Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin
Yale Center for British Art
September 5 – December 8, 2019
Reviewed by Ed Voves
A controversial book of the mid-1800's provides the title for a major exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. Unto This Last was a book of four essays, published in 1862, on the nature of society, economics and human welfare. The author was a celebrated figure in the British art world, John Ruskin.
Originally appearing in a popular journal, Ruskin's essays proclaimed a message which challenged the "free market" economic system of Victorian Britain. Targeting the selfishness and hypocrisy of Britain's ruling class, Ruskin proclaimed:
"There is no wealth but life."
That is not what most of Ruskin's readers expected him to say.
Unto this Last took its title from the parable of Jesus, "The Workers in the Vineyard" (Matthew 20: 1-16). Jesus had urged that workers be treated fairly and paid an equal wage, just as the souls of all the faithful would receive the benefit of God's grace, regardless of when they professed their belief.
Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
Ruskin applied this biblical teaching to practical economics. His essays stirred-up a hornet's nest of criticism and the book version sold dismally. Ruskin's reputation as a best-selling author suffered a resounding blow.
John Ruskin, Self-Portrait, in Blue Neckcloth, 1873
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a brilliant writer who had established his reputation as an authority on art with the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843. For readers eager to hear more from Ruskin about the palaces of the Venetian doges or "truth to nature" landscape painting, Unto This Last came as a rude shock.
Had they read Ruskin's earlier books like Modern Painters a little more intently, Victorian art lovers might have realized that Ruskin was as much a moralist and a social critic as he was an authority on art.
No visitor to the Unto This Last exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) will make that same mistake.
Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin occupies five galleries in the YCBA. The exhibit rooms are filled almost to overflowing with ninety-plus paintings, drawings, photographs, manuscripts and minerals collected by Ruskin - he was as avid about natural history as he was about art.The leather mail bag, which brought a daily avalanche of correspondence to Ruskin's desk, is on display as well.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
A selection of mineral samples collected by John Ruskin,
on view in the Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin exhibition
These perceptive observations on art, nature, and ethics Ruskin presented to the British public and ultimately to people all over the world. Ruskin's writings found avid and appreciative readers. After reading the first volume of Modern Painters, Charlotte Bronte declared, "I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold - this book seems to give me eyes."
Reginald Knowles, title page design for Unto This Last, 1907 edition
In 1904, an Indian lawyer working in South Africa, Mohandas Gandhi, received a copy of Unto this Last to read on a train ride from Johannesburg to Durban. The experience of reading Ruskin's book profoundly affected Gandhi, who later wrote that it "brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life,” leading to the discovery of "some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book.”
Ruskin was also a noted teacher of art, at his alma mater, Oxford University, and at the adult educational institutions known as Working Men's Colleges. He was also a proponent of education for women.
It is truly delightful to note that these Ruskinian precepts are very much in evidence in the Unto this Last exhibition. Three doctoral degree students at Yale, Tara Contractor, Judith Stapleton and Victoria Hepburn, did much of the research for the exhibit and wrote brilliant essays and explanatory text for the exhibition catalog.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
From left: Tara Contractor, Judith Stapleton and Victoria Hepburn,
curators of Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin
Yale art professor, Dr.Tim Barringer, and YCBA curator, Courtney Skipton-Long, made vital contributions, as well.
"Government and cooperation are in all things the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, the laws of death," Ruskin wrote in the third essay of Unto This Last. The marvelous cooperative effort of the YCBA team certainly validates the first part of Ruskin's pronouncement.
In terms of fine art, the opening galleries of Unto This Last provide the "show stoppers," a sensational oil painting of Venice by J.M.W.Turner, several of Turner's watercolors and an array of Ruskin's own outstanding drawings and watercolors.
J. M. W. Turner, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, ca. 1835
Turner's Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, painted around 1835, was a favorite of Ruskin, who had a print of the painting in his room at Oxford. Ruskin later collected original works by Turner, especially his watercolors. Not only did Ruskin defend the aging Turner in Modern Painters against his many detractors but he later organized Turner's donation of his vast body of work to the British nation.
Of the Turner watercolors on view in the exhibition, another depiction of the Grand Canal of Venice shows why the Italian city appealed to and challenged Ruskin's own power of observation.
J. M. W. Turner, Venice, The Mouth of the Grand Canal, ca.1840
The sense of Venice's fading grandeur, indeed its very transience as a place slowly sinking back into the sea, stimulated Ruskin to capture the fabled city in sketches and watercolors of his own. Ruskin's skill as an artist and draftsman, often commented upon by his biographers, still produces astonishment when seeing his actual works. Whether masterfully recording the details of Venetian architecture or simply depicting an oak leaf, as in the introductory illustration to this essay, Ruskin proved himself one of the greatest draftsmen of the nineteenth century.
