THE SEA IS AN APT IMAGE for the life and work of that giant Victorian, the writer, painter, champion of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, social reformer and prophet, John Ruskin, for his extraordinary career was born and nurtured by the sea. "The beginning of all my own right art work in life, (and it may not be unprofitable that I should tell you this) depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea," he wrote in later years. And the experience of sailing on it to escape the England in which he never properly settled, of describing the reflected calm or uncontrollable power of the waves, best seen through the eyes of his beloved Turner, or of declaring his outrage at the sea's destruction of Venice, fired his early work with a perception as appealing as it was unique to his contemporaries.
However we are told the briny title of John Dixon Hunt's biography, The Wider Sea, is borrowed from Ruskin's favorite quotation, Tintoretto's "The study of painting is exhausting, and the sea always gets larger." This cryptic, yet profound, statement is even more apt to a survey of Ruskin's life work, which according to this new biography had few boundaries. Ruskin continued remorselessly to write, lecture and to paint daily until he was physically unable to do so; his output of projects finished and planned stretched out to taunt him like the vast, uncharted sea he so admired.
Why then, one wonders, is Ruskin one of the most influential yet today largely unread Victorian giants? Some believe his disciples were over-enthusiastic; within six years of his death the first of 39 volumes of collected works appeared like a weighty tombstone killing his influence on the 20th century. Others claim the high standards he demanded of his readers distance him from any possible readership today. He was primarily a moralist, his books and lectures echoed his evangelical upbringing and are peppered with rather off-putting biblical quotations. Moreover, his style is flightly, rambling, often self-indulgent and arrogant. And yet his eloquence and poetic turn of phrase repays the patience necessary to read and understand Ruskin on Nature, on Turner, or especially on Venice. Indeed he survives today in anthologized form (something he abhored during his lifetime) or in the odd reprint, say of his autobiography Praeterita, or most recently, The Stones of Venice.
What has followed Ruskin now, some 80 years after his death, is the wave of Ruskinian scholarship, the biographies (there were seven published between 1929-53, including the best, by Derrick Leon in 1949), editions of letters, diaries, symposiums and critical works. Such enthusiasm left Ruskin's life not surprisingly misrepresented, shrouded in myth, controversy or wild speculation, especially concerning his tragic private affairs. It is Hunt's aim to set the record straight, to clear the mists of uncertainty and set down as factually as possible the life and extraordinarily prodigious career of John Ruskin. Hunt moves cautiously over that familiar ground Ruskin himself recorded in his autobiography, noting the half-truths and inaccuracies of that classic of artful evasion and self-effacement, in which Ruskin fails even to mention his own marriage. Moreover, he uses the recently discovered (and published) letters in which Ruskin discusses that disastrous marriage. But his approach is on the whole an objective one, and does not fall prey to what Kenneth Clark claimed was "a malicious interest in the story of his private life" that crippled his own Ruskin crusade in the 1960s.
The mass of material published or in manuscript is daunting to any serious Ruskin biographer, and Hunt moves expertly over it with an admirable lightness of touch. He concentrates on the esthetic development of young Ruskin, the passionate seer in search of his descriptive voice, but manages to avoid the common pitfall of literary biography, sacrificing the life to a thorough discussion of the work. However this obsessive objectivity, which takes the form of some 80 pages of notes, the result of some six years' research and teaching Ruskin here and in America, makes the essential narrative difficult to follow, despite the brief plot summaries that appear at the beginning of sections to the book. Moreover, Ruskin's biographer must tackle the very challenging problem of his subject's character, and that of the cast of personalities, from his parents, Turner, Carlyle, to, in later years, the young girls and older women he collected. Unfortunately this is rarely done, the figures in the story--for a biography is essentially a story -- remain mere cyphers.
To be fair, Hunt describes his book as an "intellectual biography," and I suspect Ruskin would have approved. It was his self-confessed aim to be taken seriously for his intellect: "It is the chief provocation of my life to be called as word painter instead of a thinker." And Ruskin had been groomed by his parents to believe in his genius. "I don't think myself a great genius, but I believe I have genius; something different from cleverness," he wrote to his father in 1852, after book successes with Modern Painters, Seven Lamps of Architecture, and while working on The Stones of Venice. "There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to draw and describe the things which I love -- not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage, but a sort of instinct like that of eating and drinking."
Ruskin had become the "passionate seer" the moment he escaped England to roam the cathedral towns of France, climb the mountains of Switzerland and measure, draw and photograph the decaying spendor offVenice. His passion for seeing and describing was immense, his enthusiasm infectious enough to encompass not only architecture and painting, but geology, botany, meteorology, spiritualism. His fluid, poetic prose and hypnotic speaking voice captivated his contemporaries, among them Carlyle, Wordsworth and Gladstone, who proposed Ruskin for poet laureate to succeed Tennyson.
Moreover Ruskin's social theories, which increased over the years (especially following his disapproving father's death) proved controversial if largely ineffective. His Paddington tea shop which sold tea in any amount to the poor, his Oxford road-mending party, here fairly described as an attempt to stop the misuse of the countryside, and his Guild of St. George, with its army of artist copyists sent out to record the demise of an architectural heritage, all proved rather better plans on paper than practice. And yet it is a tribute to his socialist influence that the first Labor Party meeting in 1906 almost unanimously declared the works of Ruskin their greatest influence.
