“Is it possible for any country to be considered in a healthy condition when there is no such thing as a general diffusion of the comforts of life, but when the extremities prevail of the most unbounded luxury and enjoyment and the most dreadful privation and suffering”
“Property indeed, to readers of The Times, in 1860, was considered a great deal more important than life. A man would be let off with only a few months imprisonment for the most brutal assault upon a woman, while petty theft was punished with merciless rigour”

Charles Greville

John Ruskin: Early influences and criticism.

From very early on John Ruskin (1819-1900) was influenced by three things, which would come together to form his entire outlook in life. Ruskin had a strong Evangelical upbringing, through the teachings of his mother in particular, believing the bible to be literally true and, initially, believing in the essential wickedness and corruption of man. These beliefs were later questioned by Ruskin, especially in the light of scientific progress, a second influence which, notably through geology, began to illustrate the flaws within the bible and bring into question the very existence of God.

A third influence was that of Romanticism. William Wordsworth, for example, greatly appealed to Ruskin who had exceptional regard for nature and honesty. In Wordsworth’s “Guide through the District of Lakes” there was great emphasis placed on “seeing,” something which Ruskin later picked up on. Within the guide the author stated that a traveller could experience “emotional communication” between himself and nature and develop “an awareness of the benevolence of God”.

All three influences, despite various contradictions to each other, confirmed the view for Ruskin that the external world was a source of beauty, goodness and inspiration. This view led Ruskin to the conclusion that one should represent nature truthfully, as it is God’s inspiration, and to do so, through the arts especially, was to bring man closer to the truth of God. To try to do any more than that was sheer arrogance on the part of men. As Ruskin writes;

“Truthful observation allows sensual pleasure of the eye to lead to the truth of God; to try and do any more than SEE truly, either by theoretical analysis or emotional self-identification, is mere egoism” (1)

Through this kind of honesty of representation, Ruskin tried to reintroduce morality to art and design arguing that the way to improve society was to reform its art. For him, there was a direct cause and effect between a nation’s art and its current morality. Bad art would create an immoral society and good art would eventuate sound morals.

In the middle of the century however, with the continuing development of industrialisation, there were great numbers with a very different opinion of representation and design. Owen Jones (1809-74), who was Superintendent of Works for the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace, and later wrote ‘Grammar of Ornament’ in 1856, used geometry and a mathematical approach to colour and design. On the debate about nature and true imitation, Chris Dresser (1834-1904) led an attack against Ruskin in the book “The Art of Decorative Design” published in 1862 in which he stated that design should represent the LAWS of nature and not, as Ruskin argued, the APPEARANCE of it.

By the 1850’s Ruskin began to lose his Christian faith. To him the progress of geologists and their “dreadful hammers” had established that the Bible was just another history (2). He was unsure whether to believe in God at all, and certainly any kind of after life seemed unlikely. “It is new to me,” he told Carlyle, “to do everything expecting only death.”(3) However as one could neither prove nor disprove God’s existence it seemed safe to follow Pascal’s argument and believe in him anyway. Death soon became and affirmation of life for Ruskin, who was temporarily deterred by his morbid conclusions. In 1853 he completed the second volume of ‘Stones of Venice” which contained a chapter which was to become greatly influential.

Ruskin and “The Nature of the Gothic”

With the affirmation of life and art that Ruskin had gained (along with disillusionment regarding his Evangelical faith) he began, while continuing with the volumes of “Modern Painters” to take an interest in architecture. He began to move, which is clear in his writings, towards considering a more “man-centred art” and his interests in society became greater, with his writings edging nearer to being somewhat political.

These elements of Ruskin’s shift in thought, however slight, came together in “The Nature of the Gothic” which was profoundly influential . Within it Ruskin uses architecture as an indicator for social history and to highlight a variety of social issues.

Perfection within art AND work, was one such issue Ruskin took to being critical of. By perfection Ruskin referred to a geometrical, mathematical and mechanical perfection which, through the progress of industrialisation and science, designers and labourers were expected to achieve within their work (e.g. Owen Jones). He believed that such perfection led to a self-regarding mannerism, luxury and vice. Architects were no longer asking themselves “What can I represent?” but instead were enquiring, “How high can I build?” This standard was not of nature but of machines and it dehumanised people. As Ruskin wrote:

“You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him” and later, “to be counted off into a heap of mechanism, numbered with its wheels and weighed with its hammer strokes – this nature bade not – this God blesses not, - this humanity for no long time is able to endure.” (4)

Ruskin also warned people not to be fooled and fall for the appeal of perfection, stating that such “perfectnesses” should be taken, not at face value, but as signs of slavery “a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of scourged Africa” (5).