The South Side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s,
from the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace, Venice, ca. 1850–52
Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters, "If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world."
Judging from the examples of Ruskin's work on view in the YCBA exhibition, one gets the impression that he could well have done so himself. That Ruskin did not do so directly relates to the higher purpose to which he set himself, namely to reform society and redeem the world through the power of art.
This brings us to one of the key works of art on view in Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin. Ironically, it is not a painting by Turner or a sketch by Ruskin. Rather it is a print made by a self-taught artist who was also a master-ironmaker from Sheffield in northern England. His name was James Sharples.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Dr. Tim Barringer with James Sharples' The Forge, 1859
Sharples spent five years engraving The Forge which was finally printed in 1859. Ruskin lavished praise on the self-taught artist and bought ten copies of the print. But the amazing story does not end there. A century later, Barringer focused his research on this little-known Victorian masterpiece and made a tremendous discovery of his own.
With evident excitement still in his voice, Barringer related how he tracked-down Sharples's granddaughter, Marian, then an elderly woman living in a retirement home in England. When Barringer asked her about her grandfather, she reached under her bed and pulled-out the print which we see displayed in the Unto This Last exhibition. Then, from under the bed, came the actual printing plate of The Forge, which she had carefully preserved!
Dr. Barringer's story shows the living-link between the actual lives of workers like Sharples and Ruskin's ideas and theories in Unto This Last. Ruskin devoted much of his own wealth to funding decent, affordable housing for industrial workers. Ruskin was a man of deeds as well as words, but it is important to include a sample of his writing to show the power of his prose - and of his thought.
Here is a brief excerpt from Unto This Last, in which Ruskin reflects on the work of goldsmiths as symbolical of his ideals for art and industry:
Goldsmith's work is made to last, and made with the man's whole heart and soul in it; true goldsmith's work, when it exists, is generally the means of education of the greatest painters and sculptors of the day... Ghirlandajo was a goldsmith, and was the master of Michael Angelo; Verrocchio was a goldsmith, and was the master of Leonardo da Vinci. Ghiberti was a goldsmith, and beatout the bronze gates which Michael Angelo said might serve for gates of Paradise But if ever you want work like theirs again, you must keep it, though it should have the misfortune to become old fashioned.
Ruskin's acknowledgment that it might be a "misfortune to become old fashioned" indicates that he was aware of the risks of choosing a tradition-based economic order rather than one based on rapid change. He was no defender of time-honored ways just because this had always been the way. Rather, Ruskin based his approach to "Goldsmith's work" on sincere philosophical principles. He continues:
You must not break it up, nor melt it any more. There is no economy in that; you could not easily waste intellect more grievously. Nature may melt her goldsmith's work at every sunset if she chooses; and beat it out into chased bars again at every sunrise; but you must not. The way to have a truly noble service of plate, is to keep adding to it, not melting it...
Finally, Ruskin concludes:
Gold has been given us, among other things, that we might put beautiful work into its imperishable splendour...
Adriano Cecioni, John Ruskin (Men of the Day, No. 40), Vanity Fair, 1872
Ruskin's comments sounded a much-needed alarm regarding the lives of squalor endured by Britain's working class. Many of the readers of the Unto this Last essays, however, were indignant at his negative comments on the current creed of "Progress" and commercial enterprise. Ruskin challenged the precepts and principles of Liberalism in its nineteenth century form. Later critics have also argued that his controversial views also served to undermine Britain's position as the leading nation of the Western world.
As a counterpoint to the Yale exhibit's celebration of Ruskin as a visionary thinker, a brief reflection is in order to see why Ruskin has been targeted in this countervailing criticism.
For nearly 150 years, Britain led the world in scientific innovation. From 1709, when Abraham Darby perfected the process for smelting iron, to Sir Henry Bessemer's 1856 patent for the Bessemer converter, which refined iron into steel, British technological ingenuity triumphed again and again. Then, beginning in the 1860's, as Ruskin was publishing his Unto This Last essays, Britain's dominant position as an industrial superpower began to be undermined.
The 1860's witnessed the start of the Second Industrial Revolution. Where individual inspiration, "perspiration" and enterprise had been key to Britain's astonishing run of success, corporate organization was the decisive factor in the new phase of industrialism.
Germany, with its superb education system based on the ideals of Alexander von Humboldt, soon gained the edge in science and industry. Manufacturing firms in the United States pioneered research and development, R&D, as an integral, systematic part of the factory work process.
During the late nineteenth century, British technology began to languish. By World War I, despite the vast expanse of its empire, Britain's industrial power was already in serious decline.
