The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple
The Art Criticism of John Ruskin
Thirty-odd years ago when psychiatric terms seemed so helpful R. H. Wilenski remarked that Ruskin was always victim of a manic-depressive malady. The diagnosis still seems relevant to Ruskin’s five love affairs, with Adèle Domecq. Charlotte Lockhart, Euphemia Gray, Rose La Touche, and Kathleen Olander. But the despairing letters he wrote to the Mount-Temples about Rose prove that a clinical description is no more conclusive in Ruskin’s case than in Hamlet’s, for when seen from the patient’s angle, the clinical can be transformed to the tragic. Indeed, Philip Rieff has warned us that the clinical approach is like a comedy of knowledge, offering a therapeutic solvent for anguish.
There is a profound difference between the tragic disaster of Ruskin’s love for Rose and the clinical comedy of his marriage to Effie, a misadventure recorded in 1947 by Effie’s grandson. William James, who quoted some of the 633 letters found behind a loose board in Ruskin’s study and in the cellar at Bowerswell. This wedlock was comedy partly because Jack finally had Jill—Jack being John Everett Millais the painter, who simply waited until 1854, when the courts annulled Effie’s marriage to Ruskin on the ground that she remained virgo intacta. The matrimonial drama opens on a farcical note with Ruskin’s letters to Effie: “My own Effie—my kind Effie—my mistress—my friend—my queen—my darling—my only love.” It continues with his mother’s advice about Effie’s dresses, and it ends with a quarrel when Effie “for the first time showed causeless petulance towards my mother…The matter in question was indeed one of very grave importance—being a wish on my mother’s part that I should take a blue pill when I went to bed.” Effie at last desperately wrote her parents that John had “no intention of making me his Wife—He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally…that he imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person.” Ruskin’s later claim to “purity” was his “having never touched a woman.”
The clinical becomes the tragic in Ruskin’s tormented devotion to Rose La Touche, exhibited fully in his letters to his confidants, the Mount-Temples. Of these 234 letters so scrupulously edited by Bradley only fifty-four have previously been printed wholly or in part in Derrick Leon’s great biography of Ruskin. John first saw Rose in 1858, when he was thirty-nine and she was nearly ten, and he loved her agonizingly until she died, out of her mind, in 1875. These abandoned, shameless letters to Mrs. Cowper-Temple (Philè or Isola he calls her) have a single theme: “I have had no thought within me—ever since—but it was in some part of it hers…It drove me quite wild.” He would lie down at Rose’s gate to have her “tread upon me all day.” Meanwhile Rose, herself driven by repressions and religious notions of purity, and periodically forbidden by her parents to see John, wrote him letters like cries “of stupefied pain.” It is too bad Bradley does not print some of Rose’s letters just to fill out the drama. Read in sequence, the correspondence makes the heavy and nearly indecent emotional demands on us that Victorian fiction less legitimately solicits—a naked display of self-inflicted torture, self-indulgent, sometimes self-deceptive, and without therapy.
Ruskin bitterly complains “Rosie’s just like Cordelia,” only “twenty times worse”: “I cannot pity Rose, for I do not think she loves me—or knows the pain of Love.” Sometimes it seems to him “like a Shakespeare tragedy—where all the misery is brought on by petty mistake—and all beautiful hope and strength cast away in vain.” The dreary monotony of this anguish has been likened to a Lear-pathology, and Ruskin has been called, also, Baudelairean and Quixotic. But the Hamlet symptoms are perhaps most striking, for Ruskin’s antic disposition is due to his frenzied ambivalence about this Ophelia-like girl. He intends to dedicate his Oxford lectures “To the woman who bade me trust in God, and her, and taught me the cruelty of Religion and the vanity of Trust.” Like some daughter of Polonius Rose put Ruskin on the rack: “She only gave me one little syllable of comfort—I suppose it was because her father was watching.” Ruskin has Hamlet’s puritan neurosis, too: “I am pure-hearted—pure-bodied…and I love their daughter and have loved her—as few men ever love.” Go to, says Hamlet, it hath made me mad. Something of Swann’s ruinous love for Odette leaves Ruskin aching “with a sharp far-rooted pain” he cannot assuage even if he knows better than anyone his folly, before which he is helpless.
There is even a Proustian contretemps when Ruskin, having tried to quench hope, unguardedly meets Rose in the Royal Academy at a moment when he was being driven “quite mad again”—and again she behaves like an Ophelia: “She tried to go away as soon as she saw me, so that I had no time to think—I caught her,—but she broke away so that I could not say more than ten words—uselessly. She then changed her mind about going, and remained in the rooms apparently quite cheerful and undisturbed.” He wonders whether this nymph is a demon. Then in February, 1870, he exclaims “She has come back to me. She will not leave me any more.”
