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John Ruskin
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Brantwood, Cumbria
The greatest English art critic of his age, John Ruskin believed that his art, although important to his development as a writer, was simply that of an amateur. Art history has since taken his prolific and intensely observed drawings and watercolors far more seriously than he did himself. Ruskin may be ranked with William Blake (1757-1827) and Victor Hugo (1802-1885) as one of the significant literary figures of the 19th century who also produced a notable body of creative art. Born in London in 1819, Ruskin was the only child of a prosperous wine merchant and his well-read wife. Largely educated at home, he was taught drawing by several drawing masters, beginning with Charles Runciman (active 1825-1867) in 1831 and Copley Fielding (1787-1855) in 1834. Ruskin was introduced to the work of J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) in 1832 when he was given a book of poetry illustrated by Turner and others. Ruskin traveled to the Continent with his parents in 1833 and 1835, visiting France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. He studied English literature at the University of London in 1836, and then went to Christ Church College, Oxford in 1837. He wrote poetry and plays, published an article on architecture and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. Ruskin and his father began collecting works by Turner in 1839, starting with a watercolor; they bought two more Turner watercolors the following year. After suffering a breakdown at Easter, 1840, Ruskin left Oxford for a year. He probably met Turner at a dinner in June. With his family he embarked on a trip to the Continent in September that lasted nearly a year. After their return to England Ruskin resumed his studies at Oxford and completed his degree. He also began three years of drawing lessons with James Duffield Harding (1798-1863), who suggested that Ruskin study Turner’s “Liber Studiorum,” a book of landscape engravings after Turner’s designs; Ruskin copied many of them. By this time Ruskin realized that he did not have the talent to become an important artist. While continuing to draw, he turned his attention to art criticism. Ruskin published his first major work of art history in 1843, the first of the five volumes of his “Modern Painters.” Published anonymously, it included analysis of and praise for Turner’s works, which he and his father continued to collect. While in Venice in 1845 Ruskin’s interest in architecture led him to begin collecting daguerreotype photographs of buildings. He amassed a collection of some 320 daguerreotypes, mostly photographs of buildings and architectural details and landscapes, many taken by him or by assistants working for him. Ruskin published the second volume of “Modern Painters” and a revised edition of the first volume in 1846. In 1848 He married Euphemia Chalmers Gray (1828-1897), whom he had known in childhood, but their marriage was annulled as unconsummated in 1854. During his marriage Ruskin wrote a study of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849), and a three-volume work on the architecture and history of Venice, “The Stones of Venice” (1851-53), all illustrated by him. His friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) began around 1854; Ruskin later became a great supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. His hero Turner, having died in 1851, left the contents of his studio to the British nation; during the mid-1850s Ruskin catalogued and organized the nearly 300 oil paintings and around 30,000 watercolors and drawings (including over some 300 sketchbooks) included in the bequest. Ruskin continued his prolific writing, with the third and fourth volumes of “Modern Painters” published in 1856, followed by “The Elements of Drawing” (1857), “The Elements of Perspective” (1859) and the last volume of “Modern Painters” in 1860. The subjects of his writing expanded to include politics, social conditions, education and history. Ruskin was elected as the first Slade Professor of Fine art at Oxford in 1869, the year he exhibited at London’s British Institution landscape drawings he made while in Abbeville, France the previous year. In the 1870s he began suffering mental disorders. Ruskin purchased Brantwood, a house in the Lake District of England in 1871, and spent increasing amounts of time there. Having been made an honorary member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1873, he began to exhibit with the Society. An exhibition of Turner drawings he owned and his own drawings was mounted at London’s Fine Art Society in 1878, and traveled to Boston and New York City the following year. Ruskin resigned his Oxford professorship in 1879, resumed it in 1883 and then resigned for good in 1885. He continued to travel to the Continent during the 1880s. Increasingly ill, Ruskin stayed at Brantwood during the 1890s and died there in 1900. (RJF 1985, rev. TNB 8/2015). Selected bibliography: Newall, Christopher. John Ruskin: Artist and Observer. Exhibition catalog. With contributions by Christopher Baker, Ian Jeffrey and Conal Shields. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada and London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014. Staley, Allen. The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2001