The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, Cumbria

The Ruskin Museum

Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901

Tel: 01539 441164

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Who Was John Ruskin [1819 – 1900]?

One of the great visionaries of the 19th century...

Ruskin Museum Coniston - John Ruskin

Artist, Critic, Pundit on Aesthetics & Ethics, Thinker, Seer, this social revolutionary challenged the moral foundations of Victorian Britain. He despised Capitalism & the barbarians who know the price of everything & the value of nothing.

Ruskin believed in the power of art to transform the lives of people oppressed more by visual illiteracy than by poor material conditions. His passionate desire was to open people’s eyes to the free beauties surrounding them – sunsets, tender dawn light, iridescent feathers, spectacular natural crystals, green leaves against blue sky, clouds, the vitality of Gothic architecture and ornament. His creed was: ‘There is no wealth but life.’

A pioneering conservationist, who foresaw the ‘green-house effect’ more than a century ago, Ruskin inspired the establishment of The National Trust, and the founders of the National Parks movement.

He was one of the first to see a twig as a miniature tree, a rock crystal as a miniature mountain – ideas now embodied in the ‘fractal geometry’ of Chaos Theory.

Ruskin was a true polymath. His interests were far-ranging, from his enquiries into the geological structure of the Alps to his observation of the malignant effects of the Industrial Revolution on the atmosphere and the pollution of the environment and men’s souls,
from his advocacy of the genius of Turner to his realisation that the art and architecture of a place is a reflection of its social and moral condition at a particular moment in time.

He viewed art as an expression of morality, identifying ‘good’ art with mediaeval – specifically Gothic – architecture, when the best work was produced by craftsmen who were honoured and responsible members of a community itself not slave to corrupt and materialistic values. This was symbolised by St George’s epic fight with the Dragon [of Capitalism]. Art was no mere pastime for Ruskin. His art was always purposeful, integral to his thinking on all subjects. He visualised his ideas. He thought visually. He worked out his ideas through drawing. He hated the growing trend towards specialisation and refused to separate one area of interest and involvement from others. For Ruskin, speculation about principles depended upon observation of particularities.

The serial is Ruskin’s strongest thought process. He revelled in stringing together a potentially endless series of associations on an ‘imaginary’ thread and took great
‘delight in the embroidery, intricacy of involution, - the labyrinthine wanderings of the clue, continually lost, continually recovered . . .’

‘He was a character of great fascination and complexity . . . made up of contradictions:
intelligence and silliness; puritanism and a refined sensuality; selfishness and extreme generosity   . . . The central drama of his life, that of the pampered aesthete who gradually becomes aware of social injustice and as a result sacrifices his reputation, his wealth and ultimately his sanity, is as moving as anything in fiction . . . We should read Ruskin for the very quality of his mind . . . his refusal to consider any human faculty in isolation.’
[Kenneth Clark]

Contemporary Views of Ruskin

‘Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times. He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said
not only what he himself had seen and felt,but what everyone will think and say in the future.’

‘He will teach me, for is not he, too, in some degree the truth?’

‘The books of Ruskin are . . . a sort of revelation.’
[William Morris]

‘Unto This Last captured me and made me change my life.’

‘There is nothing going on among us as notable to me as these fierce lightning-bolts Ruskin is copiously and  desperately pouring into the black world of anarchy all around him. No other man in England that I meet has in him the divine rage against iniquity, falsity &  baseness that Ruskin has, and that every man ought to have.’
[Thomas Carlyle]