Remembering John Ruskin Rightly

Next Wednesday, 6th February, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest of the Victorians, John Ruskin. His reputation took a tumble with the rest of them when there came a reaction against the Victorian model of the great man, soon after the end of the century – rather unreasonably in Ruskin’s case, since he had been notoriously a scourge of Victorian values and ambitions. Even the magnificent complete edition of his works in 36 volumes, which came out in 1903 -12, seemed to confirm him as a forbiddingly earnest heavyweight rather than revive his influence. “I shall be able to make something of you, Bertie”, says one of the intellectual girls who attempt to marry P.G.Wodehouse’s rattle-brained hero Bertram Wooster, and her first step is to read Ruskin to him in the drawing-room.

But Ruskin’s reputation recovered and he is now properly accepted as a NPG 1336; John Ruskin by Sir Hubert von Herkomersupreme interrogator of modern Western culture. The revival really began with the inaugural lecture given in 1947 by his most eminent successor as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, Kenneth Clark – a man who shared, incidentally, Ruskin’s love and admiration for non-human animals, in life and in art (see his book, Animals and Men, 1977). Clark’s lecture remains one of the best and most sympathetic short accounts, and the anthology which he edited in 1964, Ruskin Today, remains likewise the best of short tours. Then, among the countless subsequent books and exhibitions which have helped to confirm Ruskin’s re-acknowledged stature, there is the superb and definitive biography by Tim Hilton (published in 2000).

Still, time alone would surely have restored Ruskin to proper attention, so illuminatingly and enduringly sound was his charge against industrial society: that the joint rule of commerce and science has been turning modern man into a universal predator. In a lecture to an Oxford audience, he thus characterized the new human: “consumer of all things consumable, producer of nothing but darkness and abomination . . . a god to himself, and to all the world an incarnate calamity.”

Pollution of land and water, perversion of the weather (Ruskin called this the “plague-cloud” of industrialization, and some thought him deranged on the subject, but we now know it as climate change), and Western humanity’s own social sickness, these were part of the “calamity”. And always Ruskin had in mind the non-human animals, and what our way of life entailed for them. During his career as a professor at Oxford, animals appear again and again in his lectures and other writings (and in his dreams), and it was indeed this aspect of the “calamity” which eventually put an abrupt end to his work there.

To understand this story, one has to appreciate the unusual relationship between the man and the institution. So far from being the solemn pedagogue implied in Bertram Wooster’s drawing-room ordeal, Ruskin was a brilliant and engaging personality. “I never saw or heard anyone laugh with such abandonment of enjoyment”, says one memoir of him in his professorial days. As a speaker, he fascinated audiences. His inaugural lecture at Oxford, in the Hilary term of 1870, was fixed to take place in the University Museum, which contained Oxford’s newest and largest lecture theatre, seating more than 500, but long before the time of starting it became obvious that the room wouldn’t be big enough for the demand. The audience had to be herded out, joining the crowds in the street outside and forming one tumultuous procession around Ruskin himself, which then headed for the University’s great ceremonial hall, the Sheldonian, and filled that place from floor to galleries. Fourteen years later, his last lectures (now back in the Museum) were still attracting so many from town and university that he had to deliver each one twice, and a notice was posted requesting people not to attend both sessions.

Probably there has never been at Oxford University any other single personality who has commanded attention and enthusiasm there in the way Ruskin did. As professor of Fine Art, an extra-curricular subject not implicated in exams, he didn’t have a defined audience, and he always spoke as one addressing the whole university, for indeed he believed that his subject had no academic bounds: “The teaching of art, as I understand it, is the teaching of all things.” As one contemporary exclaimed sardonically, “What more entrancing than the new Art-Professor, and the wonderful fireworks which throw their magical light over every subject on earth but the subject of his chair?” For of course Ruskin’s free-minded critique of university life and practice didn’t please everyone. Certainly it made the official University uneasy, sometimes indignant, but then as Kenneth Clark has said, “in studying the nineteenth century, we shall be astonished at the tolerance of academic circles compared to those of our own day.” That’s a sad truth.

So Ruskin strayed brilliantly across all the topics he thought his audiences should mind about, challenging what they carelessly took for granted: new university buildings, student sports (rowing he particularly disliked, for disturbing river-life), how to study birds, the Oxford countryside, mountaineering, materialism, science. But yes, increasingly science, and in particular science’s attitude to animals. For in the 1880s that had suddenly became an acutely controversial subject at Oxford. The University was proposing to build a dedicated physiology laboratory, and to have it directed by Oxford’s first professor of Physiology, a man well-known as a pioneer of vivisection in the U.K., John Scott Burdon Sanderson [see this blog for 21 November 2015: ‘The Real Benjulia?’] An impassioned campaign against this innovation was organized by the head of the Bodleian Library, Edward Nicholson. Ruskin signed his name to Nicholson’s campaign, and spoke freely on the subject in public and private. In fact his last public words in Oxford, in December of 1884, were addressed to an anti-vivisection meeting in the Town Hall. But they were his last because the campaign failed: Convocation (the University’s parliament) voted to finance the new laboratory and to attach no conditions to the work that might be done there, and as a consequence Ruskin resigned.

At least, he said that was why, but since then the question has always been (improperly, as I believe) whether to accept what he said about what he was doing, or to substitute more conventionally common-sense explanations.