A related point was that of the structure of labour. Men were being divided up within factories and allocated repetitive and monotonous jobs for the purpose of mass production and economic efficiency. With this in mind, Ruskin indirectly attacked Adam Smith with an allusion to an example Smith had given of pin and nail making. Ruskin stated the following;

“It is not truly the labour which is divided; but the men:- Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.” (6)

It was this kind of dehumanisation that Ruskin blamed for current upheavals. The solution to this, Ruskin offered, lay in the Gothic. Ruskin believed that the craftsmen and the builders within the middle ages, worked within complete freedom of expression and created works, architecture being the example used, which used regional materials and reflected the nature of the region. The gargoyles carved were “the signs of life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.”(7)

Within this Gothic based ideal, Ruskin recognised the importance of imperfection within human work and creativity. To be imperfect was to be of the higher order as opposed to simply being an animal or a tool. Imperfection in a piece of work showed a willingness of man to see imperfection in himself – it was natural – and altogether a sign of being human and unconstrained to express that which may be called “human nature”. This was art.

Additionally, in order for this expression to be great art and maintain that status it had to have a quality that Ruskin called “changefulness” – “great art, whether expressing itself in words, colour or stones, DOES NOT say the same thing over and over again.” (8) What Ruskin was calling for was originality and a break away from mass production. It also had to live up to a quality of naturalism with natural objects represented frankly and unconstrained by modern convention. Within this one should also be true to materials, showing them for what they are and working within their limits. To do anything else – to make rock appear to bend – was a misrepresentation and again was simply a sign of pure egoism.

Like Pugin (1812-1822) he presented three rules - structural honesty, originality in design and the use of regional material and character and not unlike Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) he condemned the machine-orientated society of Victorian Britain.

What Ruskin offered as the ideal was one where labour and creativity came together again, so that all have a freedom of expression within their work and can act within nature, according to it and representing it. This is how man can approach the truth of God and this is the cure for immorality, slavery and degradation, bringing society from its ugliness. (Something many of us are still waiting for!)

With all this in mind, Ruskin, unsatisfied with all his work so far, moved on in 1860 to publish a piece with which he would finally be pleased.

Unto this Last: Political Economy and a Brick in the Foundations of British Socialism in the Late 19th Century.

Following his attack on working conditions in “The Nature of the Gothic”, Ruskin had an experience of what he called “unconversion” in Turin. It was through this that Ruskin’s radical thought altered again. His realisation of a man-centred art was now confirmed and the causal effect between society and art changed. He now believed that art in itself could no longer redeem society but rather that a society needed to be redeemed in order for it to appreciate art. If Victorian art was ugly it was because Victorian society was ugly and not vice versa.

Aligned with earlier beliefs, Ruskin saw that nature was the source of the conception of beauty and therefore man-made forms closest to nature were most satisfying. Taking this further he concluded that if nature was the model for man-made forms the organisation of nature might become a paradigm for society. In nature separate parts unite in a single energetic whole exemplifying divine purity, just as the imagination of the artist combines the imperfect elements of paint to create a complete a unified composition.

This was the way forward for society, not the divisions and conflicts (of labourer vs. master for example) under which the current system was operating.

In “Unto this Last” Ruskin combined his earlier influences with “The Nature of the Gothic” and his new realisations to form a critique of the contemporary views on political economy and explained what he thought should be addressed with regard to such things as production, government, value and wealth.

