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

In May 1860 John Ruskin delivered to his publishers the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters, his monumental study of landscape art. He was forty-one. The first volume had appeared in 1843 and established his reputation almost overnight as the most influential art critic in England, probably the most influential that English culture has ever known. It had been inspired by the greatest landscape artist of the early nineteenth century. The late paintings of J. M. W. Turner, with their unfocused washes of luminous colour, had moved conservative art critics to ridicule and contempt. Angered by what he judged prejudice and ignorance, Ruskin had risen to Turner's defence, never for a moment anticipating the scope of the finished work. As it grew, however, and as Ruskin's knowledge of art grew with it, the book began to encompass the whole field of European painting. But that was not the limit of Ruskin's interests and activities. The composition of Modern Painters was twice interrupted by studies of medieval architecture. He was much in demand as a public lecturer. He taught drawing free of charge at the new Working Men's College. He campaigned for sound principles of industrial design and interested himself in educational experiment. He helped to plan and build the Oxford Museum of Natural History. He spent a great deal of his time and money sorting, cleaning, framing and cataloguing the Turner bequest. Nor was he purely a theorist and critic. His ideas about art were based on a close study of nature, and his considerable powers of observation were reinforced by scientific knowledge of natural forms. His first great passion was geology - he had published essays on the subject at the age of fifteen - and he remained an original amateur of the subject for most of his life. He was a skilled and sensitive draughtsman and watercolourist, and illustrated most of his own books, making copies after great masters, architectural drawings, studies of natural forms. He was a considerable literary critic, and was widely regarded as the outstanding prose stylist of the age. Yet despite this reputation for various accomplishment, the subject of his next book took the public completely by surprise.

The completion of Modern Painters had exhausted him. Before the book appeared, he left for a holiday in the Swiss Alps, the landscape that from boyhood had inspired his love of nature. There, too, through Turner's impressions of it, he had learnt the role of the artist as interpreter of divine truth. Now, looking out on the scene he loved before all others, the 'cloudless peace of the snows of Chamouni', he turned his mind to the study of Political Economy. The first product of his meditations, the four essays later collected as Unto this Last, appeared that same year in the Cornhill Magazine, and with their publication Ruskin experienced what might have been judged the first setback of his career. The present selection has been designed to put Unto this Last in a context. Though the writings grouped around it illustrate the range of Ruskin's concerns, there is also a remarkable consistency of moral and social emphasis. It is the purpose of this introduction to show that what then seemed at best a diversion, at worst an aberration, was in fact central to Ruskin's work and thought. It has become customary for critics and biographers to insist that the seeds of Unto this Last are to be found in his previous work and that no fundamental change of direction was involved. The arguments adduced to support this view are indisputable. Nevertheless, the book was, in subject and in manner, quite different from anything Ruskin had written before — disturbing to the complacency of his more genteel admirers. To feel something of its impact and originality, the modern reader needs to recognize this, and to learn by what paths Ruskin arrived at this unexpected point of departure.