Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (photographer), John Ruskin Seated on a Bank near Brantwood, Coniston, Photograph, 1873, Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield
John Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London, the only child of John James Ruskin (1785-1864) and Margaret Cox (formerly Cock) (1781-1871). He died at the dawn of a new century, on 20 January 1900.
Ruskin's father made his fortune as a sherry importer; his mother was the daughter of a Croydon publican. Educated mostly by tutors at home, he became a student at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1837.
By the time Ruskin founded the St George's Museum in 1875, he was one of the most famous men in England. He first came to public notice in 1843, with his defence of the art of J. M. W. Turner in the first volume of Modern Painters
. Since then, his involvements had broadened and diversified.
To his early interest in painting and geology, Ruskin added a systematic study of architecture. This came to fruition in The Seven Lamps of Architecture
(1849), and in his monumental three-volume study, The Stones of Venice
(1851-3). With architecture, came a strong conviction of the links between a society's moral well-being and its capacity to create beauty.
After the 1850s, Ruskin acquired the reputation of a social prophet, a visionary concerned to articulate and rectify the injustice he saw as the root of England's social ills. He began to challenge the assumptions of classical economists, and of utilitarian thinkers. This led him to advance a view of economics as 'house law', an understanding of social relations based on co-operation, mutual responsibility, and pleasure in work.
The philosophy he developed in these years is summed up by his maxim that 'THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE' (Works
, 17, p. 80). These words distill his claim that 'Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life', whilst 'Anarchy and competition, are in all things, the laws of death.' (Works
, 7, p. 207).
Ruskin's social thought influenced a new generation of young people in the 1870s. This second wave of interest had roots in the discipleship he inspired in his capacity as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford. During his time in this post, he promoted a road-mending and drainage project at an outlying village, called North Hinksey. The aim was to involve undergraduates in 'productive work'.
Ruskin was not only interested in reaching undergraduates. He was also keen to find a working-class audience.