G.H. has a collection of 23 volumes of “The Collected Works of John Ruskin,” NY: Frank F. Lovell & Co., 1920, bound in tan calfskin with gilt decorated spines.
G.H. wonders how one author could be so prolific.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a polymath, a fancy-pants term for someone who acquired wide-ranging knowledge to solve problems in unique ways.
These 23 volumes contain Ruskin’s thoughts on art and artists, geology, bird life, literature, architecture, the working man, economic theory, botany, fairy tales and classical myth. He was a firm believer in nature, art, morality, and craftsmanship. His writings fell out of favor after the 1930s, but because of his stance on sustainability, his works are prized today, as a highly influential late Victorian.
The most valuable volume in this set is the 1843 book “Modern Painters,” in which he defended the maligned JMW Turner, then labeled a hack, now considered one of the finest British watercolorists, for what Ruskin perceived as Turner’s “truth to nature.”
The book was controversial and was first published anonymously, but Ruskin uniquely combined aesthetics with high moral ethics.
Ruskin found truth in the image of nature painted by Turner, and because Turner painted what he saw, Ruskin found his work to be truthful, honest and therefore moral.
In 1843, his defense of Turner was contentious because Turner did not paint in the accepted style of the Old Masters, post-Renaissance artists who composed in an academic style in the studio. Ruskin slammed the Old Masters, writing that they did not observe nature.
Turner, now considered one of the first abstract painters, “caught” the atmosphere of nature in shapes of light and shadow, such as steam, clouds and water. Lack of form was as intriguing to Turner as detailed structure was to the Old Masters. Ruskin found truth in Turner’s spontaneity and personal vision.
Ruskin championed the outré contemporary style of his day, influencing the Pre-Raphaelites, named such because they endeavored to paint in a style practiced before the Old Masters.
Ruskin became a professor of art at Oxford and formed “The Ruskin School” of drawing; immediate, informal, unstylized, with an emphasis of truth to nature, because only direct observation was right and moral. He also taught drawing at the Working Man’s School in London and was an admirer of young female artists, teaching in girl’s schools.
You might say, ‘Here’s a scholar who thought all people were equal,’ but no, he did not.
He believed that equality in society is not possible and believed that some men were naturally superior; however, he saw ompetition as destructive. He longed to return to the Medieval era, when rank and status were observed, and obedience to the established order and God was life itself.
Another notable volume in G,H.’s set is “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849).
Ruskin writes that truth in architecture is found in the style before the Renaissance, before Classical Architecture was re-discovered. Ruskin advocated a return to the Medieval Gothic style, and he himself illustrated this book with examples.
Ruskin proposed that the Medieval Craftsman’s Guild system be reinstated, as an alternative to the workers in factories of industrial capitalism.
In “The Seven Lamps” he set forth the guiding principles of architecture as sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, and obedience.
If G.H. has the time to read 23 volumes, he will discover a high moral tone, although Ruskin’s personal life was checkered with scandal.
You may wonder why Ruskin matters to a Californian who lives in a bungalow with California plein air paintings on the walls.
Ruskin’s philosophy was adopted by William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, who founded a Craft Center devoted to the following principles: 1.no division of labor, 2. the adoption of the Medieval Guild system, 3. hand- crafted materials (antimachine) and 4. anti-capitalistic cooperation.
Craftsman Architecture should be fitting to the land and hand-built, and the best style for homes was the bungalow style. From England, in the late 19th century, this style came to California. Santa Barbara is a notable example of the arts and crafts influence.
Ruskin’s admiration of JMW Turner extended past the artist’s death, as Turner had appointed Ruskin his executor; 20,000 of Turner’s works on paper were bequeathed to the British National Gallery.
Ruskin catalogued and curated all those works, and hand-built the Turner Gallery, exposing the Nation to Turner’s exquisite oeuvre.
The value of the 23 volumes is slightly diminished because G.H. is missing one of the original 24 volumes. The collection’s value is $1,000.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.