The growing number of disciples of Ruskin were not only treated to his elegant prose but his unashamed habit of parading his private life through his writing. He clearly depended upon his readers for more than an understanding of his social or artistic theories, and saw his self-confessional tone as an essential honesty necessary to maintain his hold over them.
The roots of this dependency on an audience, for throughout his life Ruskin was essentially a teacher, lie with his parents in the south London suburban environment they jealously guarded for their only child. Indeed they were extraordinary isolators, the successful sherry merchant father and staunch evangelical mother first and foremost intent on educating and boosting their son to the heights of whatever profession he wished to pursue. He became their lifeline to the outside world, the social and literary world of London, from which they were but a train ride, but might have been miles from. Their middle-class prejudices crippled them into isolation from life, and rubbed off on young John. When, after a series of private tutors, he was sent up to Oxford, his mother dutifully accompanied him and entertained his friends and waited for his teatime visits with unhealthy relish.
The family always travelled together on the continent, first under the pretext of father Ruskin's business, but later to allow John to freely research his next published work. The parents' devotion to their son was absolute, yet young John was soon to pay the price for such attention. It drove him inward, made him capable of working at an impressive rate but on the whole made him unable to cope with personal relationships on any terms but his own. As he wrote his father in 1852, "Pictures are my friends, I have none others."
The crunch came when his parents pushed him into marriage, eventually with the ebullient and as it happened unsuitable Effie Gray, whom he had known several years as the daughter of a Scottish businessman, then in debt. Ruskin was in love with the idea of marriage, but refused to allow his work to suffer. When it did, he seems to have pushed his wife in the direction of the young, handsome Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, who eventually married her, after Ruskin's marriage was annulled, on the grounds of his impotency. Hunt explains this rather sordid affair with great detachment, although his account has been greeted with mild controversy here in England. What is clear is that Ruskin was never to recover from this disaster; he was socially snubbed in London circles (which did not greatly upset him, not being one for social gatherings) and worse was plagued by the affair years later, when he wished to remarry.
His infatuation with the child beauty of young Rose La Touche, whom he proposed to marry at the age of 47, she aged 18, has long been the subject of Ruskinian legend and psychological examination. What is certain is that Ruskin treated his women as he regarded his research subjects, as intangible objects for admiration and inspiration. So when Rose flirted with him, but gradually lost her youth and succumbed to religious mania and mental instability, Ruskin safely fell back on his memory of her, the "child angel," his "Rosey Posey," as he had once first known her. Even her death was greeted with unexpected stoicism since he knew her ghost would survive; and it seems to have always remained with him.
Following most emotional upsets, Ruskin's response was to turn inward and work at an even greater pace, on an obsessive number of projects. It was this, according to Hunt, that proved his downfall. The manic depressive condition he endured throughout his life soon turned to fits of the hereditary madness his parents had long feared. And yet following his first bout of madness Ruskin could write to Carlyle (then his 'Papa'), "It is wonderful to me to find that I could go so heartily and readily mad. . . And it was more wonderful yet to find the madness made up into things so dreadful, out of things so trivial." Life had clearly not ceased its fascination. Yet Hunt devotes a mere 30 pages to the last turbulent 20 years of Ruskin's life. It was the period he licked his wounds over the Whistler libel action and retreated to his lakeland home, with only brief escapes to lecture at Oxford a second time. There he chose such lightweight subjects as the mob-capped children of Kate Greenaway, and gradually lost his critical grip over his audience by declaring a Bewick wood engraved pig as a type of protestantism.
Nevertheless he continued to work with Kate Greenaway and on his autobiography, despite the recurring bouts of madness. The letters he writes to his beloved "Katie," by then desperately in love with him, number almost 1000 and reveal the remarkable resilience of a dying man. He could be self-opinionated, flirtatious, arrogant,,yet compassionate and tender, despite the encroaching fear of enforced idleness (his greatest fear) and the thought that the world had forgotten him.
The last 11 years of his life he spent, silently in a partial coma which, despite the estream of carefully vetted visitors and many photographs taken, proved his most trying experience. When Kate Greenaway came prepared for artistic advice she found a shadow of a man, unable to speak or acknowledge her presence. He had become the great lakeland sage, a silent national institution. And when he died, early in 1900, his disciples fought to have him buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside the other national heroes. But in fact he was laid to rest in the local churchyard at Coniston, where his house, now a Ruskin museum, remains open to his admirers even today.
Most of this is recorded with characteristic thoroughness by Dr. Hunt, but in the end we are left unsatisfied, still wondering why Ruskin had achieved such prominence during his lifetime. The answer would surely help towad reinstating his work amongst the giants of the period, and perhaps get it read more widely. Instead it seems Hunt has been swept along by the wave of Ruskinian fact and theory that has followed his subject for so many years. In the end Ruskin, the individual, remains adrift and for the moment at least, out of reach on that wider sea.