Remembering John Ruskin Rightly, part 2

Here’s a characteristically Ruskinian scene, recorded by his friend and secretary William Collingwood during a summer excursion which they were making in Switzerland in 1883, just before Ruskin went back to his work at Oxford. They had stopped for a meal at a wayside inn, and were eating at a table outdoors:

To this lunch there came a little dog, two cats, and a pet sheep, and shared our wine, bread, and Savoy sponge-cakes. The sheep at last got to putting its feet on the table, and the landlady rushed out and carried him off in her arms into the house; but Ruskin, I think, would as soon have let the creature stay.

It’s not that animals needed to petition charmingly, as they happened to do here, in order to engage Ruskin’s attention. In fact Collingwood specifically says that Ruskin felt “a sympathy with them which goes much deeper than benevolent sentiment”. But the scene is typical of the way animals thronged Ruskin’s life: they turn up in his conversation, lectures, and writing, in his dreams, in his own paintings and in his art criticism. And, as we know, they were the occasion of that crisis in his working life, the resignation from Oxford University.

The scene at the Swiss inn may be taken, besides, as a sort of emblem of the animal kingdom (the whole of it, humans included) as Ruskin envisioned it. In one of his early Oxford lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a lecture in which he was typically combining a study in natural history with his ideas about the point of university education (the formal subject of the lecture was the halcyon or kingfisher), he put to his audience “my main theorem – that reading and writing are in no sense education, unless they contribute to this end of making us feel kindly towards all creatures”. And again, not ‘kindly’ in a merely cerebral or sentimental sense: rather, in the etymological sense of feeling kinship. He wanted the future landowners in his audience (many of the undergraduates would indeed have been from the landed gentry and aristocracy) to be educated out of their corrupt taste for hunting and shooting animals. He wanted them to devote themselves instead to maintaining their land in its “native wildness”, so as “to let every animal live upon it in peace that chose to come there.” A lot of meaning is bound up in that word ‘chose’.

He had the same scheme in mind for Oxford itself. The authorities, he hoped (or dreamed), would “so far recognize what education means as to surround this university with the loveliest park in England, twenty miles square”, within which “every English wild flower that can bloom in lowland will be suffered to grow in luxuriance, and every living creature that haunts wood and stream know that it has a happy refuge.” And it was much more than a conservation scheme. Ruskin believed that the essential relation between humans and other animals could be transformed – restored to innocence, perhaps – if only the humans themselves would change: “There is peacable kingdom.JPGscarcely any conception left of the character which animals and birds might have if kindly treated in a wild state.” He was teaching, in fact, the way towards the peaceable kingdom.

Nor was this just a picturesque ideal for Ruskin. It was founded on his absolute conviction of nature’s entirety: that in fact was a key word in his vocabulary. Wisdom itself, he told his Oxford students, was “the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life, in the entire sum of life that we know, bestial and human”. There could therefore be nothing narrow or pedestrian about drawing a small bird, or for that matter a stone or twig, as he often directed his students in the art school to do (and as he himself did with brilliant fidelity and feeling), for “the system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” Writing about Venice, Ruskin improvised a special function here for the patron saint of that city, St Theodore. He should represent “Divine life in nature; Divine life in the flesh of the animal, and in the substance of the wood and of the stone, contending with poison and death in the animal, with rottenness in the tree and in the stone.” [C&W 29.62] This St Theodore champions the life-wish, and Ruskin sensed that wish far into areas of nature conventionally regarded as inanimate or at least as involuntary. In another Oxford lecture, he spoke of crystals as “living stones”. He used to get the girls at Winnington School, where he was a sort of visiting professor, to get their own sense of that stone-life by acting out the different crystal formations.

But there was nothing mild and consolatory about this notion of a ubiquitous shared life, for Ruskin had also an acute feeling for the perils faced by the life-urge in all its variety. We’ve seen these perils contended with in the labour of St Theodore. Ruskin himself was viscerally affected by the sight or even idea of disease, of physical suffering and harm. The dreams show it: “a green leaf which was an animal, and was drowning in a basin of water, and putting its green point up, trying to get out”; “I had a nice black dog with me, and trod on it, and half broke its leg; then it gradually got better and limped after us about the town”; “a fit of great distress and self-reproach because I Ruskin_Self_Portrait_1875.jpghad starved a hermit crab whom I had packed away in his shell … looking at the starved creature and wondering if I could revive it.” This sense of life’s ordeal – and his intense sympathy for it, as suffered by animals especially – amounted to a personal engagement, which the dreams cruelly dramatize by making him the cause of harm. The sympathy was always vivid in his imagination and directive of his thought. “There is no wealth but life” he wrote, by way of summarizing his economics in Unto This Last (1860), but it summarizes his thinking in all of its many directions.

