Dinah Birch

  • The Desire of My Eyes: A Life of John Ruskin by Wolfgang Kemp, translated by Jan Van Huerck
    HarperCollins, 526 pp, £20.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 00 215166 9

It has never been easy to place Ruskin. In his own lifetime, his influence was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about. The dislocation has continued since his death. As far as the mainstream disciplines in Britain are concerned (his legacy in America is a separate story), he has always seemed tangential. The works have become a kind of multiple service industry, studied in part and for divergent reasons. Art historians need to know something about him; so, in quite another manner, do political economists. Those wanting to look at the development of religion, or mythography, or science, find him unignorable. He inevitably interests cultural theorists. And then, of course, there are the literature specialists, who know that the development of Hopkins, Pater, Proust, and many others, cannot be understood without some reference to Ruskin. These assorted academics have all come up with their own versions of what is most significant in Ruskin’s multitudinous output, and most of them are ignorant of what most of the others have said.

But alongside their varied assessments are the interpretations of a different body of readers: those who absorb Ruskin because they have been persuaded, or even converted, by Ruskinian modes of thought. Ruskin scholarship aspires to the condition of a creed. About any gathering of Ruskinians there is likely to be a whiff of the fervent. The initiation is, after all, a formidable one. There is a huge programme of reading to do before you will be taken seriously by the cognoscente, and you will not find any short cuts through the thickets of the Library Edition (39 volumes, all magnificently edited, none slender). Add to that all the secondary reading, and the prospect of finding your way into the enclosure becomes daunting. One result of this is that insiders have been inclined to scorn the efforts of anyone who just dabbles, particularly if the dabbling looks like academic self-promotion.

Significantly, those who have made a real difference to Ruskin studies over the past 20 years have not come from within the British university system. The courageous work of Helen Gill Viljoen, first of those who dared to challenge the magisterial assumptions of the Library Edition, together with the self-effacing precision of Van Akin Burd’s biographical research, laid the foundations for a more discriminating understanding of the texts. Both taught and published in America. John Unrau and Jeanne Clegg have enabled us to see Ruskin’s relations with Venice in a new light: one works in Canada, the other in Italy. Important collections of correspondence (Bradley’s editions of the letters from Venice and the Cowper-Temple letters, Cate’s collected Ruskin-Carlyle correspondence, Hayman’s 1858 letters) have come out in America or Canada. James Dearden, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the Ruskin manuscripts currently lodged at Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight has proved indispensable to many aspiring Ruskin scholars, is British, but his teaching has not been in a university. Robert Hewison, one of the driving forces behind the revival that dates from the foundation of the Ruskin Association in 1969, has always steered clear of an academic career. So has Tim Hilton, whose biography of Ruskin’s early years (published in 1985) offers little more than a glimpse of a lifetime of painstaking research on Ruskin. Peter Fuller’s provocative Theoria was not a university product. There is no shared perspective in these books. Hewison and Fuller, Ruskin’s most polemical advocates, have made incompatible political claims for his thought. What they do have in common is a laborious – sometimes passionate – devotion to the task of knowing more about what Ruskin meant. It is hard to think of more than a tiny handful of such books that have emerged from British university departments since the war. Lancaster University’s recently launched campaign to establish a new home for the Bembridge archive is the first major attempt to give Ruskin a central place in the co-ordinated research profile of a British university.

It looks at first as though Wolfgang Kemp’s biography is a continuation of this pattern. First published in Germany in 1983, this, too, doesn’t come from a British university. But Kemp has no patience with any notion of sympathetic immersion as the proper basis for the exposition of Ruskin. He is aiming for some thing more detached: a book that will place Ruskin within a broader cultural setting. The preface explains what he has in mind. This ia a study of Ruskin that is intended to serve as ‘the jumping-off point for a study of 19th-century England’, offering ‘general information about the century’s social, scientific, economic and artistic developments’. Kemp speaks of his wish to avoid what he terms the morbus Ruskinianus of his predecessors, ‘a sort of tunnel vision which allows them to see Ruskin only and nothing of what is alongside or around him’.

This sentiment offers some clue to why his book is such a disappointment. Looking at his work in an extended cultural environment is something that all Ruskin scholars, biographers in particular, must try to do. But the context that will illuminate Ruskin will not be contained within the vague categories of ‘general information about the century’s social, scientific, economic and artistic developments’. It is the specific developments, often unexpected ones (what is the connection between Ruskin’s hatred of orchids and his views on Darwin? Why did he praise Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and not George Eliot?), that we need to focus more accurately. We get precious little of that kind of definition from Kemp. Instead, we are presented with a tiring stream of second-hand generalisations.

One of the consequences of Kemp’s recoil from morbus Ruskinianus has been a marked reluctance to undertake new research into the circumstances of Ruskin’s life. The obfuscatory notes make it uncertain quite where he has drawn his material from, but it seems that he has not examined primary sources for himself. He has been content to make uneven use of those who have. The book was written at the beginning of the Eighties, and carries no trace of things learned in the course of what has been a good decade for Ruskin studies. Kemp’s book looks new, but is in fact ten years out of date.

This is not a matter of interpretative approach, but of making mistakes. Take, for instance, what Kemp has to tell us about the painting of the frescoes in the Oxford Union in 1857. ‘When he and a group of Pre-Raphaelite artists got together to paint the frescoes on Union Hall [sic], everyone involved felt that they were successfully resurrecting an ancient model of group work and group living.’ This is simply wrong. Ruskin never ‘got together’ with the ebullient young men who were covering the walls of the new hall with scenes from Arthurian legend. He visited the buildings once when the paintings were in progress, and did not much like what he saw. He had scant sympathy with Pre-Raphaelite aspirations to paint frescoes. Ruskin’s hopes for Oxford in the late 1850s were bound up in the foundation of the Oxford Museum, not in the impatient and self-advertising projects of a group of artists who were only intermittently willing to take him as their mentor. All this was made quite clear six years ago in Hilton’s biography.

