A British writer and art critic
, champion of modern painters such as Turner
and the Pre-Raphaelites
, and social reformer
. His prose
style is one of the most rewarding of all writers.
John Ruskin was born in 1819, the son of a prosperous wine-merchant. His wealth enabled him to travel, and to patronize the arts. His travels with his family took him to the Alps, where he learned to love mountains as the beginning and the end of the sublimity of nature, and to Italy, where he saw the great architectural art of the Gothic style: and especially to Venice. He grew up around Dulwich in south London, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery helped form his taste in painting.
He was at Christ Church, Oxford, and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, but his career really began with his championship of others: the first volume of his Modern Painters (1843), in which he declared Turner to be as great as the "old masters", the Renaissance artists. But he also championed mediaeval artists, and the Neo-Gothic style in the new architecture of his own day. His books on architecture included The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851).
Both a social radical and a spiritual conservative, he used his wealth for the appreciation of art and the inextricably linked betterment of the working classes, speaking out for, and writing for, and supporting financially, a kind of socialist Christian mediaevalist moral and aesthetic point of view. Both Tolstoy and Gandhi delighted in him for this. At first seen as a wealthy dilettante, later in his life he was the social conscience of the whole age.
He tried to address himself to the common people, to ordinary men and women, to the working man. Such works included Sesame and Lilies (1865) on the duties of men and women, and Fors Clavigera and Time and Tide and Unto This Last. He hated greed and tyranny, and loved the honest work of craft, and despised the new sciences like political economy that seemed to enshrine and justify these debasements.
In 1870 he was appointed the first Slade professor of art at Oxford. His later years were sadly dogged by increasing eccentricity, verging at times into madness. He died in 1900, but had been silent for a long time before that. He wrote an incomplete autobiography Praeterita.
Ruskin's private life was strange too. He had a morbidly Victorian hero-worshipping passion for very young girls. He married Effie Gray in 1848, but the marriage was not consummated. There is a legend that he, used to the smooth marble beauties of classical sculpture, was horrified on his wedding night that she had pubic hair. In fact all that is known is that he much later declared that she was not built to excite passion. But he introduced her to Pre-Raphaelite painters including Sir John Millais, and she left him for Millais after seven years and filed for divorce on the ground of impotence. In later years he fell for an Irish girl called Rose La Touche. After many years she was old enough to propose to, and he did, to the repugnance of her parents. She died insane.