Reading Ruskin in Cataclysmic Times

July 23, 2019   •   By Alexandra L. Milsom

To See Clearly

Suzanne Fagence Cooper

IT IS SO EASY to have feelings about John Ruskin. And for those of us who have spent significant parts of our life studying him, so much feels at stake because to begin to read Ruskin is to realize that your whole lifetime might not be enough to get through it all. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, so many of us are busy trying to keep up with the meetings, exhibitions, and new books being published about the famed Victorian critic and artist. As someone who has subscribed to a “Ruskin” Google alert, I have been made anxious all over again watching my inbox fill daily with a reminder about how much more Ruskin I have left to read and how time seems to be running out.

As the title of Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s new book, To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, reminds us, there is a lot at stake in convincing people that Ruskin matters. It’s not that we want everyone to join us in mourning the unfinished chapters of his autobiography Praeterita (I recently met a man who is “finishing” those chapters himself), or that we hope that others too might wonder whether or not Venetian architecture will last long enough for us to compare it against Ruskin’s descriptions (Cooper has already done this; I have not). No, it’s more urgent than that: given the prescience of Ruskin’s concerns about climate change, and the evergreen timeliness of his critique of exploitative labor practices, Ruskin’s political and cultural critiques have a new urgency today. As we march irrationally and irrevocably toward our own planetary self-destruction, and as income inequality grows faster than ever, we are well served by Ruskin’s devoted followers who are using the bicentennial to encourage us to turn to his work for solutions and solace.

But as urgent as reading Ruskin feels to me, I find it extraordinarily difficult to convince most other people to read him. I am working on an academic monograph that features Ruskin’s writings on tourism as a centerpiece. Cooper is an art historian and former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She has already written books on Pre-Raphaelite art (Pre-Raphaelite Art in the Victoria and Albert Museum — Ruskin was one of the earliest champions of the Pre-Raphaelites) as well as on Effie Gray (Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais), Ruskin’s erstwhile wife. So she and I share this sense of urgency, having both dedicated at least part of our professional lives to reading deeply in Ruskin’s work. When you get as devoted to an author as I have, and particularly one as prolific and wide-ranging as Ruskin was, then you can’t help but divide the world between those who know that reading more Ruskin might get us out of this earth-destroying predicament and those who don’t.

The latter group — those who have not yet committed themselves to a diligent study of Ruskin — may be subdivided further into those who have actually heard of him and those who have not. If they have heard of him, they were probably English majors taking an upper-level British literature course, possibly forced to wade through excerpts from The Stones of Venice, a tome on the history and architecture of the city (containing illustrations done by the author himself!). If they had a lively professor, then they probably remember less about what Ruskin argues about “The Nature of the Gothic” and more about the seedier (and often apocryphal) details of Ruskin’s personal life: “Oh, is he the one who was scared by his wife’s pubic hair?” or “Isn’t he a pedophile?” These are good questions to have, and certainly make for livelier conversation than his study of the evolution of window lintels. Cooper devotes a great deal of her book to exploring the moral quandaries presented by Ruskin’s personal life, but these considerations do not lead us toward labor reform or repairing the environment, nor do they help explain why so many of us become so obsessed.


To those who have encountered Ruskin before, I am less likely these days to recommend “The Nature of the Gothic” — even though it showcases Ruskin at his most vituperative (“They cannot draw the trunk of a tree without blasting and shattering it, nor a sky except covered with stormy clouds” — in reference to Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giotto, and others) and at his most precise. These days, and particularly as we in the United States live under the ruling fist of a real estate mogul who once sold sweatshop neckties, I am likely to suggest that interested readers peruse Unto This Last, a serialized set of essays Ruskin wrote in 1860, which document his evolving concerns about exploitative labor and the accumulation of capital. These essays eventually became even too incendiary for the Cornhill Magazine, their publisher, when Ruskin started critiquing “illth” — a term he coined to mean the opposite of “wealth.”

Cooper quotes at length from Unto This Last in her book’s second to last chapter, “Working.” These quotations remind us why someone as radical as Mahatma Gandhi — who even translated the book into Gujarati — would take Ruskin so seriously: “Some treasures are heavy with human tears” writes Ruskin on the subject of how “men of business” accumulate capital. He notes that “in order that [a rich man] be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor, and in want of his gold — or his corn.” Cooper’s gloss of this passage calls to mind the deep hypocrisies of a Mar-a-Lago-based executive branch: “In our culture,” she writes, “being rich means buying and selling another person’s labour. It is built on inequality.”

Moments like this, where Cooper ties Ruskin’s economic and environmental concerns to our own, make reading her book more than worthwhile. At one point, she asks: “Is it really acceptable to use child labour to stitch footballs? Or to ship our discarded shampoo bottles halfway around the world for someone else to sift and recycle?” She then answers with a quotation from Unto This Last, which makes as strong a case as anyone could make for reading the Victorian critic:

[W]henever we buy, or try to buy, cheap goods […] remember we are stealing somebody’s labour. […] [T]aking from him the proper reward of his work, and putting it into your pocket. You know well enough that the thing could not have been offered you at that price, unless distress of some kind had forced the producer to part with it. You take advantage of this distress.

