Ruskin inherited a fortune from his wine-merchant father, meaning he was free to pursue his studies and collect the works of the leading painters of Victorian England. For years, though, Ruskin’s colossal intellect and remarkable talent have been overshadowed by scandalous rumours
Before me is the world’s greatest collection of photographs, paintings and letters by John Ruskin, the intellectual and artistic titan of Victorian England.
Here is one of the earliest photos of the Alps, taken by Ruskin.
There is his huge painting of a peacock feather, used to teach art to the undergraduates at Oxford in the late 19th century — Oscar Wilde being one such adoring fan.
And, gleaming as good as new on the table in front of me, there lies his drawing of the ancient buildings of Venice that he did so much to save.
I’m deep in the ‘treasury’ — a huge, ultra-modern, concrete and bronze cube, concealed inside the Ruskin Library in Lancaster — where this astonishing collection is held.
Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the great minds of the 19th century — a critic, painter, thinker and early eco-warrior.
Until recently, though, he was best known for two sensational stories.
First, his disastrous marriage and a tawdry myth over his supposed impotence and homosexuality. And then came a notorious libel case in the Old Bailey against the celebrated American painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Born 200 years ago, he would now be a sort of David Attenborough meets Greta Thunberg meets David Bellamy meets David Hockney. And just like Greta, he too attracted vitriol from contemporary critics.
Here’s hoping the sensational rescue of his archive for the nation, celebrated in a new exhibition, will restore his reputation.
His works include`Peacock and Falcon Feather’ from 1873, left, and right, a drawing from his most celebrated book, ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-53), a study of Venetian buildings
Lancaster is the perfect spot for the collection. Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life, before his death in 1900 aged 80, at his nearby home of Brantwood on Coniston Water in the Lake District, where he is buried.
His huge archive was in danger of being taken overseas, until the £8 million needed to buy the collection was raised — all thanks to a National Heritage Memorial grant of £2.5 million, grants from 11 other charities and a last-minute donation from the Friends of the National Libraries, three days before the deadline.
And what an enormous treasure trove it is!
I spent several hours having a sneak preview of the collection and only scratched the surface.
The archive continues deep underground, where picture stacks include works by the great Pre-Raphaelite painters, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais.
Ruskin inherited a fortune from his wine-merchant father, meaning he was free to pursue his studies and collect the works of the leading painters of Victorian England.
For years, though, Ruskin’s colossal intellect and remarkable talent have been overshadowed by scandalous rumours.
Ruskin, was also an early environmentalist, and believed that the whole natural world was intertwined, from the microscopic to the mammoth. He even appeared to point to the symptoms of climate change in a very early daguerreotype — or photograph — of the Alps
In 1848, he married artist and author Effie Gray, only for the marriage to end in 1854 on grounds of ‘non-consummation’ owing to his ‘incurable impotency’. Ruskin disputed the charge, saying: ‘I can prove my virility at once.’
The case led to the myth that Ruskin was homosexual and horrified by the sight of Effie’s pubic hair. In a further blow to Ruskin, Effie married artist John Everett Millais — whose works Ruskin owned — in 1855.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ruskin was then caught up in one of the most infamous libel trials of the 19th century.
In 1878, Whistler sued Ruskin in the Old Bailey for his stinker of a review of Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket.
Ruskin said of the painting: ‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’
Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life, before his death in 1900 aged 80, at his nearby home of Brantwood on Coniston Water in the Lake District, where he is buried. Brantwood is pictured above
Whistler was then asked in court if two days’ work was worth 200 guineas. ‘No,’ Whistler responded.
‘I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’
Whistler won but received only a farthing in damages, and both men appeared to have had their reputations tarnished by the action.
Details are included in the archive, which contains 7,400 letters, not least Ruskin’s correspondence with the painter JMW Turner and Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, whom Ruskin did much to support. There are also 1,500 drawings and 500 prints by Ruskin and his fellow artists.
Also in the collection are 125 incredibly rare daguerreotypes — early photographs — including early images of the Alps and Venice, and 29 volumes of Ruskin’s diaries which include many unpublished sketches.
The collection is in fact worth much more than £8 million. Some experts value it in the hundreds of millions of pounds.
But the sellers — the Education Trust Ltd and the Whitehouse Trust — sold the collection at a great discount, out of respect for its importance to the nation.
The collection was originally curated by Liberal MP, John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955), who bought it after Ruskin’s death. Whitehouse was an ancestor of the archive’s sellers.
Much of Ruskin’s life is reflected in the collection, including paintings he did while he was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford.
He taught art through pictures of the natural world he painted on paper and laid on canvas. Ruskin’s Lecture Diagrams were used to illustrate subjects such as art, botany and classics.
The Ruskin now has the largest collection of his Lecture Diagrams in the world. And here they are, fully restored, in the first room of the new show, in immaculate condition: three-feet high purple flower buds, shown as they bloom; a vast picture of a buttercup; and, most enchanting of all, a peacock feather and a falcon feather, painted in 1873.
Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the great minds of the 19th century — a critic, painter, thinker and early eco-warrior
To show the shape of a swallow’s feather, Ruskin had two painted wooden feather models made, each three feet long.
Ruskin, was also an early environmentalist, and believed that the whole natural world was intertwined, from the microscopic to the mammoth.
He even appeared to point to the symptoms of climate change in a very early daguerreotype — or photograph — of the Alps.
The daguerreotype on show is ‘Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif’, made by Ruskin and Frederick Crawley in 1854.
It shows an Alpine valley, stiff with ice and snow. In a chilling — or warming — condemnation of climate change, artist Emma Stibbon has painted the same view today for the show: the valley is now ice and snow-free.
Ruskin is perhaps most famous for his architectural drawings, particularly of his adored Venice.
His most celebrated book, ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-53), was a study of Venetian buildings, and his drawings show him as an early defender of the city’s heritage.
Now at last his genius has been resurrected by the dramatic rescue of his archive — and it is a permanent reminder of one of England’s greatest visionaries.
‘Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future’, at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster, runs until November 25, 2019