In doing so he tried to expose the blind selfishness that arose out of the belief that to act in one’s own interests was to act for the benefit of society as a whole. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had argued that self interest created a harmony of interest for the good of the nation and the likes of Adam Smith (1723 –90) and the Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) had used the “laws” of supply and demand economics to support this view, claiming for example that to improve conditions for the poor would merely create and excess supply of the poor and would ultimately be disasterous for the economy! To illustrate this Robert Hewison writes;

“The Utilitarians, Ruskin pointed out, applied the laws of supply and deman to people as well as products. Adam Smith had seen this as a regulator of population growth, and the Reverend Thomas Malthus had provided a rationale against charity by showing that the poor bred to the limit of their capacity to support children, so that any improvement in their conditions would only lead to population surplus. As a result, the poor are themselves the cause of their own poverty, which must have been very comforting to a rich man.” (An argument the New Right resurrected in the 80’s backed up with post-modern theories on relativity).(9)

This created the two nations of rich and poor, haves and have-nots, that the aristocrat Charles Greville was describing at the time. Ruskin argued, quite successfully, that the force of money depended solely on someone else not having any and wanting it, therefore the monetary system, almost by definition, created this great divide between rich and poor in order to persist. This created antagonism which in itself created inefficiency and defied the laws of supply and demand. Ruskin’s solution was humanitarian – what lead a nation to be wealthy and productive were three important things – CO-OPERATION, SOCIAL AFFECTION and JUSTICE;

“…if the master, instead of endeavouring to get as much work from the servant as possible, seeks rather to render his work beneficial to him…the real amount of work ultimately done, or of good rendered, by the person so cared for, will be indeed the greatest possible.” And later, “Treat the servant kindly…without economic purpose and all economic purposes will be answered.”

He was also quick to condemn competition, claiming it to be a “false, destructive system” whereby a bad worker could underbid the good one for a job, leaving a good worker unemployed and the work done badly, or forcing the good worker to be underpaid;

Buy in the cheapest? Yes; but what made your market cheap? Charcoal may be cheap among your roof timbers after fire and bricks may be cheap after an earthquake; but fire and earthquake may not therefore be national benefits.” (10)

In place of competition Ruskin called for the just pricing of work. He saw the competitive system as acting in the following way: If the two men have underbid each other and one gets the job at half the price, then the employer now has the wealth and the power to employ someone else at half price through the same process. The result is that two men are unemployed and two men are underpaid and in the hand of one powerful employer. If however the employer had given a fair price the situation would be different;

“By the just procedure the whole price of the first piece of work goes into the hands of the man who does it. The final result will be that one man works for the employer at the just price; one for the workman at half price, with the same amount of employ…the universal and constant action of justice in this matter is therefore to diminish the power of wealth in the hands of one individual over the masses of men.” (11)

This would also create opportunities for workers to better themselves through the improvement in the quality of their work and thus rise in the social scale. It was through this that society would become likened to that organisation of nature with each individual part acting within a unified whole and not as two conflicting elements of rich and poor. This is how society could TRULY evolve. This fitted closely with the slogan he had earlier coined in “Modern Painters” and that he repeated here;


His final section of “Unto this Last” concluded all he had tried to convey from early on in his life. His argument was that true wealth was not merely a accumulation of money, but it was life itsef, as he wrote, “…the prosperity of any nation is in exact proportion to the quantity of labour it spends in employing means of life.”(13) The God to follow was the God of life and of natural unity NOT Mammon or individualism. One should be inspired by nature and life as opposed to materialism. Only this way, through justice, honesty, truth and nature etc. could man come closer to the truth of God and divine beauty. If society could be reformed in this way it would in turn produce great art which would reflect back to sustain the greatness of that society.

Unlike “The Nature of the Gothic”, “Unto this Last” was not immediately received well but via the likes of William Morris it was to take on the form of active Socialism in the late part of the 19th Century and was to inspire many who would go on to form Socialist groups, Independent Labour Parties and even a kind of Socialist religion and many of the issues he raised can be found littered throughout contemporary, 21st Century discourse.

1. quote taken from “John Ruskin – the argument of the eye” by Robert Hewison
2. Ruskin could see the logic of Geologists and was not religiously blind so as to ignore this. This caused him great internal conflict as he wrote “If only those geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of bible verses.” - argument of the eye p122
3. Ruskin struck up friendship with Thomas Carlyle who was one of his influences. This quote taken from ‘argument of the eye’ p123
4. from ‘Unto this Last and other writings’ published by Penguin pp84&87. Within ‘The Nature of the Gothic’.
5. as above p85
6. as above p87
7. as above p85
8. as above p94
9. from the ‘argument of the eye’ p139
10. from ‘Unto this Last’ p170
11. as above p187
12. as above p196
13. as above p203