Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery

A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass 

Yale University Art Gallery
March 29 - September 29, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It was Benjamin Franklin, along with a lesser-known patriot named Christopher Gadsden, who proposed the rattlesnake as a symbol of defiance during the years of crisis leading up to the American Revolution. The now familiar “Don’t Tread on Me” snake certainly made for a powerful emblem of resistance. The British "milords", safe and sound in their Whitehall offices, failed to get the message.

The British also missed the point of a small green-tinted glass vessel made around the same time. This slightly tipsy-looking cream pitcher, perched on cabriole legs and paw feet, hardly looks like a fit companion to the pewter ale mugs of the Sons of Liberty. Yet, in its way, the diminutive glass pitcher was a direct challenge to the British Empire. 

American Flint Glass Manufactory, Cream Pitcher,1769–74

Henry William Steigel, a German-born artisan of genius, gets the credit for this remarkable object. Steigel (1729-1785) established the American Flint Glass Manufactory in Manheim, Pennsylvania, in 1769. Steigel did so in defiance of the notorious Townsend Duties, passed by Parliament in 1767 to tax manufactured goods imported into the American colonies – even when most of these were purchased from Britain. By making their own glassware - and iron tools and weapons - Americans like Steigel declared their independence from Great Britain years before 1776. 

This jaunty pitcher, made from mold-blown potash-lime glass, was on view in a fabulous exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery. A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass closed on September 29, 2019.

If you were not able to visit New Haven, CT, in time to see  A Nation Reflected, don’t despair. Yale University has published a catalog of the exhibition which, even by the very high standards of art books today, is beautiful to behold. 

American Glass, The Collections at Yale (2018), written by John Stuart Gordon

With large format photos of exceptional clarity. American Glass, The Collections at Yale, also features an authoritative text. Written by John Stuart Gordon, this is an absolutely authoritative and compelling book. It will be consulted time and again, whenever art lovers wish to learn more about glass making's role in American history and art.

Such praise, however, raises an important question. How significant are glass cream pitchers, compote bowls or whiskey flasks in the great drama of U.S. history? Is glass making a "sidebar" to the big story of the rise of American painting from Benjamin West to Andy Warhol?

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass
 at the Yale University Art Gallery

A Nation Reflected was on my exhibition radar for a long time. I was determined to get to the Yale University Art Gallery - however late in the day - to answer these questions. As I surveyed the splendid display, It was not long before I realized that the incredible glass pieces on view were testaments to the rich human experience underpinning America's experiment in art, science and democracy.

Kensington Glass Works, Sailors Rights Flask, 1826–32

The story of culture in the U.S.A. cannot ignore folk art, which is as important as forms of higher wisdom and creativity. Much of the originality and innovation of America emerges from the "hardscrabble" reality of the nation's working  - rather than leisured - class. The same is true of humor as can be seen in this zany, turtle-shaped flask. 

This singular piece is known as the "Sailors Rights Flask" in reference to the outrage over the conscription of U.S. sailors by the British Navy. This high-handed policy helped trigger the War of 1812. What this turtle-design has to do with seamen's welfare is anyone's guess. The fact that it was made in Philadelphia over a decade after the war ended in 1815, suggests that there is no connection at all. The most likely explanation is that a craftsman at the Kensington Glass Works looked at a common flask design, realized that it was shaped like a turtle and then added legs, tail and dorsal ridge. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) 
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass exhibition
Sailors Rights Flask, center

I suspect the reason for doing so was for the sheer joy of adding some wit and whimsy to the world in shape of a glass turtle.  Or perhaps we could say, just for the "hell of it!"

The serious, high-minded things of life march through history with the comical, the sentimental and the troublesome. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette accepted the invitation of President Monroe to visit the United States. Lafayette (1757-1834) was one of the last surviving heroes of the American Revolution. Volunteering to serve with the Patriot cause before France formally became the ally of America in 1778, Lafayette had fought valiantly, earning the admiration and friendship of George Washington. 

Lafayette's 1824 tour of the still-young nation was a significant event, generating huge amounts of excitement and celebrations wherever the French hero visited. Flasks bearing his image were a popular item. So were charming little salt dishes, shaped like steam boats. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
From left, Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette,1824-30
 and Salt, made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works,1827-35

This nautical salt dish, made in Sandwich, Massachusetts, bears the abbreviated form of the French nobleman's name, "Lafayet," on the paddle wheel. This would have been carved onto the mold which shaped the boat/dish, along with all of the other intricate details. Truly, this little blue memento is a testament to the high level of skill that went into its making.

Coventry Glass Works,  Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette, reverse, 1824-30

The reverse of the amber-colored colored flask, however, tells a tale about revolution which the elderly Lafayette would have been loathe to remember. The reverse image is not the heroic Marquis in profile but a liberty cap set onto a liberty pole. During the 1820's, these were treasured icons of the American Revolution of 1776. Liberty cap and pole had different connotations in France. They were symbols of the 1793 Terror during the French Revolution.

