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Self-portrait of John Ruskin

Self-portrait of John Ruskin, 1874

JOHN RUSKIN

John Ruskin was an artist, writer, art critic and social commentator. He was born in London in 1819, the son of John James and Margaret Ruskin; he died in 1900 at his Brantwood, his house near Coniston, where he had lived for nearly 30 years.

Ruskin came from a wealthy family  (his father was a wine merchant): he was educated at home by tutors, and later went to Oxford University.  He was, however, very aware that for others conditions were less good and tried to help others through his writings and educational work.

He always kept sketchbooks and notebooks with him wherever he was, which he filled with drawings and notes.  Some of these drawings later appeared as illustrations in his many books.  As an artist, he received many letters asking for drawing lessons: he couldn’t possibly have taught everyone personally and wrote a book called Elements of Drawing to help them.  He thought it was important for everyone to draw, and that you could learn a lot about an object by drawing it.

Ruskin is also known for his drawings of buildings and landscapes: these were included in his books for travellers and architecture.  Compared to many people at that time, he had travelled a lot—not only in England, but France, Italy and Switzerland as well.  He was saddened by the condition of many of the old buildings in Venice, and tried to have them saved, which was almost unknown at that time.

Portrait of Ruskin by J.C. Barry
after an 1867 photograph by Elliot and Fry

John Ruskin as an old man, by Arthur Severn

Portrait of John Ruskin by Arthur Severn, 1897

John Ruskin lived in an age of great change.  The Victorian period was a time of great scientific discovery, industrial development, invention and geographical finds.  Many of the things we now take for granted have their origins in the Victorian age – some of our newspapers were first published, museums founded, and electoral, religious and educational reforms which gave freedom and rights to ‘ordinary’ people.

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