Though the book has been competently translated, some of the strangely unfocused readings do seem to arise from an insensitivity to the English language. Kemp speculates on a letter Ruskin’s father wrote in 1839, after his undergraduate son’s poetic efforts had earned him the Newdigate Prize. John James Ruskin indulges the hope that Ruskin ‘may, if spared, become a full grown poet’. Kemp expatiates: ‘The phrase “if spared” – neither pampered with praise nor intimidated with harsh criticism – shows the antiquated view that Ruskin’s parents, and also literary Oxford, held about what goes into the making of a poet. The only truly readable verses that Ruskin wrote are his love poems; that is, work reflecting an experience that did not “spare” him.’ But of course John James Ruskin meant nothing of the kind. He was referring to the possibility that his son might die. The point of this letter lies in Ruskin’s apparently precarious state of health as a young man. In 1840, suspected consumption compelled him to leave Oxford without the hoped-for academic honours. Ruskin, like many of his disciples, came to develop a suspicion of university life, but the grounds of that suspicion were more complicated and more interesting than we can gather from Kemp.

For all his proclaimed intention of locating Ruskin within his intellectual setting, Kemp is not curious about its most prominent features. Of the many gaps this creates in his understanding, the most harmful is the absence of any engagement with Ruskin’s intense religious life. Kemp dismisses the idea that an Evangelical heritage might have been central to Ruskin’s thinking. His inclination to secularise Ruskin leads him into repeated mis-readings and misunderstandings. Pondering the importance of ‘dramatic conversion episodes’ in the autobiographical writings of Ruskin and his contemporaries, Kemp describes them as ‘originally a Romantic tradition’. This is not so. The practice of pointing to momentous crises in a dedicated life is rooted in the Protestant habit of spiritual autobiography. The Romantics had removed this strategy from its Christian context; Ruskin reclaims it for his own religious purposes. What directs much of his early work is a fusion of Romantic ardour with Christian piety. Not to see this is particularly disabling in Kemp’s case, for he wants to claim the early writing as the best. He takes no part in what has become, in the years since he wrote his book, a common tendency to promote the rebarbative texts that Ruskin wrote after the death of his father in 1864.

Kemp’s weighting of the earlier period of Ruskin’s life does prompt some helpful reminders. The curious isolation of the family’s early years in London is properly emphasised, and the persistence of the memory of life in Denmark Hill as the model for the later teaching emerges clearly enough. Kemp is right, too, to insist on the connection between what Ruskin saw and what he said. Right, but not original: that was Hewison’s central contention in The Argument of the Eye in 1976. Kemp adopts Hewison’s point as the organising principle of the book, prefacing each episode with a long meditation on a series of portraits of Ruskin. This gives him a much-needed opportunity to notice things: the formulaic grace of Northcote’s picture of Ruskin as a three-year-old, the sunlessness of Millais’s Glenfinlas portrait. Unhappily, his repeated emphasis on the centrality of the image is undermined by the dismal smudges masquerading as reproductions of pictures in this book.

Perhaps that ought not to matter too much, for the muffled figure that emerges from these pages has little to do with the sensitivity and humility of the mind that created the thousands of exquisite sketches, drawings and paintings that Ruskin left behind him. What would we think of Ruskin now if he had never published a word, and those pictures were all that we had to know him by? As things are, they are perceived as yet another of his sidelines – recorder of Venice, imitator of Turner, geological illustrator. Or else he is seen as a minor exponent of that tamest and safest of skills, the English watercolour landscape. Yet Ruskin is one of the most original and beautiful artists of his age. If he never worked in oil, it was because he did not choose to make that kind of claim for the consequence of his art. Nor was he much concerned with figures, historical or domestic scenes, or public portraits. He was interested in colour (a peacock’s feather, or the scales of a fish), in natural form (thistles, glaciers, rocks), or the human records of architecture (a rotting window, or the facade of a palace). He often opted to copy the work of others, spending hours in reverential attempts to reproduce what Carpaccio or Veronese achieved hundreds of years ago. The art of the copyist is no more fashionable now than it was when Ruskin demanded its patient disciplines of reluctant undergraduates in Oxford. But copying was for Ruskin an exercise of active interpretation, an act which opened the lost beauty of the past to a darkening present.

After his first apprenticeship as an artist, a far more careful and thorough process than any other branch of his patchy education, Ruskin lost the urge (it had never been strong) to produce finished pictures. In this his career as a painter is comparable with his development as a writer, where the aspiration to publish conventionally complete books ended once the duties of Modern Painters were discharged. Like his writings, his pictures evolve into acts of service and celebration. But they work without the self-reflective and often exclusive language that closes round the exhortations of the written work. What is exhilarating in Ruskin’s books is also what is daunting. They construct a scheme of reference that is profoundly intimate. All that Ruskin published after 1860, and most of what came out before, is a series of chapters in a monumental autobiography. But his writing is also rooted in the widest definitions of culture. To be read fully, the texts call for knowledge of Greek literature and mythology, Medieval iconography, Milton, 18th-century fiction, the Bible, geology, Italian history, botany, Walter Scott and Dickens, and a very great deal else besides. They ask to be studied on their own terms. There will never be many who are in a position to rise to the challenge of interdisciplinarity on quite that scale. But the pictures are another matter. It would be a pity if the pleasures of learning from Ruskin’s art were lost among the shadowed labyrinths of his books.