Ruskin's Significance
Ruskin's reputation was at its height between his death in 1900 and the beginning of the First World War.

His social thought influenced European men of letters including Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust, as well as a new generation of Labour MPs; his ideas on architecture and co-operation inspired urban planners and the builders of garden suburbs.

For Mahatma Gandhi, Ruskin's emphasis on craft skills and self-sufficiency provided inspiration in challenging British rule in India.


This powerful and diverse influence underwent dramatic decline in the years after 1914.

Ruskin's reputation was damaged by the wider Modernist reaction against 'Victorian' political and artistic values. Though his ideas were frequently at odds with the conventional wisdom of his day, this was not always understood in retrospect.

A new generation of readers questioned Ruskin's unconsummated marriage to Effie Gray, associating it with sexual repression and limited self-knowledge. The equalitarian and democratic values of post-War Britain led to problems on the political front: Ruskin's Radical Toryism had begun to seem outdated.

Revived Interest

Ruskin's reputation began to stabilize, and then to strengthen, in the years after the early 1970s.

As a champion of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Ruskin benefited from the revival of interest in work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais.

In literary criticism, the growth of perspectives that linked aesthetic matters to the political began to create more favourable conditions. Critics set about reconsidering the value of Ruskin's insistence on the moral complexion of art.

The economic shocks of the 1970s led to a minor rehabilitation of Ruskin's social thought. Austerity revived interest in craftwork. Oil shortages and the beginnings of environmentalism brought into question the progress narratives of post-War affluence.

Ruskin's warning, in 'The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century' (1884), that there was a link between environmental pollution and selfishness appeared newly relevant.

Recent Events

There are signs that Ruskin's reputation will be strengthened in the aftermath of the Credit Crisis, which triggered the multiple failure of Western banks in the autumn of 2008. Questions raised about the rewards suitable to corporate leaders are reminiscent of Ruskin's call for a new class of 'honest merchants'. A recent Financial Times article by Andrew Hill debates this issue in the light of Ruskin's ideas.

Ruskin's suspicion of unearned income relates suggestively to recent concern about an 'unbalanced' economy. His analysis of pollution as a symptom of systemic problems seems a precedent for current debates about 'sustainability'. His attempts to make art works accessible to uneducated workmen without compromising intellectual standards sit in interesting dialogue with contemporary concerns about the accessibility of cultural institutions.

Ruskin's thought will always be situated in the concerns and the manners of his time. Indeed, his words are as likely to frustrate, as to complement, modern needs.

Yet the essentials of his message -- and especially his contributions to political economy -- seem fresher now, and more provocative, than they have done for a century.

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