Despite my own lifetime commitment to working through Ruskin’s edited works, I find it a difficult task to casually convince people to read even a chapter of his writing, and I am grateful for Cooper’s valiant attempt at making Ruskin seem relevant to modern readers. The book’s small size, its eight short chapters, and its use of Ruskin’s own illustrations mean that people who might not make it through Ruskin’s actual prose could still benefit from his writing. Each chapter is titled with a different gerund — “Seeing,” “Drawing,” “Building,” et cetera — and the cumulative effect is to paint an active picture of the various ways in which Ruskin, for all his writing, was also actively engaged in the act of living.

To those who have already encountered Ruskin, I will always recommend Unto This Last. But if I suspect that Ruskin’s long sentences, his arrogant reliance upon the imperative, and his seemingly obscure subject matter — J. M. W. Turner’s clouds, Venetian frescoes, how and why to draw rocks — would not immediately recommend themselves to a particular reader, then I might point them to Cooper instead. She is much more likely than Ruskin himself to successfully make the case that his message is even more necessary today than it was in his own time. Her pithy book also presents an opportunity to those of us stymied by the prospect of recommending anything short of a syllabus. Cooper provides a well-researched and historically contextualized account of Ruskin’s biography and, more importantly, shows that we must attend to his writing immediately for the benefit of our planet. I could recommend Tim Hilton’s 2002 Ruskin biography too — it is comprehensive, yet accessible — but at over 1,000 pages the book will take the casual convert a longer time to read than we necessarily have left.


People who devote themselves to Ruskin — much like those who study William Blake or attend Star Trek conventions — are obsessive, revel in details, and create insular communities to which you can belong once you accumulate a great deal of obscure knowledge. These scholars self-identify as “Ruskinians.” When I was in graduate school studying the evolution of the British tourist guidebook in the 19th century, I had to be quite willful in order to avoid Ruskin, for he came up everywhere as a reference point for nearly anyone writing about Continental art and travel in the period. But I remained intimidated by how much there was to read and overwhelmed by the prospect of deciding where to begin. His collected works (note: not “complete”!) fill 39 enormous volumes. Known to his followers as The Library Edition, this oeuvre was compiled between 1903 and 1912 by two early prototypes of today’s devotee: Edward Tyas Cook, a journalist and editor, and Alexander Wedderburn, Ruskin’s former student.

As someone who once tried to identify as a “Dickensian,” I had entered such a world before and knew what such scholarly devotion entailed. I was not ready to embark on crafting a scholarly identity around another author again. I had given over a couple of years to reading all 15 of Dickens’s novels (and a great deal of his prose), meeting the current “stars” of the field, naming pets after his books’ characters, and feeling inadequate about my ability to ever say anything interesting that hadn’t already been said. In comparison to Dickens, Ruskin appeared even more prolific, more obscure, and he hadn’t even written anything that could be classified as “fun.”

But once you’ve invested most of your adult life in an obscure pursuit — 19th-century tourism in my case — “fun” can start to become quite particular in its definition. Between 1877 and 1884, Ruskin published St. Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice, a slim, bully of a book written to teach tourists how to appreciate the architecture of Venice. It’s as pedantic as it sounds. It includes a passage in which he commands his reader to buy a block of Gruyère, or “any other equally tough and bad, with as few holes in it as may be.” Then, Ruskin proceeds to give an entirely serious carving lesson in order that the reader be able to “discern, and to enjoy the treatment of, all the twelfth and thirteenth century capitals in Venice.” By teaching the reader how difficult it is to carve and decorate a hunk of hard cheese in the style of a column’s capital, it seems that Ruskin hoped to prove once and for all that good ornamentation is difficult and sacred, and that that those who denigrate decoration are merely jealous: “Not being able to decorate the block when they have got it, they declare that decoration is ‘a superficial merit.’”

It’s a humorless tutorial but upon reading this book, I promptly applied for another yearlong graduate school fellowship, knowing that Ruskin was my Rubicon and I needed to cross it. For in spite of his haughty, turgid tone, in this text, Ruskin was writing an impassioned and profound argument. During his years of traveling to this, his beloved city of Venice, he had witnessed renovations that removed the ancient mosaics from the facade of the basilica of St. Mark’s and he had studied careless changes made to its Ducal palace. He realized the high stakes of architectural education: in teaching the tourists to appreciate Venetian architecture properly, he could prevent destructive renovations and convince people to improve social conditions at home. By reforming British tourists’ tastes abroad, Ruskin would train readers to care about the labor that went into developing their own communities.


Ruskin’s moral arguments about labor connect with and then transcend his obscure nuances about medieval artisanship. As I read deeper into his works, I easily connected with the former concerns and started to care more about the latter. My fears about becoming a “Ruskinian” were confirmed: one year of reading Ruskin would not be enough, but my funding was running out and the dog I had acquired at the beginning of graduate school was already starting to be considered geriatric by canine standards. Reading a little bit of Ruskin can convince you to spend the rest of your life reading him. If that claim sounds grandiose, well that is the nature of Ruskin scholarship.

