John Ruskin was not a central participant in the Arts and Crafts Movement, English or American, but was an inspirational harbinger of its coming and a major influence on its proponents. For example, William Morris, often called the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, admired Ruskin and was strongly influenced by his writings and social commentaries. Years after being introduced to Ruskin’s works, Morris recalled it and stated, “To some of us when we first read it, now many years ago, it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel.”
In truth, the mid 19th century writings of John Ruskin laid the foundations for many of the craftsman style values of the Arts and Crafts Movement. His writings predicted and commented on social issues such as environmentalism, sustainability, craftsmanship, and fulfilling labor. Most importantly for the Arts and Crafts Movement to come, Ruskin called for a revival of traditional craftsmanship and a return to the spiritual values of handcrafting from natural materials.
Two of his most influential works, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-53, a trilogy), addressed the subjects of nature, art, society, and skilled craftsmanship, and attacked division of labor (industrialized workforce specialization) and industrial capitalism. Such topics are truly close to the heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
John Ruskin – A Short Biography
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was among the most influential thinkers and activists of the Victorian age. He was a poet and writer, an artist and prominent art critic, a teacher and social philosopher, an environmental and architectural conservationist, and even an amateur geologist.
He was born on 8 February 1819 in London. His mother, Margaret, an Evangelical Christian, instilled him with Biblical knowledge and Christian principles. His father, John James, a prosperous sherry importer and art collector, encouraged his literary and artistic activities. He was thus raised and educated (home schooled) with both the puritan restraint of religion and the sensual appeal of art and literature.
At the age of three Ruskin was reading the Bible every morning with his mother and committing passages to memory. At the age of six he joined his parents on the first of several annual continental travel tours. He published his first poem at the age of eleven and his first prose at the age of fifteen.
In 1836 John Ruskin enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford and continued to write poetry and art criticism. In 1839 he won the Oxford Newdigate Poetry Competition and was presented his award by William Wordsworth, whom he had admired in his childhood. He also earned a reputation as a fine watercolor artist.
In 1843 he published the first of five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-1860, five volumes), for which he gained critical acclaim. Though written in defense of the skilled and controversial landscape painter Joseph Mallord William “J. M. W.” Turner (1775-1851) after he was subjected to adverse criticism, it was also a work that celebrated the wonders of nature and art. The second of the five volumes was published in 1846, the fifth and final volume in 1860.
The next major John Ruskin work was The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), which explored the Gothic styles of the Middle Ages, which he considered to be the great age of the craftsman. The book was illustrated with fourteen plates drawn and etched by Ruskin.
He followed up with the first volume of The Stones of Venice (1951) in which he showed that many significant Gothic buildings were built on the efforts of individual skilled craftsman, healthy and happy in their labor. He published the second and third volumes of The Stones of Venice in 1953 and in these he argued that industrialization and the capitalist economy had reduced the working man to a mere cog in the machine.
“And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this – that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.”
– John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice: Volume II (1853)
Ruskin was keenly interested in the Gothic Revival and promoted that the preservation and restoration of the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages was a vital activity. During this period Ruskin also began writing in support of Pre-Raphaelitism and Pre-Raphaelite artists.
John Ruskin subsequently became an enthusiastic and devoted teacher, lecturing at the Working Men’s College in London between 1854 and 1858, and later at Oxford. He eventually served as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University (1870-1878, 1883-1885) and also founded the Ruskin School of Drawing.
Despite his influential success as a poet, writer, artist, art critic, and teacher during the Victorian era, middle-aged John Ruskin was not satisfied with intellectual and creative interpretation of the world as he saw it.
Over the years, he had traveled broadly and witnessed extensive social injustices. Industrialization was taking hold and profit motivation was becoming more and more evident in the world. Ruskin was determined to hold individual people and moral values above the money motivated forward march of industrial progress.
“There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”
– John Ruskin, Unto this Last (1862)
It is not surprising, given his Christian upbringing, that Ruskin would believe in a moral obligation on the part of each and every human being. His writings and lectures addressed the moral side to which human beings should aspire, and he emphasized that every individual, whether artist, architect, or common citizen, must adhere to and live by a sound moral code.
He envisioned a world of Christian community and socialism where one and all saw the need to improve themselves, and where governments were in full support of healthy, happy, productive citizens who cared for themselves, their neighbors, and the world at large.
As Ruskin grew more interested in social activism, he began addressing the problems of the common working man. From 1871 to 1878 he issued a monthly publication, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, that greatly influenced political and union activists of that time.
He blamed the broader industrialized capitalist system for the problems of labor force and in his writings and lectures he repeatedly challenged the apologists of the capitalistic economy.
Putting his words into action, he founded the Guild of St. George in 1871. Originally called St. George’s Company, it took on its current name in 1878. In simple terms its purpose was to combine pre-industrial, medieval values with a practical means of forwarding social progress and betterment against the wave of industrial capitalism.
It supported small enterprises concentrating on the preservation of local crafts and craftsmanship. Its operations adhered to principles of sustainability and clean energy such as wind and water power. Ruskin, as founder, provided vision and leadership, and also donated money and land. The guild is still active today.
John Ruskin was ahead of his time, as evidenced by the contents of his books, lectures, essays, and correspondence letters. He wrote about issues such as minimum wage, health services, pensions, education of women, pollution, erosion, and even global warming, at a time in history when these were not common issues.
Upon his death on 20 January 1900, nineteen days shy of his 81st birthday, John Ruskin left a prolific literary and artistic legacy of works that included 39 volumes totaling nine millions words, over twenty thousand letters of correspondence, and thousands of sketches, drawings, and paintings. He was hugely influential and well respected during his lifetime and remains an inspiration to the spiritual side of Man to this day.