John Ruskin acted in several capacities as a man of letters, writing as an aesthetician, an art historian, a poet, a writer of a fairy tale, and as the author of works on reform and economics. Born in London in 1819, he was the only child of parents who lavished upon him a great deal of wealth and affection. In addition to study at King’s College, in London, and at Christ Church College, Oxford, he traveled extensively through Europe. As early as 1837 to 1838 he wrote a series of articles on “The Poetry of Architecture” for London’s Architectural Magazine. A defense of Joseph Turner’s painting led him to write the voluminous Modern Painters, which appeared volume by volume from 1843 to 1860. The work became a treatise on art in general, a defense of contemporary painting, and a formulation of the five categories Ruskin believed conveyed by art: power, imitation, truth, beauty, and relation.
In 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia Chalmers Gray, then nineteen years old, for whom he had written his novel-fairy tale, The King of the Golden River, in 1841 (it was not published until 1851). The marriage was unsuccessful and was annulled in 1854. Gray married John Millais, the artist, the following year.
Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite artists were friends of Ruskin, who supported their movement, especially in The Stones of Venice. This book, published between 1851 and 1853, along with The Seven Lamps of Architecture, extolled the virtues of Gothic architecture. In these works, his regard for the dignity of the artisans led to his concern with the problems of Victorian society.
After 1857 Ruskin became interested in social reform, his most famous work in this vein being Unto This Last. As a reformer Ruskin also helped found the Working Men’s College in London in 1854, and he gave lessons in drawing and lectured to groups at that institution. During the 1860’s Ruskin wrote much and lectured, despite increasing mental illness. One important book of this period was Sesame and Lilies, a collection of essays on aesthetic topics addressed primarily to young people. From 1870 to 1890 he wrote several works—including Fors Clavigera, a group of letters to English workers, and Praeterita, his unfinished autobiography—and traveled. Because of increasingly severe attacks of mental illness, the last decade of Ruskin’s life has been described as a living death. He died at Coniston, England, on January 20, 1900.
John Ruskin was born in London, England, on February 8, 1819, the only child of John James Ruskin and Margaret Cox. His father was the only son of a bankrupt Edinburgh wine merchant who committed suicide. John James Ruskin had inherited his father’s considerable debt and was forced to give up his interests in art and literature to embark upon a commercial career. He obtained a position selling wine for the London firm of George, Murphy & Company, where, through hard work and good fortune, he rose to a position of trust. His prospects brightened even more when he met the son of the Spanish, sherry-producing Domecq family, who were looking for a suitable outlet for selling the family’s product in England. Not long thereafter,...
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John Ruskin’s literary contributions go far beyond that of most of his very eminent Victorian contemporaries, such as John Henry Newman and T. H. Huxley. Stylistically brilliant, a teacher and philosopher by birth, he translated his love of Truth and Beauty and his strong Christian principles into a social theory that attempted to go the extra step necessary to achieve the Kingdom of God for all classes of society on earth. His art criticism, his political and social commentary, and his public lectures all contributed to the dissemination of that theory, which now, more than ever, continues to ring true.