John Ruskin (1890-1900), art critic, amateur artist, social thinker, and brilliant literary stylist, was one of those titans of Victorian industry that make modern creative figures seem feeble dilettantes in comparison, dominating aesthetic, social, and political commentary in the English-speaking world and beyond for most of his life, not least through his enduring and superb writing. He also has a less appealing reputation as an elephantine pedant, the man sued by James McNeill Whistler for libel after accusing him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” the man castigated by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) for his “obscure, half crazy, half prophetic utterances,” and his doomed stance as “the almost isolated champion of creeds and ideas which have ceased even to be discussed among the thinking part of our nation” by “explaining all artistic phenomena by ethical causes.”

John Ruskin: “Study of a Piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay,” © University of Oxford – Ashmolean Museum

Ruskin, as said, was an extremely gifted draughtsman as well as writer. And some of his works look to be just the kind of dry, painstakingly executed life studies that you’d expect from such an overbearing dogmatist. So how is it that Ruskin also championed the pioneering work of J. M. W. Turner, England’s most spontaneous and forward-looking great painter, whose vortex-like mature works were almost abstract compositions of light and tone half a century before the Impressionists and the Expressionists? How could the advocate of laborious effort and truth to nature as moral duties for an artist also support the freehand, abbreviated style of a Turner?

John Ruskin, “Study of Dawn. Purple clouds,” © University of Oxford – Ashmolean Museum

Well, thanks to a new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, “John Ruskin: Artist and Observer,” it’s clear that there is not such a great divide between Ruskin’s own work and that of Turner. Yes, some pieces from the show are every bit as laborious and photorealistic as Ruskin’s pedantry would lead you to expect. But others are unstudied, sur-le-vif, light and almost careless, with a strong flavor of Turner in their execution. Whether Ruskin himself would have regarded them as properly finished works for public exhibition, rather than private notations for his own pleasure, is a different story. But there’s no denying what his eyes saw and his hand drew. As so often with Ruskin, the artist’s eye subverted and undercut the overworked system-building brain, and he and we are all the richer for that.


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