Ruskin inherited a fortune from his father from the wine merchant, meaning that he was free to continue his studies and collect the works of the leading painters of Victorian England. For years, however, the colossal intellect and remarkable talent of Ruskin have been overshadowed by scandalous rumors
In front of me is the largest collection of photographs, paintings and letters in the world by John Ruskin, the intellectual and artistic titan of Victorian England.
Here is one of the earliest photos of the Alps, taken by Ruskin.
There is his huge painting of a peacock feather, used to teach art to students in Oxford in the late 19th century – Oscar Wilde is such an admiring fan.
And, shining as good as new on the table in front of me, is his drawing of the old buildings of Venice that he did so much to save.
I am deep in the "treasure room" – a huge, ultra-modern cube of concrete and bronze, hidden in the Ruskin library in Lancaster – where this amazing collection is being held.
Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the great spirits of the 19th century – a critic, painter, thinker and early eco-warrior.
Until recently, however, he was primarily known for two sensational stories.
First, his disastrous marriage and a sloppy myth about his alleged impotence and homosexuality. And then there was a notorious libel case in the Old Bailey against the famous American painter, James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Born 200 years ago, he would now be a kind of David. Attenborough meets Greta Thunberg meets David Bellamy meets David Hockney. And just like Greta, he also took vitriol from contemporary critics.
This is the hope that the sensational rescue of his archive for the nation, celebrated in a new exhibition, will restore his reputation.
His works include & # 39; Peacock and falcon feather & # 39; from 1873, left and right, a drawing from his most celebrated book, & # 39; The Stones of Venice & # 39; (1851-53), a study of Venetian buildings
Lancaster is the perfect place for the collection. Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life, before his death in 1900 at the age of 80, in his nearby Brantwood home on Coniston Water in the Lake District, where he is buried.
His huge archive threatened to be taken abroad until the £ 8 million needed to purchase the collection was collected – all thanks to a £ 2.5 million National Heritage Memorial grant, grants from 11 other charities and a last-minute donation from the Friends of the national libraries, three days before the deadline.
And what a huge treasure it is!
I spent a few hours with a sneak preview of the collection and only scratched the surface.
The archive goes deep underground, where image stacks contain works by the great Pre-Raphaelite painters, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais.
Ruskin inherited a fortune from his father from the wine merchant, meaning that he was free to continue his studies and collect the works of the leading painters of Victorian England.
For years, however, the colossal intellect and remarkable talent of Ruskin have been overshadowed by scandalous rumors.
Ruskin was also an early environmentalist and believed that the entire natural world was intertwined, from the microscopic to the mammoth. He even seemed to point to the symptoms of climate change in a very early daguerreotype – or photo – of the Alps
In 1848 he married artist and author Effie Gray, but the marriage ended in 1854 on the grounds of "non-completion" due to his "incurable impotence." Ruskin contested the charge and said, "I can prove my virility right away."
The case led to the myth that Ruskin was homosexual and shocked by seeing Effie's pubic hair. In a further blow to Ruskin, Effie married artist John Everett Millais – whose works owned Ruskin – in 1855.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Ruskin was then entangled in one of the most notorious libel processes of the 19th century.
In 1878, Whistler continued Ruskin in the Old Bailey for his stinker of a review of Whistler's painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket.
Ruskin said about the painting: & # 39; I have seen and heard a lot about Cockney impudence; but I never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guinea to throw a pot of paint in the face of the public. & # 39;
Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life, before his death in 1900 at the age of 80, in his nearby Brantwood home on Coniston Water in the Lake District, where he is buried. Brantwood is pictured above
Whistler was then asked in court whether two days' work was worth 200 guineas. & # 39; No, & # 39; Whistler replied.
"I ask for the knowledge I have gained in the work of your life."
Whistler won but only received a small compensation and both men seemed to have damaged their reputation by the promotion.
Details are included in the archive, which contains 7,400 letters, not least Ruskin's correspondence with the painter JMW Turner and Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, which Ruskin has done a lot to support. There are also 1500 drawings and 500 prints by Ruskin and his fellow artists.
Also in the collection are 125 incredibly rare daguerreotypes – early photographs – including early images of the Alps and Venice, and 29 parts of Ruskin & # 39; s diaries with many unpublished sketches.
The collection is in fact worth much more than £ 8 million. Some experts rate it in hundreds of millions of pounds.
But the sellers – the Education Trust Ltd and the Whitehouse Trust – sold the collection at a great discount, out of respect for its importance to the nation.
The collection was originally compiled by Liberal MP, John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955), who bought it after the death of Ruskin. Whitehouse was an ancestor of the sellers of the archive.
Much of Ruskin's life is reflected in the collection, including paintings he made when he was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford.
He taught art through photographs of the natural world that he painted on paper and placed on canvas. Ruskin Lecture Diagrams were used to illustrate topics such as art, botany and classics.
The Ruskin now has the largest collection of his Lecture Diagrams in the world. And here they are, fully restored, in the first room of the new show, in excellent condition: three-meter high purple flower buds, shown as they bloom; a huge image of a buttercup; and, most enchanting of all, a peacock feather and a falcon feather, painted in 1873.
Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the great spirits of the 19th century – a critic, painter, thinker and early eco-warrior
To show the shape of a swallow's feather, Ruskin had two painted wooden spring models made, each three feet long.
Ruskin was also an early environmentalist and believed that the entire natural world was intertwined, from the microscopic to the mammoth.
He even seemed to point to the symptoms of climate change in a very early daguerreotype – or photo – of the Alps.
The daguerreotype shown is "Chamonix." Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc massif, made by Ruskin and Frederick Crawley in 1854.
It shows an Alpine valley, stiff with ice and snow. In a horrifying – or warming – condemnation of climate change, artist Emma Stibbon today painted the same view for the show: the valley is now free of ice and snow.
Ruskin is perhaps most famous for his architectural drawings, in particular of his adored Venice.
His most celebrated book, & # 39; The Stones of Venice & # 39; (1851-53), was a study of Venetian buildings and his drawings show him as an early defender of the city's heritage.
Now his genius has finally been resurrected by the dramatic rescue of his archive – and it is a permanent reminder of one of England's greatest visionaries.
"Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future" at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster, runs until November 25, 2019
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