It would be ludicrous - and manifestly unfair - to blame Ruskin for this reversal of fortune. Ruskin, was greatly concerned about the woeful lack of education among the great mass of Britain's working class, at a time when most of the British ruling elite ignored the problem. A number of Ruskin's concepts on education shared humane and holistic sentiments with Humboldt's influential system.
James Sharples, The Forge, 1859
As we saw, Ruskin supported master artisans like James Sharples, in opposition to advanced methods of steel-making - and the ruthless management practices of the foundry owners. There are times, however, for innovation, when "breaking", melting, refining and - occasionally - discarding time-honored ideas and techniques are necessary. Ruskin, alas, was not a man for "letting go."
Although I have commented (perhaps overmuch) on the traditionalism of Ruskin's theories, the greater truth about him is that he was an "anti-Victorian." Perhaps this is the reason that Lytton Strachey did not select Ruskin for the cast of characters of Eminent Victorians, the 1918 book which demolished the "all that is noble and good" rhetoric of the Victorian era.
Frederick Hollyer, Portrait of John Ruskin (Datur Hora Quieti), ca. 1894.
Ruskin was a prophet who pressed his thought close to the limits of human conceptualization. By criticizing the "accepted" in society, by raging against veiling lust for wealth in the garb of pseudo-scientific jargon, Ruskin drove himself to the point of emotional collapse.
The Yale Center for British Art has done a magnificent job in charting Ruskin's innovative contributions to the art and culture of his era. In masterful fashion, the team of curators has seamlessly united the chapters of his wide-ranging life and career into a fascinating tour de force. Young Ruskin of Modern Painters shares the stage with the venerable philosopher who warned of "the storm cloud of the nineteenth century."
Unto this Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, it should be emphasized, is in no way a "retrospective." The Yale Center for British Art exhibit leaves us with plenty to think about, when we leave the museum and confront the critical issues of the contemporary world. The "storm cloud of the twenty-first century" is there waiting for us, making John Ruskin's life and thoughts very timely indeed.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery
John Ruskin (British, 1819-1901) Study of an Oak Leaf, undated. Pen and brown ink with watercolor over graphite, heightened with gouache and gum on paper: 7 9/16 × 6 7/8 inches (19.2 × 17.5 cm) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. B2014.5.78
John Ruskin (British, 1819-1901) Self-Portrait, in Blue Neckcloth, 1873. Watercolor and gouache: 13 7/8 x 9 15/16 in. (353 x 253 mm) Watercolor and gouache: 13 7/8 x 9 15/16 in. (353 x 253 mm). Morgan Library and Museum, purchased as gift of the Fellows. #1959.23
Ed Voves, Photo (2019 Gallery view of the Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin exhibition at the Yale Center of British Art. Photo shows John Ruskin’s notebook
Ed Voves, Photo (2019 Gallery view of the Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin exhibition at the Yale Center of British Art. Photo shows a selection of mineral samples collected by John Ruskin.
Reginald Knowles, title page design for Unto This Last and Other Essays on Art and Political Economy, by John Ruskin (London: J. M. Dent, 1907), Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) From left: Tara Contractor, Judith Stapleton and Victoria Hepburn, curators of the Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin exhibition at the Yale Center of British Art's preview of the exhibition, September 4, 2019
J. M. W. Turner, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, ca. 1835. Oil on canvas: 36 x 48 1/8 in. (91.4 x 122.2 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Cornelius Vanderbilt. #99.31
J. M. W. Turner (British, 1775–1851) Venice, The Mouth of the Grand Canal, ca. 1840. Watercolor on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper: Sheet: 8 3/4 x 12 1/2 inches (22.2 x 31.8 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.4652
John Ruskin (British, 1819-1901) The South Side of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, From the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace, Venice, ca. 1850–52. Watercolor over pencil, heightened with bodycolor. Private Collection
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Dr. Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon Professor in the History of Art, Yale University, at the Yale Center of British Art's preview of the Unto This Last exhibition, September 4, 2019
Adriano Cecioni (Italian, 1836-1886) John Ruskin (Men of the Day, No. 40). Caricature published in Vanity Fair, 17 February 1872. Chromolithograph: 14 1/8 in. x 9 1/2 in. (359 mm x 242 mm). National Portrait Gallery, London. # D43523
James Sharples (British, 1825-1893) The Forge, 1859. Steel engraving on India laid paper: 17.91 inches x 20.86 inches (455 mm x Width: 530 mm. 'Printed by H. Wilkinson, 93 Charrington Street, London. British Museum collection, 1865,0610.25
Frederick Hollyer (British,1838-1933), Portrait of John Ruskin (Datur Hora Quieti), ca. 1894. Platinum print photograph, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University