Beliefs Of Ruskin
From 'John Ruskin: Unto This Last and other writings' (1985) by Clive Wilmer

For Ruskin, the study of architecture had never been distinct from the study of landscape. Turner, like many of the watercolourists of his generation, had first made his mark as an architectural draughtsman, with cathedrals and ruined abbeys as his subjects. Among the lesser artists celebrated in Modern Painters are the engravers of popular architectural prints, Samuel Prout, David Roberts, Clarkson Stanfield and Ruskin's drawing master, J. D. Harding. These artists did much to popularize the revival of interest in medieval architecture that is part of Romanticism. But the tradition they belong to is connected with the movement of eighteenth-century taste known as the Picturesque. Picturesque landscape is not conventionally beautiful. The beauty lies in the handling; the scenes themselves are wild or disordered and associated with poverty. Often, antiquated buildings, usually falling into ruin, give focus and human meaning to the composition. The fashion for Gothic remains was closely connected with the Romantic nostalgia for the medieval. It was in origin sentimental and decorative, but by the early nineteenth century it had acquired dignity and antiquarian earnestness — mainly through the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, which Ruskin devoured in his childhood.

Ruskin was, even in his teens, a superb architectural draughtsman — to begin with, very much of the Picturesque school. His first full-length prose work, The Poetry of Architecture, also belongs to the tradition: serialized in the Architectural Magazine in 1837, it deals with the relation of vernacular buildings to landscape. Ruskin's feeling for the Picturesque never quite diminished. The mouldering wall furred with lichen recurs throughout his writings. But he soon began trying to understand the emotion it generated, and wrote of the way the ageing of stone allows nature to blend with the man-made environment. And his work acquired a scholarly dimension. By the late 1840s, his knowledge of medieval iconography and the motifs of Gothic ornament in England, France and Italy was encyclopedic.

The first product of this knowledge was The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Two preoccupations caused him to write it: his new estimation of early religious painting and anxiety about the fate of the medieval heritage in modern times. In spite of — in some cases because of — the Gothic Revival, the great buildings of medieval Europe were under threat. Many of them were endangered by neglect; still more by the fashion for 'restoration' — at the hands of craftsmen and designers who were ignorant of medieval skills and unable to judge the value of the work they were so assiduously replacing. The Seven Lamps was written partly to make the case against the restorers and partly to record work that Ruskin believed was soon to be lost. As he both celebrated the art of the Middle Ages and lamented the failure of his own time to emulate or properly value it, he began to perceive the extent of the gulf that divided the two eras. He was forced to conclude that at some stage in its development, European culture had gone disastrously wrong.

This conclusion was new to Ruskin. Modern Painters I had championed modern artists and claimed to prove their 'Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters'. But during a long Italian tour in 1845, the religious masters from Giotto to Tintoretto took him by storm. He learnt that many of the claims he had made for the English landscapists could also be made for medieval painting. For instance, he praised fifteenth-century artists like Benozzo Gozzoli or Giovanni Bellini for what he called their 'naturalism': the way they paid homage to the hand of God in creation through the loving and accurate representation of natural forms. It was precisely this quality that he admired in Gothic architecture.

Anyone who has ever looked closely at a Gothic cathedral will have been struck by the proliferation of natural forms in its ornamentation. These forms are rarely abstract or idealized. They are usually particular, and identical motifs are rarely repeated. Pages of Ruskin are devoted to the study of all this richness. He sees it as one of the many ways in which the Gothic builders praised the glory of God's creation. The whole building honours the laws of the physical world. It respects the materials it is made of, being as much concerned to express the material's character as to convert it into wall or statue. In so doing, it harmonizes with the natural environment, seeming to grow out of the land. It further celebrates the beauty of natural forms by invoking them in its own formal dispositions — in rose-windows, in foliated tracery, in the analogies that may be drawn between forest and arcade, spire and mountain peak. And in the pursuit of organic beauty it discards formal perfection, thus in effect confessing the weakness of man and acknowledging that only God is perfect. It is because of this naturalism — as much as for dubiously historical reasons — that Ruskin calls Gothic 'Christian architecture'.

