photograph.
the Brontës at Haworth and Scarborough; Clough and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Florence. Borrowing a term from Catholic Christianity, George Steiner thinks of the ‘real presence’ of creative artists behind their work. For me, what enhances that felt experience in reading is knowing where, and having visited, the final resting place.
But it isn’t only graves. It is also, far more cheerfully, birthplaces. Of course, there is only memory here, not mortal remains. But starting places, the location of first memories, have a role in helping one grasp the shape of an author’s life. I have just, for instance, been to Higher Bockhampton to see—for the first time since the summer of 1976—the Hardys’ beautifully cared-for cottage where their baby, Thomas, was born on 2 June 1840.
Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, July 2018, author’s photograph.
Ruskin, as everyone knows, is buried in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Coniston, under W.G. Collingwood’s unRuskinian Celtic cross made from local slate. He is still among the hills, which he had loved since infancy. But Ruskin’s birthplace has suffered far more than Hardy’s. Anthony Trollope’s birthplace was demolished by the University of London in the 1930s and its location is now under the car-park of Senate House, off Russell Square.
Just a few hundred metres away, Ruskin’s birthplace has also vanished.
As we all know, Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 in 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square. And as we all also know, the house no longer stands. It was one of those demolished to make way for the construction of Patrick Hodgkinson’s Brunswick Centre, a Modernist shopping and residential complex. The Brunswick is still there, both admired and disliked.
54 Hunter Street (note the plaque marking Ruskin’s birthplace). Online uncopyrighted image.
But there has been a long-standing effort, led by Dr James S. Dearden MBE, and now taken up by me, to mark the spot of Ruskin’s birth with a blue plaque or some other form of lasting commemoration. Jim has been able to retain a memory of exactly where the spot is, which is a blessing. He visited the house, then in an almost derelict state, on 1 January 1969, in the company, as it happens, of Spike Milligan, shortly before 54 Hunter Street was pulled down.
Jim photographed some of the property and has written several times giving more details of his visit. When the house was, shortly afterwards, demolished, what was immediately put in its place was the entrance to an underground carpark that served the residents of the Brunswick Centre. But that has now gone too. All that stands of any visible Ruskinian interest are the two remaining unaltered houses of Hunter Street (nos. 3 and 4) that were once directly opposite number 54. In the opening chapter of Praeterita (1885-9), Ruskin remarks that as a child he counted the bricks of the ‘opposite houses’ (Library Edition, xxxv.21).You can still do that in person or via Google Street View. https://mapstreetview.com/#uod2l_-2n26_1h.5_5f43 will take you straight there.
Let’s hope we can mark the location of this lost house permanently. There are other ‘sites’, after all, which have blue plaques near-by, not least that of Dickens’s Tavistock House, more or less round the corner, where the novelist lived from 1851 to 1860. The site of John Ruskin’s birthplace has every reason to be remembered. I hope I can complete what Jim has started.
Saintsbury Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh
Honorary Visiting Professor, Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University
Chairman of the Ruskin Society
Our second blog is by Dr Joanna Taylor, Presidential Academic Fellow in Digital Humanities at The University of Manchester.
In March 1991, shortly after Lancaster University had launched their campaign to acquire the Whitehouse Collection of Ruskiniana, the eminent Victorianist Dinah Birch offered a suggestion as to why John Ruskin – one of the most important and wide-ranging thinkers of the nineteenth century – had lapsed into obscurity. She thought that Ruskin’s interdisciplinarity was a barrier for the modern reader: ‘his influence,’ she wrote, both then and now, ‘was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about’.
The result, in Britain at least, was that Ruskin seemed ‘tangential’ to a wide range of subjects: art historians, political economists, literary scholars, historians, geologists, biologists, ecologists and sociologists could all claim Ruskin as one of their own with equal felicity, but no one discipline could aspire to a complete understanding of Ruskin’s polymathematical thought. As Birch concluded, Ruskin’s writing is:
rooted in the widest definitions of culture. To be read fully, the texts call for knowledge of Greek literature and mythology, Medieval iconography, Milton, 18th-century fiction, the Bible, geology, Italian history, botany, Walter Scott and Dickens, and a very great deal else besides. They ask to be studied on their own terms. There will never be many who are in a position to rise to the challenge of interdisciplinarity on quite that scale. (‘Interdisciplinarity’, London Review of Books 13.12 (1991), https://www.lrb.co.uk/v13/n12/dinah-birch/interdisciplinarity).
Birch is right that, today, it would be a rare lone scholar who could match the breadth and scale of Ruskin’s knowledge. But what was a stumbling block for the twentieth-century model of lone-wolf scholarship – particularly in the humanities – might become an enabling force in more recent approaches that emphasise interdisciplinary collaboration.
So the Lancaster University Away Day at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home from 1870 until his death in 1900, discovered. This event aimed to facilitate precisely the kind of ambitious cross-disciplinary environment needed for the sort of scholarship that can begin to rediscover Ruskin for a new era. With invited speakers and attendees from the University’s principal research centres – including Digital Humanities, Material Sciences, Data Sciences and Social Futures – the Away Day demonstrated Ruskin’s potential to offer an intellectual bridge between radically different interests.
