Lecturing in Edinburgh in 1853 the great Victorian critic, John Ruskin, complained to his audience that he had counted 678 identical windows in the street where the lecture was being held, Queen Street in the neoclassical New Town. “They were,” he said, “absolutely similar... and altogether devoid of any relief by decoration.” Then he continued, “You will answer me we see sunrises and sunset and violets and roses over and over again and we do not tire of them” and answering his own challenge declared, “Did you ever see one sunset like another... or two violets or roses that were exactly alike?”
Ruskin’s condemnation of what he saw as the monotony of Queen Street makes it fitting that the first ever exhibition devoted to him as an artist should be held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in very the same street. Robert Rowand Anderson’s flamboyant building makes a dramatic intervention in the street’s neoclassical uniformity and is a tribute to Ruskin’s influence as a writer on Victorian art and architecture, but this exhibition (shown previously in Ottawa) makes the case that he was also a very considerable artist. He drew constantly and his drawings and watercolours really are exquisite, but he did not think of himself as an artist at all. “They are all,” he wrote of his drawings to the illustrator Kate Greenaway, “such mere hints of what I want to do or mere syllables of what I saw that I never think, or at least never thought, they could ever give the least pleasure to anyone but myself.” He hardly ever exhibited any of his work, although he did use it to illustrate his writings, but saw his constant drawing as a process, not a product. It was part of an ongoing investigation and discovery of the world, an aid to seeing, and seeing closely and precisely was at the heart of everything he did. Perhaps posterity has taken him too much at his own estimation and that is why it has taken more than a century since his death in 1900 to realise what a considerable artist he was.
His drawing and indeed painting, though only ever in watercolour, was intimately concerned with the specific, with individuality, not only of a thing observed, but, unlike the Queen Street windows, of all the details that make one thing different from another. This intimate, even emotional engagement is what makes his drawings so fascinating. He developed techniques that enabled him to see, describe and understand the structure of a peacock’s feather, the texture of a mossy, crumbling brick, the colours of a kingfisher, the structures of rocks, clouds and mountains, but also the intricate details of the Gothic architecture that he loved and studied throughout his life. Thus he recorded not only the individuality of the thing he was studying, but the uniqueness of his moment of observing it.
Throughout his life he regarded Turner, in whose defence he wrote the five volumes of Modern Painters, as the supreme master of art’s necessary engagement with the natural world and, learning from Turner, in later life he raised his eyes from close study to record beautiful skies and sunsets. But his admiration for Turner also makes it clear that for him art and indeed his own version of it could never be dispassionate. It was always deeply engaged emotionally. How this art reflects his tortured emotional life must be speculation. Nevertheless, to cite just one example, the intensity of drawings that he did of rocks in Glen Finlas in 1853 perhaps shows some of the tension of the situation. These were done while the handsome young Pre-Raphaelite, Millais, was painting his portrait standing on those same rocks. He was, however, also beginning the seduction of Ruskin’s wife, Effie Gray, who left her husband for the painter the following year.
Another consequence of Ruskin’s approach to his art as a process, not an end in itself, and perhaps another reason for its comparative neglect, was that he ignored conventional composition completely. In consequence, to us, conditioned as we are to expect artists to impose order on what they record, it usually looks unfinished and it nearly always is. As he said himself, it is a syllable, a bit of something observed and recorded before he moved on. Contrasting his own work to the finish of a professional artist, he said “mine is always ugly, for I consider my sketch only a written note of certain facts and those I put down in the rudest and clearest way.” However, the curator of the show at the Portrait Gallery, Christopher Newall, reflects on Ruskin’s consequent “liberation from a supposed purpose of art to be legible” and how this made his drawings profoundly personal. That really does sound very modern and Marcel Proust, himself a great Modernist, recognised that Ruskin, whom he deeply admired, was also radically modern, though he knew him only from his writings, not from his drawings. But then Ruskin is modern. It is a big mistake to see him as no more than a grumpy, opinionated Victorian with serious hang-ups in his private life.
Ruskin’s father was born in Edinburgh and as a young man took drawing lessons from Alexander Nasmyth. The young Ruskin, who apparently retained something of his father’s Scottish accent, visited Scotland from an early age and the country played a central part in his imaginative life. One of his teachers was the Scottish landscape painter David Roberts and one of the earliest drawings in the exhibition is of Roslyn Chapel. The link through his father and Nasmyth to the Enlightenment may not in itself be significant. It is nevertheless indicative of the way Ruskin’s thought was shaped by Enlightenment ideas and above all by the philosophy of moral sense: the idea that morality is governed neither by abstract rules, nor rational self-interest, but by feeling, by the same sensibility as our sense of beauty. Thus it follows cultivation of artistic sensibility has a moral pay-off: art has a moral function. This idea informed everything Ruskin wrote.
Seeing Ruskin’s drawings brought together further illuminates his links with the Enlightenment, however. As empiricism – the principle that knowledge can only derive from experience – drove Enlightenment thought, so the discussion of sight, the supreme agent of our experience of the world, was of central importance to its philosophers. It followed that Scottish artists, friends and companions of the philosophers, and by profession specialists in the business of seeing, far from being marginal, were central to the Enlightenment. Ruskin continued and developed this alliance. Eliding the principle of moral sense with belief in the supremacy of sight, he argued that artistic truth and moral truth are indivisible. He was also clear, however, that visual truth was not a matter of mere copying. (Photography, he felt, was useful but not art, though the daguerrotypes produced under his direction are very beautiful.) Art, like morality, had to be guided by sensibility as his own drawings so clearly are, often passionately so.
Ruskin extended his understanding of the moral value of art to include the moral value of labour more widely, not mindless labour, but skilled labour that engages the sensibility. The manifest importance of craft skills in medieval architecture, but also in the whole fabric of civilisation as for him it was exemplified in the buildings of Venice, led him to believe in the fundamental importance of the dignity of labour. Thus his influence spread beyond art to help shape the humane social and political thought to which we are heirs, but which is now so much under attack. I wish we had Ruskin to speak up for these things now, but at least this exhibition will bring back to our attention this complex and influential man and artist.
• John Ruskin: Artist and Observer is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, from 4 July until 28 September