With the coming of the Renaissance, however, naturalism gives way to conventions diametrically opposed to it. The decadent Catholicism of the late Middle Ages had given birth to a delusive self-confidence. The Gothic adoration of external things had opened perspectives into infinity; the art of the Renaissance confined itself to the study of man, beginning and ending in his physical being. For Ruskin, this was 'sensualism' — what is now called 'materialism' inflated with the sin of pride. This sensualism required a more worldly style to reflect its values. The result was Classicism: a revival of the architecture of pagan Rome. Where Gothic had confessed man's limitations, Classicism announced his perfections, by means of symmetry, a mathematical concept of form, which centred on man and displayed the power of his intellect, but had no room for the wide world beyond him. The change in style represented, in Ruskin's view, a covert rejection of Christianity, though Christian practice was to continue, as a mere form, into the nineteenth century.

Ruskin's fullest account of this cultural apostasy is to be found in The Stones of Venice (1851 and 1853). Venetian builders in the Middle Ages created their own eclectic variations on the Byzantine and Gothic styles. These were the styles the book was written to celebrate. When it appeared, Ruskin's architectural taste was still bafflingly unfashionable. To the amazement of his critics, he denounced the famed Palladio and the Renaissance, lavishing his praise on buildings that for two hundred years had been thought barbaric and grotesque. The modern tourist is amazed to learn that, before Ruskin, St Mark's and the Ducal Palace were not thought beautiful. Between 1849 and 1852, he spent long periods in Venice studying these ancient buildings, many of them obscure and disregarded. He studied them as exhaustively as he could: sketching, making daguerreotypes, writing voluminous notes, even climbing on the buildings to measure their proportions. At the same time he pursued their chronology in the city's archives and gradually unfolded his moralized tale of a culture's rise and fall.

Ruskin did not see buildings merely as works of art created by individuals for the use of other individuals. They were social artefacts and, as such, expressed the moral condition of the society in which and for which they were built.

'. . . every noble form of architecture,' he wrote in Volume I, 'is in some sort the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History and Religious Faith of nations.'

In the stones of Venice and their history, moreover, he believed it was possible to see the history of the European spirit neatly encapsulated. The period of the architecture he loved coincided exactly with the era of the city's greatness. Her adoption of the Renaissance style signalled her decline and anticipated her fall. That Ruskin idealized Venice and the Middle Ages in general, there can be no doubt. This is not greatly important. What the architectural works create is a myth, a Utopia projected back into the past. The relevance of the myth was to be felt in modern England, a greater maritime empire in a Europe fallen deeper into spiritual and cultural decay. As Byron, one of the heroes of Ruskin's youth, had put it:

in the fall
Of Venice think of thine.

If The Stones of Venice were merely the lament of a conservative cultural pessimist, it would be of little account. But Ruskin's social critique has radical implications too. These are most plainly articulated in the central chapter of the work. 'The Nature of Gothic', an analysis of the style that is at once imaginative and scholarly, is one of Ruskin's masterpieces. How-ever, the most innovative passage, though its implications for the future of art are profound, is scarcely about art at all. It is about work. In the last chapter of The Seven Lamps, Ruskin had already suggested that the quality of architectural ornament is affected by the conditions of labour in which it is produced. This argument has social implications, and in 'The Nature of Gothic' they combine with Ruskin's advocacy of 'naturalism'. Ornament may be classified not only in aesthetic terms but in terms of the kind of labour that goes into its production. In Renaissance architecture and the neo-classicism that grew from it, the ornament is servile. Because the variety of natural forms is reduced to certain fixed conventions — so that ornament may be made subservient to 'perfection' of design — the creative freedom of the workman is repressed and controlled. In the industrial age, this tendency has been hugely and grotesquely magnified by the conditions of mass production. Gothic ornament, by contrast, is revolutionary. Christianity recognizes 'the individual value of every soul' and sees the hand of God in the richness of creation. It thus gives freedom to the workman's imagination, encouraging him to respond as an individual to the various detail of the natural world. 'Work' and 'art' are thus virtually synonymous and remain so in Ruskin's vocabulary for the rest of his career. The society which fails to provide work that develops the workman's humanity in this way, he concludes, stands convicted of injustice.