Initially, Lafayette had been an ardent supporter of the 1789 uprising in Paris, sending the key to the Bastille to Washington. Lafayette saw the French Revolution as a way to create a constitutional monarchy. But when radicals like Danton and Robespierre seized control of the movement, Lafayette went into exile and was promptly arrested by the Austrians who blamed him for the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette. Despite Washington's efforts, he languished in prison for many years.

Liberty caps and liberty poles were thus more of a nightmare to Lafayette than a happy memory. This shows how works of folk art like this flask reveal the complexities of 
history. They are far more important than just nostalgic yearnings for the "good old days."

The tangled web of American history is nowhere more apparent than in a string of glass beads dating to the early 1600's. This is an easy-to-miss work in the exhibition catalog, as it was in the exhibit. Yet, it is one the most most significant pieces in Yale's glass collection.

Unknown artist, likely from Venice, Italy. Strand of Beads, 1600–1625

These beads were once thought to have been made at the glassworks at Jamestown, Virginia, soon after the first English colony - to survive - was founded in 1607. The English colonists came in search of gold and then in search of land for a viable cash-crop, tobacco. They needed trade beads to barter with the Native Americans and a glass-blowing works is recorded as having been established. When these beads were purchased in 1929 by the noted collector, Francis P. Garvan, they were believed to have been made at Jamestown.

As Gordon shows in his book, the years of scientific research devoted to this string of beads proved that Garvan had bought the beads based on wishful thinking. These glass beads were indeed manufactured during the 1600's, but most probably in Venice.The hunt for glass beads or any kind of glass made at Jamestown continues. 

Garvan's purchase is important, all the same, because it shows how quickly the British colonies in America were drawn into the international economic order which produced the Townsend Duties, among its less pleasant aspects.

A Nation Reflected (and the companion book by Gordon) also provided insight into technical aspects of historic glass making and scientific utilization of glass as well. On view were the amazing  “The Yale Microscope,” attributed to the English scientific instrument maker, Matthew Loft, 1725–35, and the Clevinger Brothers' Two-Part Flask Mold.

Possibly Matthew Loft, “The Yale Microscope,” 1725–35

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Two-Part Flask Mold, made by Clevinger Brothers Glass Works, 1930-60

The "Yale Microscope" was called a "prospect glass" when it was purchased in 1735. According to John Stuart Gordon, it is likely the oldest microscope in the U.S. - Harvard's slightly older instrument was lost in a 1764 fire. By contrast the Clevinger flask mold dates to a much later period, the 1930's, but provides valuable insight into how earlier flasks like the Lafayette/Liberty Cap flask was made.

The masterpieces of American glass from later periods of U.S. history provide equally fascinating insights into the development of American art and society. One of my favorite pieces in the Reflecting America exhibition was the Hobbs, Brockunier & Co "yellow-red" vase, 1886-87. This exquisite work dates from the Gilded Age period when fabulously wealthy U.S. art collectors appeared to have gained a monopoly of the world's "things of beauty."

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Vase, made by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., 1886–87

In 1886, the Baltimore magnate, W.T. Walters, purchased a rare 18th century Chinese vase. Walters spent $18,000, a staggering sum for the period, to buy the fabled "Peach Bloom" porcelain vase. When word of Walter's record-smashing acquisition hit the news, the  West Virginia glasshouse, Hobbs, Brockunier & Co, made a daring bid to create a facsimile in glass.  Using state-of-the-art technology, Hobbs, Brockunier created a heat-sensitive glass that showed subtle gradations of color from yellow to red.

While still beyond the means of most Americans, the Hobbs, Brockunier & Co. vase was within the purchasing range of the second-tier of art collectors. This work of art is truly beautiful, both in the exhibit case or on the page of the companion book by John Stuart Gordon. Though hardly an affirmation of democracy in the arts, the Hobbs, Brockunier "yellow-red" vase enabled an art work of ethereal beauty to remain in the public eye.

One "second-tier of art collector" deserves special mention. The son of Irish immigrants, Francis P. Garvan (1875-1937) was a Yale graduate and prominent lawyer. He was also a sincere American patriot and an enthusiast for American art, especially works created in colonial America and the early period of U.S. history. His collection was not intended for his own, exclusive enjoyment.

"Early or late at the vineyard gate," Garvan wrote in 1930, "the rich heritage of American citizenship is for all alike."

Harris & Ewing, photographers. Francis Patrick Garvan, 1919

Garvan focused on collecting rare and precious glassware in order to preserve this delicate and often overlooked genre. In 1930, he donated his collection to Yale. Many of the most notable pieces in the America Reflected exhibition, such as the "Jamestown" beads and Steigel's tipsy cream pitcher came to Yale thanks to Garvan. 

Contemporary examples of the American genius for glass-making were also well-represented in the Yale exhibition and are covered in detail in Gordon's book. One display case alone held three outstanding pieces from recent years: Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983).

