John Ruskin – His Life
John Ruskin was born in London in 1819, the only son of a successful Scottish sherry merchant. His father encouraged him to take up painting and poetry; his mother hoped that he might be a minister. He was educated at home and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was profoundly influenced by the evolutionary sciences of the day, especially geology. At the same time, Ruskin started to write about art and architecture, and began a lifelong advocacy of the work of Turner. As a result, he became an inspiration to a generation of younger artists, most notably the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
At the age of 29 Ruskin married Effie Gray but the marriage was never consummated and ended disastrously six years later. Effie became romantically attached to the painter Millais, whom she subsequently married. Ruskin buried himself in work, in particular a lengthy study of the city of Venice, producing a remarkable three-volume study of the architecture of the city.
At the heart of the Stones of Venice he contrasted medieval craftsmanship with modern manufacturing – something hugely influential on William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. It marked the maturing of Ruskin’s interest in social justice and the beginning of his attempts to influence the shape of society.
In his forties Ruskin fell deeply in love with Rose la Touche. Rose died aged 29 and Ruskin carried his feelings for her with him for the rest of his life. With the death of his father, Ruskin added wealth to influence. He became Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, an educational philanthropist and an increasingly radical voice in Victorian society. In 1878, at the age of 59, he suffered the first of several breakdowns that eventually stopped him working. Ruskin died in 1900 at the age of 81, leaving behind him collected writings that stretch to 39 volumes, thousands of drawings and watercolours, and a legacy of influence that is felt to this day.
Ruskin was an artist of great sensitivity who, nonetheless, chose never to exhibit his work professionally. Instead, he painted and drew in order to study the world around him and to communicate his discoveries. Many of his architectural and natural history studies were engraved or otherwise reproduced in his books, some were scaled-up for use in his lectures.
The collection on display at Brantwood at any one time is part of a rotating display from the collection at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, where the world’s largest archive of Ruskin material is based.
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John Ruskin left a legacy of influence that stretches from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mahatma Gandhi. He championed many of the tenets of the welfare state, and inspired the founders of the National Health Service, the formation of Public Libraries, the National Trust and many other cornerstones of civil society in the last one hundred years. His influence reached abroad in such areas as women’s education, the minimum wage, child labour, and environmental protection and has served both as a restraining influence on unbridled capitalism and a moral conscience for the nations of the world.