John Ruskin – The Power of Seeing

Scroll down to content

Learning Outcomes – 2,3,4

A morning out exploring the Two Temple Place which is near to the Temple Station to some wonderful art made by John Ruskin.

John Ruskin 1819 – 1900

John Ruskin was the offspring of a marriage between a Scots sherry merchant and the pious daughter of the landlord of the Old King’s Head in Croydon. Raised in South London, the delicate child-prodigy was hot-housed and molly-coddled by his pared throughout his life, and was surely destined for greatness as a poet or bishop. In spite of a childhood passion for geology, his life’s path was set at the age of thirteen, when he was given a book-length poem which contained etchings by the painter J.M.W Turner. Some years later, when he was twenty-four, Ruskin began writing his most well-known work, Modern-Painters, a brilliant, verbose, fiercely opinionated defence of Turner. When finally completed in 1860, it ran to more that 1,500 pages of print. It brought him great fame notoriety as an art critic.

Ruskin shifted his attention from art to architecture in general, and Venice in particular. Underpinning his thinking, always, was a passion for preaching, and teaching correct moral behaviour. He had a fierce social conscience, and an urge to improve the lot of the poor. He became a teacher, and the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. Unto This Last (1860), the most outspoken and politacl radical of his books, furiously attacked those who exploited the poor. In the 1870s he conceived a scheme to create museums in the English regions, and the first, in Sheffield, opened in 1875. Ruskin poured money into the venture and donated many objects from his own collections. His ambition was to give the working people of the city – the world’s greatest industrial powerhouse at the time – some practical lessons in the appreciation of beauty, to show off’ what is lovely in the life of nature, and the heroic in the life of Men

William Henry Hunt

Grapes and Pineapple c.1850

Watercolour and gouache on paper

Like Prout, Hunt was patronised by Ruskin’s father John James. Ruskin Described his skill-life painting as ‘luscious’, and when he grew up, asked the artist fpr watercolour lessons.

Prout’s rather monochrome architectural studies and Hunt’s jewel-like fruit and foliage are significantly different in style, but in 1879 Ruskin displayed their worked together in an exhibition seeing them as comparable in their simple charm and modesty, and in their eye for nature’s beauty.

John Ruskin

Ancienne Maison, Lucerne, Switzerland 1835

Pen and ink with white on paper

From childhood, Ruskin was familiar with both Prout and his work. Prout’s prints helped inspire the continunal tours and teenage Ruskin took with his family and influence shows in the flickering, dark lines and Ruskin adopted in many early studies.

Ruskin was interested in Prout’s unconventional view of architectural charm – that it was not simply the crumbling, dilapidated stonework or hint of desolation that made a characterful building. Instead, Proud’s drawing’s suggested to Ruskin that an emotional experience could be sought in a building’s factual history – the stories of its stones.

Samuel Prout

The Piazzetta, Venice 1830s

Watercolour on paper

Charles Fairfax Murray

Portrait of John Ruskin, Head and Shoulders, Full Face 1975

Watercolour and gouache on paper

Although said to be by Charles Fairfax Murray, this is possibly a self-portrait by John Ruskin, painted around the time Ruskin opened the St George’s Museum in Sheffield`. This was a time of personal torment Ruskin but also of great activity, with subjects from art to mineralogy to social justice consuming his time.

J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W Turner delighted and engrossed Ruskin. Ruskin regarded the artist as the greatest painter of his age. He recorded his impressions of Turner on first meeting him: keen-mannered, shrewd, a hater of humbug, matter-of-fact, bad-tempered, and perhaps a little selfish. Ruskin was utterly enthralled by Turner’s devotion to dirt, litter, the effects pf ‘dinginess, smoke, soot, dust, and dusty texture; old side of boats weedy roadside vegetation, dung-hills, straw-yards, and all the boilings and strains of every common labourer. His passion for Turner’s art provoked outbursts of writing of description brilliance, and an analytical attention to the strategy of a painting’s actual fabrication, unequalled by any art critic before or since.


For Ruskin, architecture was the enduring expression of a nation’s life and character, and the threats to old buildings of demolition or incompetent restoration roused him to a frenzy of condemnation and furious activity. He would rush to record medieval structures under threats of description – or pay assistants to make such records for him. In the immediate aftermath of 1848, a year of political upheaval across Europe, he hurried to Venice in trepidation, fearing what destruction he might find there. He arrived soon after the Austrians had seized back control from the local republicans. His great work The Stones of Venice, written over the next three years, in full of first-hand accounts and snatch visual records of precious architectural details – capitals, corbels, finials, stones tracery – that Ruskin feared might disappear forever.

A Public Communicator

Ruskin spoke as an if through a megaphone. His mother’s insistence that he learn great tracts of the Bible as a child meant that he was forever thunderous, with fierce convictions – until he changed his mind. His rhetoric, its authority bolstered by questions from the Bible, was not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted – sentences could run to twenty-six lines of type without a pause of breath. And his eccentric, energetic manner of delivering lectures – first as a teacher at the Working Men’s College in London, and later as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford – attracted many who attended for the spectacle alone. Unaware of Ruskin’s mental health, which was by that point deteriorating, they mocked him. They laughed and jeered. These public performances would sometimes be accompanied by dance steps or snatches of song. When he lectured on the chough, he strutted back and forth and even flapped the wings of his cloak in playful mimicry of the bird. Ruskin’s lectures were often accompanied by elaborately detailed diagrams, which proved to be sources of bemusement and fascination in their own right.

More within Two Temple Place


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: