At Christmas, 1859, John Ruskin was forty, would be forty-one in the following February. His life had been bittersweet, his last volume of Modern Painters was in the working. “He had found much success in the world,” but he was unhappy and unsure of himself. He felt that the institutions of art were too worldly, that art had lost its “spiritual power,” and that he himself had lost that “Evangelical thrust” which had initially inspired Modern Painters (1843-1860). Furthermore, he felt that his father, for whose approval and respect the work had been written over the many years, was about to die. The modern age weighed heavily upon Ruskin at this point, and his ambitions, his hopes, his dreams were uncertain, his vision of modern art just as uncertain. The spiritual power he wanted to inform his vision of art was vague and of a spirit unchristian, something he obscured in his writing to hide such thoughts from his mother and, perhaps, from himself. He had finished a tour of Europe with his parents the previous year and had stayed three weeks at a girls’ school in Chesire, at Winnington, where he “enjoyed the company of schoolchildren” and where, for the next ten years of his life, he would spend some of “the happiest moments of his life.” His marriage to Effie and his unrequited love for Adèle were behind him now, and his newly growing love for Rose La Touche was yet unclear to him.
It is in this mixture of despair and hope, love and love lost that Tim Hilton, in John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819-1859, leaves the reader, with high expectations for the promised second volume of this biography. Hilton cleverly structures his scholarly and insightful work with such suspense that he achieves a novelistic effect: By plotting biographical information with reference to what has come before and what will come, Hilton quite successfully conveys the anxiety that characterized Ruskin’s life and that characterizes the modern age in general.
Hilton is known for his work on catalogs of numerous important exhibitions, for his books on Pablo Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites, and for his contributions to the Times Literary Supplement; his acumen for biography is clearly revealed in this volume.
This work should be important not only to anyone interested in the spiritual incertitude of art but also to anyone interested in the problems of soul and body as portrayed in the life of one man, one of the most prolific, if inconsistent, writers of literary history. Hilton’s biography provides an insight into the complex of emotions, thoughts public and private, and events historical and personal that characterize the Victorian era and that helped shape the modern era. One sees entangled in Ruskin the sense of duty and the repressed passion commonly associated with Victorian life as well as the vision of natural beauty and sensuality typical of the Pre-Raphaelites. In the life of John Ruskin, one witnesses the troublesome and troubled soul of the nineteenth century.
Only one other man might have been so exemplary of the torture of the body and soul in Victorian England: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but that would be coming from quite a different, nearly opposite, perspective, one that the reader may hope Hilton will one day pursue. Both men had their share of passion and their sense of duty. Rossetti’s House of Life (1881) attempts to articulate a sensual, sexual spirituality and, perhaps, fails, but the attempt reveals something important about the age and those who lived in it. For Ruskin, the tensions between love and physical passion, “lust in action,” as William Shakespeare...
(The entire section is 1489 words.)