The morning began with an introduction by the Director of The Ruskin, Professor Sandra Kemp. Kemp introduced Ruskin as a figurehead for the Library’s ambition to be a ‘museum of the near future’. Kemp asked what the purpose of a collection of materials – a collection, moreover, that surpasses any other for a single author – is in a campus environment. As she suggested, when understood as the backbone of a forward-looking museum, the Collection offers the basis for using Ruskinian materials and thinking as a springboard for addressing ongoing social, cultural and environmental issues. If we re-interpret the Collection as an active, malleable archive, she indicated, it becomes a valuable resource for research, teaching and public-facing exchange.
The following talks all, in different ways, spoke to this vision of a dynamic Collection that catalyses exciting new research in each University faculty. Dr Andrew Tate (Reader in Literature, Religion and Aesthetics) demonstrated how forward-looking interpretations of Ruskin might work in future exhibitions at the library. Professor Judith Mottram (Director of Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts) suggested how Ruskinian thinking could develop creative practice as research that re-evaluates art, not as illustration, but as an active force in engaging diverse publics in socio-cultural, political and academic agendas. Professor Beth Harland’s talk revealed how such a re-evaluation could facilitate creative responses to Ruskin’s work and his wider contemporary relevance that, she suggested, are based on the ‘critical production of knowledge’. She uncovered Ruskin’s interests in interactive thinking by interrogating what role ‘conceptual relationships’ might play in future research at Lancaster.
Between these talks, each group – each of which focused on a different research agenda (Digital Humanities, Material Sciences, Social Futures and Data Science) – reflected on how Ruskin or Ruskinian thinking might guide future collaborative endeavours and lead to new research areas. Ruskin’s interests in work, memory, sensation and the details of the world around him offered rich starting points for frequently surprising conversations that began to uncover the power of Ruskin’s thought for developing innovative research questions.
Brantwood, the site of – among other things – Ruskin’s infamous meeting with Darwin, offered the ideal location for this cross-disciplinary brainstorming. A guided walk around the house and grounds with the museum’s Director, Howard Hull, consolidated the morning’s communal discoveries of interlinked research interests. Ruskin’s allegorical garden, known as the Zig-Zaggy, was a particular highlight. This material re-imagining of Dante’s Purgatorial Mount, based on one of Ruskin’s own designs, guides the visitor up the fellside along a series of themed terraces until they reach ‘Paradise’s’ unparalleled view across Coniston lake to the fells beyond.
The garden offered a focal point for our final list of take-aways from the day. More than anything, this re-imagining of an alternative type of Ruskin text had indicated to everyone present the scope for playful (re-)interpretations of Ruskin. It seemed to encapsulate the day’s aim of taking Ruskin out of dusty volumes on dark library shelves, and into the real, twenty-first century landscape.
The garden consolidated what the rest of the day had implied: that Ruskinian thought – as well as his specific works – might offer creative opportunities for new kinds of research that linked ordinarily disparate parts of the University, as will be showcased in The Ruskin’s launch exhibition on 25 September. What the Away Day ultimately demonstrated is that the man George Eliot called ‘a prophet for his generation’ is also deeply prescient for our own.
This first blog is by The Ruskin’s Director, Professor Sandra Kemp:
John Ruskin’s 200th birthday is just two weeks away. In the run-up to the day, we are pleased to be launching our new blog and website at Lancaster University.
Ruskin’s bicentenary year will be a momentous one. Exhibitions, activities and events celebrating the life and works of this epoch-defining writer, artist, social thinker and environmentalist will be taking place across the UK and internationally over the next twelve months. You can follow the programme of bicentenary events at www.ruskin200.com
Here at Lancaster we are already on count-down to our own bicentenary exhibition, which is timed to coincide with the official launch of The Ruskin on 25th September 2019.
For regular visitors to The Ruskin, we appreciate your patience during this period of refurbishment and it is great to welcome you back in person and online. Over the past year, the Ruskin Library, which currently houses the world-leading collection of Ruskin’s works, has been given an external facelift and upgraded, updated and refitted internally to transform the reading rooms and galleries. The Ruskin brings together the Ruskin Library, Museum, and Research Centre within the McCormac’s award-winning building. Our new programme explores how Ruskin’s epoch defining ideas can unlock urgent current and future social, cultural and environmental issues.
Tolstoy wrote of Ruskin that ‘He was one of those rare men who thinks … what everyone will think and say in the future’. Our launch exhibition – Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future – will radically expand on this insight by exploring the importance of Ruskin’s thinking about what it means to be human in an age of technology to some of the most pressing challenges of our own time. Ruskin understood how the future is embedded in the here and now. As his personal motto ‘To-day’ affirms, he was profoundly aware of how the lives we lead in the present set the conditions of the world to come.
In the coming months our blogs, events, exhibitions and research projects will draw on the thousands of Ruskin’s paintings and drawings, books and manuscripts, prints and photographs in our collection to promote debate across the arts and sciences and investigate culture and heritage, landscape and the environment. In relaunching the website, we have made more of Ruskin’s works available online and we’ve started an ambitious programme of digitisation. We’ll be blogging regularly and you can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We’d welcome your ideas and suggestions for our programmes.
Meanwhile, on Thursday 7th February, the eve of Ruskin’s birth, in Lancaster University’s Great Hall, ‘Ruskin’s Dreams’, a concerto by Lake District composer Edward Cowie, will be performed by performed by the BBC Philharmonic, with clarinettist Julian Bliss.