A few years after finishing my dissertation and settling into a scholarly life in New York City, I received funding from my university to head into the most grandiose heart of the “Ruskinian” universe. It was august and overwhelming — true to Ruskin’s form. In January, while en route to Lancaster University to visit The Ruskin — Library, Museum and Research Centre, I stopped at Oxford for a daylong Ruskin conference. It was held at Corpus Christi College in a room only a few dozen feet from where Ruskin had lived for over a decade as the university’s first Slade Professor of Fine Art.

The highlight of the conference was an amplified conversation held between T. J. Clark and Adam Phillips, introduced most superlatively to the 50 or so gathered scholars as “[o]ur nation’s greatest psychoanalyst talking to our nation’s greatest art historian.” Their conversation was a masterclass in Ruskinian fluency, and Adam Phillips — a prominent psychoanalyst of England — startled his companion and his audience with such intimate questions about Clark’s relationship to Ruskin that it felt almost like we were witnessing a private therapy session. Here are some of the koan-like exchanges that characterized their dialogue:

Phillips: “Is there a reason why you are more haunted now [by Ruskin]?”
Clark: “I never recovered from [a description of] the growth of a branch into a tree [from Modern Painters Vol. 5].”

Phillips: “What kind of threat is Ruskin to your discipline?”
Clark: “Writing well about art” and “the vulnerability.”

Phillips: “How do you love the visual world without turning it into an idol?”
Clark: “Yes.”

As I listened to these two scholars quote memorized passages from various texts and talks and letters with the contrapuntal force of a late Bach fugue, I felt how devoted we all were to the beauty of the world described by Ruskin’s writing. That devotion is an addictive force because when we look up from reading Ruskin we do see our own world more clearly. I had tapped into that addictive power once I read St. Mark’s Rest. I found myself online, obsessively zooming in on photographs of the columns lining the Ducal palace, trying to discern which were from the 12th and which were from the 14th centuries, per his descriptions and invectives. Ruskin changes how you see and judge the world around you, but Clark also reminded us that our world, in turn, reflects Ruskin back at us when we know where to look: “Ruskin changed the world,” he said, referring to the architectural and aesthetic movements that grew from his teachings. “We see vestiges of the world he called into being in Taipei and Sydney.”

It was exhilarating to witness two intellectuals at the height of their powers sharing such a deep and sentimental affection for a writer I have come to revere. But even there, in the deepest heart of the most ivory of towers, the urgency was present: “How do you sustain attention in a culture designed to destroy it?” Clark asked us, referring to the “desperation about our own time” and the sharp quality of living through a historical moment acutely aware that “discontinuity is going to become part of existence.” Reading Ruskin still feels relevant, as Cooper reminds us throughout To See Clearly, because he, too, sensed that industrial forces were altering the planet in ways from which we may never recover. He was witnessing the Industrial Revolution firsthand, after all. And here we are breathing the carbon-rich air it has left as its legacy.


Cooper’s book recognizes that the world is in crisis and outlines for readers how Ruskin’s writings train us to rectify our mistakes. Ruskin teaches us to think about labor, environment, and the long-term costs of being cheap. Sometimes I look around New York City, a place I’ve called home for over half of my life, and am startled by how beauty and decay coexist so consistently here. We would have done well, many years ago, to heed Ruskin’s warnings from Unto This Last about the long-term consequences of dirty industrial manufacturing and the ethical stakes of exploitative cheap labor, but I worry that it is too late for us already. The shiny new Second Avenue Subway stations along the Upper East Side are already showing signs of deterioration, only two years after they opened. The new developments over at the Hudson Yards are a dire abomination of both design, human capital, and city-planning. We are no longer building for the long-term because, perhaps, we know there is no longevity left. The next couple generations of children will be paying the mortal price for our decades of fast fashion, cheap food, and disposable plastic.

In his preface to a beautiful 1892 Arts and Crafts edition of “The Nature of the Gothic,” William Morris did not seem quite as anxious as we are now about paying attention to his teacher. He writes, “At least it may be said that there is time enough for us to deal with this problem” — that of “gaining happiness through our daily and necessary labour” — “and that it need not engross the best energies of mankind, when there is so much to do otherwhere.” Morris believed that by taking advantage of the “stupendous strides” of science, a force he believed represented our “mechanical victory over nature,” we would finally have the time to attend properly to beauty and pleasure. Morris’s assumption that there was “time enough” left to do so sends chills down my spine because it feels like that time is up. Over a century has passed, and those of us who study Ruskin and proselytize his ethics might truly have something to celebrate during this bicentennial year if all of these conferences, exhibitions, and books turn us toward the cataclysm we have created and help us to see it as clearly as Ruskin has taught us to see.


Alexandra L. Milsom is an assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College (CUNY). She is writing a book about how Catholic Emancipation in Britain and Ireland influenced mass tourism and the nascent guidebook genre in the 19th century.