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass exhibition.

Photo shows (from left) Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983)

I was well-acquainted with Josh Simpson's otherworldly globes. Most of these small wonders can be held in the palm of your hand and really do evoke undiscovered planets. Mega World (1991), however, is the size of a bowling ball or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that it has the appearance of mighty Jupiter when seen from a few light years away.

Josh Simpson, Mega World, 1991

What really impresses me about Mega World, as with Simpson's other "undiscovered planets," is the air of mystery it conveys. The sense of possibility for human discovery and creative expression is down there on the surface of Mega World, waiting for us once we land and disembark from our "spaceship."

Mystery, possibility, discovery and creativity in the American story are nothing new, however. These "intangibles" were very much present before Jamestown, after Jamestown and even now in the America of today. A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass made that abundantly clear and so does John Stuart Gordon's companion book.

May it always be so.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Library of Congress.

Introductory Image:
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) John Doggett, attributed, Looking Glass, 1802–25. Eastern white pine, birch, gilding, and silvered plate glass: 72 1/2 x 38 1/4 in. (184.2 x 97.2 cm) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection Yale University Art Gallery 1931.316

Attributed to American Flint Glass Manufactory, Cream Pitcher, Manheim, Pa., 1769–74. Mold-blown potash-lime glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection 
Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Press, Cover art for American Glass, the Collections at Yale by John Stuart Gordon, 2018

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Mosaic Window, ca. 1890, created by the Belcher Mosaic Glass Co.(right-hand corner).

Kensington Glass Works, Sailors Rights Flask (Turtle Whimsy), Philadelphia, 1826–32. Mold-blown soda-lime glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Harvey Littleton's Exploded Green Vase, 1965 (left) and the Sailors Rights Flask ,1826–32 (center). 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette,1824-30, and Salt, made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Works,1827-35

Coventry Glass Works (Owned by Stebbins & Stebbins, Coventry, CT,1813-50) Flask Depicting the Marquis de Lafayette, reverse, 1824-30.  Mold-blown  soda-lime glass: 6 1/8 x 3 1/8 x 2 1/8 inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Glen Wright, 1941.132.

Unknown artist, likely Venetian. Strand of Beads, 1600–1625. Flameworked soda-lime and potash-lime glass: 20 1/2 in. (52.07 cm) Mabel Brady Garvan Collection, #1930.1734

Possibly Matthew Loft, Tripod Compound Microscope, “The Yale Microscope,” London, 1725–35. Oak, maple, brass, sharkskin, vellum, glass, and cardboard. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, inv. no. ypm hsi.020001. Courtesy the Division of Historical Scientific Instruments; Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University;

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Two-Part Flask Mold, made by Clevinger Brothers Glass Works, 1930-60. Cast iron, 8 1/2 x 9 1/4 x 18 1/2 in. Yale University Art Gallery

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Vase, made by Hobbs, Brockunier & Co., Vase, Wheeling, W.Va., 1886–87. Mold-blown lead Coral Ware glass and pressed lead glass. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from William Bates, Jr., in honor of Edward S. Cooke, b.a. 1977, and Charles F. Montgomery, hon. 1970 

Harris & Ewing, photographers. Francis Patrick Garvan, three-quarter length portrait, seated at desk, facing left, July 13, 1919. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division,  the digital ID cph.3b38631.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo shows Josh Simpson's Mega World (1991), Mark Peiser's Cliff with Pines PWV 319 (1981) and Spring Grass II by Toots Zynsky (1983).

Josh Simpson, Mega World, Shelburne Falls, Mass., 1991. Pulled and lamp-worked soda-lime glass with silver and gold leaf. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Stewart G. Rosenblum, j.d. 1974, m.a. 1974, m.phil. 1976, ph.d. 2010, in honor of his aunt and uncle Helen D. and Benjamin S. Gordon. © Josh Simpson

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin at the Yale Center for British Art

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)
 A manuscript notebook of John Ruskin,1842

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 

The YCBA galleries replicate the "over-stocked" material culture of Victorian Britain. More significantly, the exhibition testifies to the vast amount of knowledge compiled, studied and commented upon by Ruskin during his long life. But even more importantly, these exhibit objects testify to Ruskin's power of observation. No "gradgrind" collector of facts, Ruskin learned by observing.

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

Ruskin described Venice as a "ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, berefit of of all but her loveliness."

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.

John Ruskin,
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

Dr. Tim Barringer related the fascinating story of how Sharples taught himself to draw and paint and then, incredibly, to engrave his own pictures. Sharples (1825-1893) was a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers which tried - and failed - to resist the use of unskilled labor in iron and steel making. His major work, The Forge, is an accurate, yet idealized depiction of the iron-making process. It shows skilled workers, like Sharples himself, heating a main shaft for a stationary steam engine. It is an exacting, dangerous process - and managed without supervision by factory bureaucrats.

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

Introductory Image: 
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