Ruskin and British Art

The full title of Modern Painters, Ruskin 's first published volume, was: Modern Painters: / Their Superiority In the Art of Landscape Painting / To all / The Ancient Masters / Proved by Examples of / The True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual,/ From the Works of Modern Artists,/ Especially / From those of J.M.W. Turner, Esq., R.A. For the third edition, he shortened the title to Modern Painters, though it remained dedicated: 'To the Land-scape Artists of England... By Their Sincere Admirer'. (Ruskin never attempted to clearly distinguish between the terms 'English Art' and 'British Art' and used them interchangeably.)

Ruskin 's art criticism in Modern Painters I was consistently deployed to prove Turner 's pre-eminence (see Ruskin and Turner), and in doing so this work examined the rival factions who claimed to represent British art: the water-colour societies on the one hand and the Royal Academy on the other. The works of many British or English water-colour artists had a special and a deep-seated place in his appreciation of art and were the focus of his early development as an art critic: 'what a simple company of connoisseurs we were, who crowded into the happy meeting, on the first Mondays in Mays of long ago, in the bright large room of the Old Water-Colour Society' ( Works, 14.389). (See Ruskin and the Old Water-Colour Society). And it was within the rooms of that society that Ruskin began to develop his interest in Landscape art, formed, he believed, in a very particular way: 'the beginning of all my own right work in life... depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea' ( Works, 22.153). It was largely from the walls of the Old Water-Colour Society and from the purchases made there by his father John James Ruskin, that Ruskin was able to make his selection of artists to be contrasted with the 'ancient masters'. He was able to carefully and closely examine the works of George Cattermole, George Barret, David Cox, Peter De Wint, Copley Fielding, James Duffield Harding, John Frederick Lewis, William Andrews Nesfield, Samuel Prout, John Varley and others.

Late in life when writing Praeterita (1885-1889), Ruskin noted: 'when I wrote the first volume of Modern Painters I only understood about one-third of my subject... I divided my admiration with Stanfield, Harding, and Fielding' ( Works, 36.130). This selection of artists also had its own particular more personal impact and he observed that:

Taken as a body, the total group of Modern Painters were... more startled than flattered by my schismatic praise; the modest ones, such as Fielding, Prout, and Stanfield, felt that it was more than they deserved,--and, moreover, a little beside the mark and out of their way; the conceited ones, such as Harding and De Wint, were angry at the position given to Turner; and I am not sure that any of them were ready even to endorse George Richmond's consoling assurance to my father, that I should know better in time ( Works, 35.401).

In an Epilogue to Modern Painters II written in 1883, Ruskin recollected that 'whatever I chose to say of them, Prout, Stanfield, and Turner used to dine with my father on my birthday; the first two were always at home to me, and I had a happy little talk with Stanfield one day when he was at work on his last picture' ( Works, 4.357).

In addition to Turner, and the members of the Old Water-Colour Society, Ruskin commented favourably on many other British artists who were Royal Academicians. (See Ruskin and the Royal Academicians.)