And it was here that science came to seem in Ruskin’s mind essentially hostile. That was a tragic estrangement, for Ruskin loved and never did cease to study the natural sciences. He had a strong talent for it. In that same black dog dream, he observes a tourist “staring” at his surroundings, and the two men agree that “to stare was the right thing; to look only was no use.” The scientific skill of concentrated and selfless attention Ruskin had to a very high degree, and the practice of art as he taught it at Oxford was a means into that discipline; in fact he insisted that art was itself a science, “the science of aspects”. He even, during that inaugural lecture of 1870, proposed that art and “our now authoritative science of physiology” should collaborate in making a complete record of the world’s animal life. (“now authoritative”! It was an ominous misconception; Ruskin didn’t then realize that British physiology was only just starting to discover itself and its characteristic techniques as a science.)

But always the art depended on moral engagement and sympathy; the artist was to feel “rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part. He told his Oxford students during that kingfisher lecture, “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature, you can see it: no otherwise.” It was this sympathetic delight which, during the 1870s, Ruskin came to think had been cut out of modern science, of biology in particular. This part of science was now consciously shaking off its amateurish past as ‘natural history’, so much associated as that had been with personal observation in the field and with anecdotes of particular living animals. This was the tradition to which Ruskin himself belonged (something of it has since been recovered and re-valued as ethology).

Oxford’s future Physiology professor, the one who would be sharing the University Museum with Ruskin during his last two years as Slade Professor, was a leader in this modernization of biology. At just about the same time that Ruskin was telling his audience about delight as a condition of seeing anything at all, John Scott Burdon Sanderson had been telling a different audience that “the study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.” In other words, biology was to be incorporated into the world as defined by physics and chemistry – the world of “mechanism”, as Ruskin called it. And the organic part of that world, like the rest of it, was to be explored primarily through experimentation, conducted by scientists acting as disengaged technicians. For these modern pioneers, so different from the ones Ruskin had pictured in that inaugural lecture lovingly recording the world’s wild-life, he used a harsh and sinister image: they were, he said, “mostly blind, and proud of finding their way always with a stick.”

For two more immediate reasons Ruskin felt driven to contest this innovation. One was the glaring importance of science. Its rapid growth in prestige was everywhere obvious, not least in Oxford, where the Museum itself was built evidence of it. In fact one of the critical moments in this cultural triumph of science had recently taken place there: the famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, on the subject of evolution. If science was to replace religion as the primary force in British culture, and thus perhaps become the conditioning sub-text of the British mind, which Huxley himself frequently argued that it should do and Ruskin feared it already had, then it mattered very much what sort of mind and culture that entailed. And for Ruskin, modern science, and the technology which was its most conspicuous product, entailed a maiming alienation of mankind from the rest of the world. Years earlier he had defined what he regarded as man’s “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things”: it was to “know them all and love them, as made for him, and he for them.” And he had warned against that alienation: “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation.” And now “fatalest ruin” was what he believed he was seeing in the 1870s. Speaking of the spoliation of land and wild-life in Europe, he told Oxford students in 1872, “we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth.”

And here, as the second reason for Ruskin’s preoccupation with the character of modern science, was the Museum’s own collection encircling him as he lectured. For he found that the building which he had hoped would be a celebration of the beauty and unity of life was filled with the stuffed skins and bottled parts of multitudes of imported corpses. Ruskin angrily called it “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”, and he told his (no doubt astonished) audience, “I could fill all this Museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.” More useful because these un-showy and familiar birds were animals whose lives students could in some sense share, whereas the dead animals in the Museum were an object lesson in selfish ambition and violence. And the Victorian collecting mania which had assembled them was itself a part of a larger corrupt and dangerous notion that man had triumphed over nature, and should consequently enjoy rights of ownership there.

I’ve said here only a part of what I wanted to say about Ruskin and animals: nothing, for instance, about his wonderful descriptions of their behaviour, his enactments of bird flight in lectures, his love and respect for the individual animals which he encountered (even ants and shrimps); perhaps most importantly I’ve said nothing about his sense of the mystery of animal consciousness, and the poignancy of the clouded understanding on both sides which thus conditioned all such encounters. I think that it was this mystery which he had in mind when, in one of his later lectures of the 1880s, he spoke of modern animal research as “depriving the animal under investigation first of its soul within, and secondly of its skin without.” Ruskin had no conventionally Christian faith, but he regarded as a kind of blasphemy this crude objectification of an inaccessibly mysterious individual life.