As a last defense Rose’s parents in October, 1870, wrote Effie, who confirmed that from Ruskin’s “peculiar nature he is utterly incapable of making a woman happy. He is quite unnatural and in that one thing all the rest is embraced.” Matters quickly worsened after Rose heard with “horror” of Ruskin’s “impurity” (autoeroticism) and the drama ends luridly when Ruskin is called back from Venice in 1872 to witness Rose’s mental collapse: “I vowed loyalty to her, to the death, and she let me kiss her.” She died in May, 1875—“mad, or dead, she is still mine.”Soon after, Ruskin himself breaks down once more, saying “I cannot go on,” and signing his letters to Philè “Granny’s little boy.” His own funeral pall bore a design of wild roses. These letters tell more about Ruskin the man than his diaries or Praeterita.
How far his storm-cloud, firefly, and rose obsessions were due to this girl only a psychoanalyst can say, but ever since Wilenski’s diagnosis of these obsessions we have been tempted to read Ruskin’s huge corpus of criticism as psychopathology. The compulsiveness is audible in his very rhetoric, his urgent imperatives (“Observe…observe”), his oppressive moralizing, his irritating and futile habit of classifying everything, his ranking flowers (wild rose, alpine rose, gentian, white lily, purple flag. purple convulvulus, carnation, pansy…), his debating whether nightshade or hawthorne is “nobler,” his hierarchy of persons who see, who talk, who make, who think, who do. Ruskin’s tone is in the worst Victorian manner, or so embarrassing as to disconcert (there is “something sweet” about kissing pine trees and flowers).
Few Victorians benefit more by anthologizing, and we have four recent collections of his criticism, by Joan Evans (The Lamp of Beauty), by John D. Rosenberg (The Genius of John Ruskin), and the two by Kenneth Clark and by Robert L. Herbert. Of these Sir Kenneth’s is the least useful because it is the most belletristic and self-gratifying, drawn from short passages which have given the editor “particular pleasure” (“Again and again in compiling this anthology I have held my breath with astonishment and delight…”). The commentary is casual, and even the writing (“…this strange being, whom everyone said was a genius,” “the University of Harvard”), and there is far too much Praeterita, which is very accessible and often less revealing than items like “The Storm Cloud.” The more valuable sections are those on architecture and on the painter’s estrangement from society: “For consider the first business of a painter; half, as I said, of his business in this world must consist in simply seeking his own pleasure, and that, in the main, a sensual pleasure.” Ruskin was never more provocative than when he affirmed that “Society always has a destructive influence upon the artist: first, by its sympathy with his meanest powers; secondly, by its chilling want of understanding of his greatest: and, thirdly, by its vain occupation of his time and thoughts.” The singular worth of Joan Evans’ anthology is its selections from Ruskin’s attack upon the Renaissance, Michelangelo, and the Academy. And for a general salvaging from Ruskin’s work we can hardly do better than Rosenberg’s collection, with its balance of esthetic, social, and biographical material.
Herbert’s anthology, given to art-criticism only, meets a special and longstanding need. In his Introduction, however, Herbert overextends his case by claiming that Ruskin’s “vast and harmonious system” is not really inconsistent. On the contrary, Ruskin was as muddled as any Victorian one cares to name, and Kenneth Clark frankly admits Ruskin’s inability to stick to a point. Although prophetic, Ruskin was always finding that his most dogmatic conclusions were “falsified by his experiences.” Modern Painters, for instance, is an infuriatingly mixed bag, wilfully treating “Of Many Things” from Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites to merciless examinations of geological laws, dendrological forms, and meteorological curiosities. Ruskin was never master of his encyclopedic information or his feverish and unstable interests.
So we cannot agree with Herbert that Ruskin’s art-criticism has “complete health and harmony.” Any honest anthology exposes the conflicts between Ruskin’s religious and esthetic impulses, between his passion for fact and his passion for abstraction, his passion for gothic and his passion for renaissance painters like Tintoretto, his passion for authority and his passion for self-expression, and these discrepancies are nowhere more apparent than in his basic theory of color. He opens Modern Painters by accepting Locke’s notion that color is only a secondary quality, inferior to the truth of form, but his discussions of Turner insist that light-and-shade and color are “the one sacred and saving element” in painting.
