Ruskin's Life
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.

Believing in the essential nobility of manual labour when combined with intellect and imagination, he sought to provide workingmen with opportunities to develop a creative relationship with their work.

This began in the 1850s with the art courses he held at London's Working Men's College. In the 1870s, he began publishing Fors Clavigera, a work that comprised a series of open letters addressed to 'The Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain'. Early letters begin with the familiar address, 'FRIENDS' and 'MY FRIENDS'; Letter 71 (November 1876) inaugurates the practice of referring to 'my good Sheffield friends'.

Ruskin was not a socialist, at least not in any ordinary sense. He was inclined to toy with political categories, at one point claiming to be 'a violent Tory of the old school' (Works, 35, p. 13), at another announcing, 'I am myself a Communist of the old school -- reddest also of the red' (Works, 27, p. 116). There is a grain of truth in both descriptions, though he was more concerned to provoke thought about the origin of such labels than to announce affiliations.

The breadth of Ruskin's political appeal is illustrated by a story told by Britain's second Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

In 1906, twenty-nine new Labour MPs were asked to name the books that most influenced their lives. When the results were collected, the leading title was a work by Ruskin called Unto This Last, first published as a book as far back as 1862.

Unto This Last was a heart-felt attack on the laissez-faire economics of Ruskin's day. Although its attempt to moralize capitalism had attracted criticism when it first appeared, its lessons were stirring the imagination of a new generation. The results could be seen in the 1906 intake of Labour MPs; it could be seen, too, in the status of Ruskin's writings as a staple in the libraries of working class institutes and self-improvement societies across the English speaking world.


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