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John Ruskin, 1819-1900

Ruskin was the greatest British art critic and social commentator of the Victorian Age. His ideas inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement and the founding of the National Trust, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Labour Movement. He fiercely attacked the worst aspects of industrialisation and actively promoted art education and museum access for the working classes. His prophetic statements on environmental issues speak to our generation as well as to his own.

Born on 8th February 1819, the son of a prosperous sherry importer, Ruskin became a published poet and writer on geology at the age of fifteen, by which time he knew the Bible intimately. Throughout his life he undertook extensive tours of Britain and the Continent, providing material for literary works such as The Poetry of Architecture, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, Mornings in Florence and The Bible of Amiens.

Ruskin's admiration for the work of J.M.W. Turner led to the writing of Modern Painters (5 volumes). his magnum opus. After the publication of the third and fourth volumes in 1856, George Eliot wrote, 'I venerate him as one of the great Teachers of the day... The last two volumes of Modern Painters contain, I think, some of the finest writing of this age.' By this time, Ruskin's readership in America was even larger than that in Britain, and later, his work shaped the thinking of Gandhi, Tolstoy and Proust. Today, there are important holdings of Ruskin material in the USA and in Tokyo; home of the Mikimoto Collection.

Ruskin was a great teacher, campaigner and controversialist. In the early 1850s, he championed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and taught in the Working Men's College, London. Later in his career, he used his tenure of the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Oxford to challenge established ideas on art and education. In the 1870sm while publishing his Oxford lectures, Ruskin also wrote Fors Clavigera, his monthly 'Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain'. Fors, and his lectures and books on socio-economic issues and on scientific topics, including Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris, The Crown of Wild Olive and Sesame and Lilies, The Queen of the Air and The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century reflect the breadth of his intellect, while his autobiographical writings, particularly Praeterita, reveal a sensitive and tormented mind.

Ruskin created the Guild of St. George, of which he was the first Master, and which still quietly continues his work today. He generously the Guild's St George's Museum in Sheffield and the Ruskin Drawing School in Oxford. He taught many people how to draw, published The Elements of Drawing and The Elements of Perspective, and was himself a superb draughtsman.

By the time Ruskin died at Brantwood on 20th January 1900, he had accumulated a large collection of material which reflects his extraordinary range of interests and achievements; the manuscript diaries and notebooks in which he recorded events, ideas and cloud formations, sketched the Stones of Venice and the geological strata of the Alps, drafted sermons, poems and lectures, his remarkable drawings through which he learned to observe the world in great detail, and which he used to teach others, literary manuscripts and editions of his own work, the photographs and daguerreotypes which added to his unique view of the world.

John Ruskin


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