Having once spoken out on these issues, Ruskin found it impossible to confine his work to questions of art. He began to dislike playing the part of what he was to call (in his lecture on 'Traffic') 'a respectable architectural man-milliner': a writer of purple prose and the darling of the increasingly wealthy middle class, of the people who collected modern pictures to enrich their drawing rooms and commissioned new town halls in the fashionable Gothic style. Partly because his family was wealthy, his conscience was deeply troubled by the sight of poverty or soulless drudgery. It made him angry to hear those who lived in comfort, their standard of living improving daily because of the labours of others, moralizing about the value of work — especially when the work was likely to be, literally, soul-destroying. Still more loathsome to him was the much-popularized science of Political Economy, which explained these inequities in terms of natural laws. Between 'The Nature of Gothic' in 1853 and the serialization of Unto this Last in 1860, his social analyses surfaced in a variety of contexts: in the later volumes of Modern Painters (see 'The Two Boyhoods'), in his lectures (see 'The Work of Iron') and in a series of letters to the press on political questions which his cautious father persuaded him not to publish.

In the published writings, however, the social lessons were nearly always connected with art. The culmination of this phase of Ruskin's career came in 1857 when in Manchester he delivered the lectures he called "The Political Economy of Art." On this occasion he urged the state to involve itself in the promotion of art as an activity that gives fulfilment to society at large as well as to the individual. Fundamentally, the argument is for a practical application of the lessons he had preached in 'The Nature of Gothic', but it goes beyond that, implying the need for state intervention in the economy as a whole, and calling for a society based on co-operation rather than competition. The rhetoric is distinctly Tory and medievalist — he calls state intervention 'paternal government' — but he did not escape the charge of socialism.

With The Political Economy of Art the balance of Ruskin's work is turned on its head. He began as a critic of art who incidentally commented on the state of society. In the Manchester lectures he was transformed into a social critic who illustrates his arguments with observations about art. Great art was the product of a just social order, which was in turn the response of a nation to Christ's command that we love one another. Gothic art was great because it achieved an equable relationship between creativity and the given world; but it could not have been produced under modern conditions of labour. The architects of the modern Gothic Revival were therefore wasting their energy. For much the same reason it was fruitless for him to engage in the criticism of contemporary art. It was first necessary to change society. Only then would great art be attainable.

This is not to say that Ruskin criticized his age merely because its ugliness offended him. His condemnation of modern culture implied a condemnation of more deeply rooted social failures. What he sought to expose was a society statistically rich that could find no employment for its workers, lamented over-production as a cause of poverty, accepted the notion of planned obsolescence, encouraged an arms race as a source of economic growth, allowed extremes of poverty and starvation to co-exist with ostentatious luxury, professed Christianity but saw such poverty as a law of nature not to be tampered with, and expected the majority of its people to rest content in conditions of squalor and brutal ugliness. The responsibility for these evils could not simply be laid at the door of wicked individuals who cared nothing for their fellow-humans. The causes were to be found in the great European apostasy he had begun tracing in the history of Venice. Victorian England was still, superficially, Christian, but its real philosophy was to be found elsewhere. It appeared under various names but its principles were constant: a mechanistic account of human nature, belief in liberty (though for many the reality of deprivation rendered such liberty worse than useless), the conviction that communal prosperity is only to be achieved by the individual's pursuit of his own interest. Ruskin had been stirred to social criticism by his sense of unjust conditions of labour. Labour conditions are shaped by the laws of the market. Not surprisingly, then, it was the new philosophy's account of those laws that Ruskin now chose to attack.