Anyway, during those last two years of his professorship, while the newly appointed Physiology professor, Burdon Sanderson, was moving equipment into his temporary quarters in the University Museum just downstairs from where Ruskin lectured, the contest of values reached a crisis. I’ve mentioned in the previous post the University’s plan to build a new laboratory for Burdon Sanderson, and the campaign which was mounted against it, or at least against its use for vivisection. Ruskin signed up to that campaign, but he also conducted his own personal campaign in lectures and beyond. “The scientists slink out of my way as if I were a mad dog”, he said in a letter written at this time (there are many shadowy arcades and showcases to slink behind in that neo-Gothic Museum). He planned to end the Michaelmas term of 1884 with a lecture entitled ‘Mechanism: the Pleasures of Nonsense’, which would be a passionate and last-ditch statement of his case against the new biology in general, and vivisection in particular. What a text that might have been, and what an event! But it didn’t occur; Ruskin was persuaded to postpone the lecture, and when the Michaelmas term ended and Ruskin left town for the Lake District where he had his home, it was to be a permanent departure.

Without that mechanism lecture, without in fact any single organised statement of his thinking about animals (he said in a letter that he wanted to write one, but hadn’t enough time), it has no doubt been easier than it would otherwise have been to treat Ruskin’s given reason for resigning his post – the decision to fund the new laboratory – as an excuse only. The real reason, it was commonly said at the time and frequently has been said since, was his mental ill-health. He certainly was unwell (the stress of those last Oxford weeks played a large part in that), but he, at any rate, believed in the reason which he gave, and indeed insisted upon it, as the previous post in this blog has recorded. I hope that this brief account of his thinking about animals has at least shown that there was quite enough strength of feeling and expressed commitment there to account for his action. We can and should remember that action, then, as Ruskin himself experienced it and as he wished it to be remembered.


Notes and references:

Instead of a long list of citations, these are the main texts quoted or referenced above:

William Collingwood’s Life and Works of John Ruskin, 2 vols, Methuen, 1893, is a fine and sympathetic account by someone who had been a student of Ruskin, and became his friend and helper.

‘The Story of the Halcyon’ was the ninth lecture in the series delivered by Ruskin in the Lent term of 1872, and published by George Allen in the same year under the title The Eagle’s Nest. Several of the quotations here come from that series, in which Ruskin was at his most well-organized and optimistic. His comments on the Museum collection come from a much more improvised and therefore exciting series delivered before very large audiences in the Michaelmas term of 1877, and titled ‘Readings in Modern Painters’. These were published from Ruskin’s notes in vol. 22 of Cook and Wedderburn’s great ‘Library Edition’ of Ruskin’s writings (39 vols, George Allen and Unwin, 1903-12). The last series of lectures, delivered in Michaelmas term of 1884, were titled ‘The Pleasures of England’ (the intended ‘mechanism’ lecture would have been the final one), and it’s from the first of these that he spoke of scientific research depriving the animal of its soul. The letter about scientists slinking out of Ruskin’s way is re-printed in Cook and Wedderburn, vol.37, p.501.

The quotation about “the system of the world” comes from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, where also he wrote about our “due relation to other creatures”. Here too, he uses the phrase “science of aspects” – in connection with the works of J.M.Turner (whose reputation was the originating subject of this great book), but the idea was one which he subsequently insisted on in his Oxford lectures.

Ruskin wrote about St Theodore in one of his ‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ titled Fors Clavigera and published in the 1870s, while he was also working at Oxford. This particular issue was numbered 75. The image of the blind scientist comes from that same letter. Ruskin’s dreams are recorded in his diaries: they were edited by Joan Evans and J.H.Whitehouse, and published by Oxford University Press in 3 vols, 1956-9.

The quotation about “rational and disciplined delight” comes from the first sentence of Ruskin’s book of instruction in the principles of drawing and painting, The Laws of Fésole, published in parts from 1877-79.

On the study of biology: Professor Burdon Sanderson was addressing an audience at a professional event, and his speech was published in the journal Nature, 1 June, 1876.

Th illustrations show a detail from one of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ series painted by the American artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 1820s to 1840s, and a self-portrait in water-colour by John Ruskin, painted in 1875. Both images are in the public domain.





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 39 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).