Ruskin was at home – Brantwood, in the Lake District – when he received the news of Convocation’s decision. He had been enjoying, so he said in his diary for March 15th, “a lovely and delightful day . . . doing quantities of good work”, work that included revising one of his recent Oxford lectures for the press. But the news scattered his equanimity: that night he “slept ill . . . waking at two, to think whether I would resign the professorship on it.” For it was a most distressing decision to take. I’ve said something about Ruskin’s extraordinary reception and continuing glamour in the University. He felt a fully reciprocal attachment to “my own Oxford – so he had called it in his inaugural lecture. It was a place which he had known, worked in, had a hand in, ever since he had first arrived there as a student in 1837. The very building in which he usually gave his lectures, the DSC05094.JPGUniversity Museum (completed in about 1860), had been a product of his aesthetic philosophy and of his practical advice and collaboration. As Oxford’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art, he had always had high ambitions for what he could achieve: “I really think the time has come for me to be of some use”, said this man already famous in the world as an art critic and social critic when he started the work at Oxford. And still in the early 1880s he had “all sorts of useful notions for Oxford, it was his “proper task”, there was “a great deal to be done there now”. He said subsequently that he had “meant to die in my harness there”.

But that very attachment, which would make severance so drastic, also made it imperative: for as his close friend Henry Acland, then Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, recognized, Ruskin must have felt himself “personally responsible for that which his whole nature abhorred”. And so he did indeed resign, sending a letter to the Vice-Chancellor a few days later, and never, in fact, re-visiting the place which had meant so much to him.

Ruskin asked that his reason for resigning should be made public in the University, but it wasn’t. In London the Pall Mall Gazette announced the decision to the nation, but with the explanation that the professor, now 66 years old, felt unequal to the demands of lecturing. He wrote to correct this explanation: he had resigned “solely in consequence . . . of the vote endowing vivisection in the university”. But some version of the Pall Mall Gazette account has lived on ever since. And Tim Hilton’s biography now standardizes it, seeing in the vivisection defeat a cover for his departure rather than the true reason; it provided, says Hilton, “the perfect opportunity to leave Oxford.

Certainly Ruskin was entitled to resign: he had been professor at Oxford, with some intervals, for nearly fifteen years; he was tending to get behind-hand with preparation for lectures, and consequently had to improvise more and more, breaking at times into fantastic digressions (which the undergraduates appreciated a lot, but the dons didn’t); he had a history of mental collapses, and was in precarious health. But as he himself noted in his diary on that March day, he could still work well, and he wanted to work. His very fine last book Praeterita, yet to come, would prove as much. In his own mind at least, there was no doubt why he was resigning: it was because vivisection was too great a wrong to live with at Oxford – or, as he put it in a private letter, because he refused to lecture to the sound of “shrieking cats” (he meant that more or less literally, for while the new laboratory was being built, Professor Burdon Sanderson was at work in the same University Museum that Ruskin lectured in). He meant his resignation to be a clear and practical statement of the ethical fact – as if to say, I dedicate this rupture, of a unique and treasured relationship, to the value of animal lives.

It is surely owed to Ruskin, in this year when he will be more than usually talked about and fêted, to remember his act of resignation rightly. In the next post of this blog there will be more about animals in Ruskin’s life and thought, and why it was, as he believed, that his obligations towards them made Oxford impossible for him.


Notes and references:

The Wodehouse story ‘Scoring Off Jeeves’ originally appeared in the Strand Magazine, February 1922.

The anthology of Ruskin’s writings edited by Kenneth Clark and published by John Murray and Penguin Books, who later issued it as John Ruskin: Selected Writings (1991). The “incarnate calamity” passage is from a lecture given in 1884 and recorded by Edward Cook in Studies in Ruskin, Geo. Allen, 1890, p.293.

Ruskin’s laughter is remembered in a memoir by ‘Peter’ (Edwin Barrow) published in St George, VI, no.22, April 1903, pp.103-15, at p.111

Ruskin wrote about art as the teaching of all things in his series of papers called Fors Clavigera, no. 76, April 1877. The comment on his lectures was made by the historian J.R.Green in Oxford Studies, Macmillan, 1901, p.265. Kenneth Clark’s observation about academic freedom comes in his 1947 lecture, published as Ruskin at Oxford, OUP, 1947.

The discussion of J.S.Burdon Sanderson in this blog is at

Ruskin’s diaries have been edited by Joan Evans and John Whitehouse (3 vols, Clarendon Press, 1956-9). The letters from which Ruskin’s views on his Oxford work are quoted are published in The Brantwood Diary, ed. Helen Gill Viljoen, Yale UP, 1971, pp.271, 313, 487.

Henry Acland’s discussion of Ruskin’s resignation appeared in The Oxford Museum, 1893, reprinted in Cook and Wedderburn, Works, vol.16, pp.235-40. Ruskin’s letter to the Pall Mall Gazette (including the statement about dying in harness) was reprinted in the Oxford Review, April 29th, 1885. Tim Hilton’s account of the resignation is in John Ruskin, Yale UP, 2002, pp.791-2. Ruskin speaks of “shrieking cats” in an unpublished letter to his friend Joan Severn, dated 22nd March 1885, and held in the Bodleian Library’s English Letters collection.

The watercolour portrait of Ruskin in 1879 is by Hubert von Herkomer, Ruskin’s immediate successor as Slade Professor (image used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London). The picture of the University Museum shows the building, designed by Benjamin Woodward in ‘Ruskinian Gothic’ style, in 1860 (image originally made for the Oxford Almanac, here reproduced from a Blackwell’s Bookshop Christmas card of 1979).