Victorian as these illogicalities are, they should not obscure the essential modernity of Ruskin’s criticism. Clark thinks it “misleading” to give Ruskin a present-day look, but the modernism is there, as R. G. Collingwood once said, and we find it throughout Herbert’s selections—Ruskin’s sympathy with impressionist methods, his revised interpretation of the Renaissance, his functional notions of architecture, his comprehension of the wall and decorative abstraction, his association of art with technology, his analysis of Turner’s expressionism, his revolt from academism along with his quest for some tradition, his essentially sculptural approach to organic design, his environmental theories of gothic and renaissance, and above all his social reading of art, a presentiment of Mumford; Read, and major modern critics.
Each of these proto-modernisms appears in Herbert’s collection, which unearths such disregarded works as The Elements of Drawing and The Eagle’s Nest. Impressionist theory is implicit in Ruskin’s proposition that “color always disguises form. That is to say, local color inherent in the object.” Thus “every object will cast some of its own color back in the light that it reflects.” If a painter has “innocence of the eye” and records exactly what he sees (ignoring what he knows) he will be led toward what the French later called divisionism, “using atoms of color in juxtaposition, instead of large spaces.” Writing in Venice in 1846, Ruskin noted how a boat in shoal water reflects a pea-green while another boat in deep water “shows no shadow whatsoever, and the reflection is marked by its transparent green, while the surrounding water takes a lightish blue reflection from the sky.” With Monet, Ruskin lived in “this colored world of ours.” Ruskin often said that if a painter can color he need do nothing else: “The man who can see all the greys, and reds, and purples in a peach, will paint the peach rightly round.” Cézanne, the petite sensation, and post-impressionism.
Or again, Ruskin was among the first to insist that the highest art is decorative. He saw Byzantine architecture as “a system of ornament, entirely restrained within the superficies of curvilinear masses, on which the light fell with as unbroken gradation as on a dome or column, while the illumined surface was nevertheless cut into details of singular and most ingenious intricacy”: Otto Demus, Talbot Rice, and Ernst Kitzinger. To know the Greeks, we must not look to Athenian marbles but “only on vases of a fine time” and ornamental chasings: Charles Seltman and the new attention to Greek celature instead of Phidean statuary. Quite at odds with his veneration of fact is Ruskin’s conviction that the decorative must be autonomous, for “in all living art this love of involved and recurrent line exists,—and exists essentially—it exists just as much in music as in sculpture.” It is the line that fascinated Worringer in the savage art of the north; it is the line of Art Nouveau, a line that springs from pleasure. Ruskin does not find it in renaissance art, which seemed to him repressive, given to “learning and demonstration” and “pride of science.” When Picasso said that the Renaissance destroyed everything, he only repeated Ruskin’s objections.
Ruskin’s often-rejected sculptural view of architecture is the basis of Gaudí’s prodigious work. We attack but admire Gaudí; and Wright and the biomorphic theorists operate on Ruskin’s belief that sculpture and architecture must both express a plastic zoological instinct for “internal form.” Ruskin always made a distinction between mere building and architecture, since “the architect is not bound to exhibit structure.” Now James Marston Fitch and Lewis Mumford are quarreling with our Tinkertoy non-functional functional structures, which are engineering but not architecture. For Ruskin the best architecture depends upon “one mighty wall, variously pierced and panelled,” yet the architect must think sculpturally in large areas of light and dark, deciding “whether the architecture is a frame for the sculpture, or the sculpture an ornament of the architecture”: Focillon, Baltrusaitis, Wittkower, and John White. Ruskin hated iron; yet in referring to the Crystal Palace he noted that there is no reason why iron and glass should not lead to “a new system of architectural laws.” as in the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier.
However flagrant they seem, the inconsistencies derive from the fact that Ruskin was facing our own overriding problem of finding a usable tradition in the arts. He believed he had found this tradition in gothic, which he did not intend to adopt academically but as something to be earned, much as Eliot wished tradition to be earned. Can we discover in any critic a sounder theorem than Ruskin phrases in one of his greatest books, The Seven Lamps, when he insists that an art borrowing from the past is not a dead art unless it “imitates without choice” and borrows without assimilating its borrowings “to its own primal, unchanged life”? So he demands “audacity of treatment” and “the unhesitating and sweeping sacrifice of precedent where precedent becomes inconvenient.” The necessary and meaningful revolt in the nineteenth-century arts was against academism, and for all his moralizing and his silliness and his reverence for the past Ruskin was one of the least academic of critics—partly because he was so illogical, so undisciplined, so overconfident about his perceptions. The evidence for this great Victorian amateur of the arts is clear enough: he was hysteric, censorious, wrong-headed page after page, but imperatively given to the quest for a living tradition imaginatively and humanely used, and nearly oracular in his prescience of the modern.