John Ruskin was the most influential art critic of the Victorian age. His literary output was enormous and he had a remarkable influence on public opinion.
John Ruskin was born in 1819, the only child of John James Ruskin, a wealthy wine merchant and his wife, Margaret. Ruskin remained close to his parents for the rest of their lives. He was much influenced by his mother's strong protestant beliefs, and his father's literary interests. His parents encouraged Ruskin's love of drawing and took him on numerous Continental holidays, which awoke his passionate interest in the natural landscape. He was educated at home, before going to Christ Church, Oxford, where he did not find the curriculum to his taste.
In 1843 he published the first volume of Modern Painters (5 volumes, 1843-60), which began as a defence of the artist J.M.W. Turner, but grew into an exposition of Ruskin's principles of art. He later made an equally passionate defence of the Pre-Raphaelites, who had been initially dismissed by most established critics. Ruskin also had a great interest in medieval architecture. His European travels had introduced him to the architecture of France and northern Italy and, aware of the threat to it from neglect, unsympathetic restoration and modernisation, he set out to describe it to his readers in great detail and aesthetic sensitivity. He was a champion of the gothic style, which he expounded in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3), believing it to be the expression of man's wonder at God's creation.
Ruskin was a critic in the broadest sense of the term. He believed that art, morality and politics were all inter-connected, and his musings ranged effortlessly across these subjects. From the late 1850s, his writings took on a more political tone, as he attempted to combat the influence of conventional economics and industrial capitalism. His belief in the natural dignity of labour and an economic system based on use rather than profit was summed up in Unto this Last (1860) and Essays on Political Economy (1862-3). Ruskin's ideals were Christian and feudal rather than socialist; nevertheless he influenced many later socialists and he shared their concern to improve the conditions of the working classes. He addressed a number of his works to working people, such as Time and Tide (1867) and the serial, Fors Clavigera (1871-8). He also founded a political group, the Guild of St George, which attempted to put some of his ideas into practice by setting up utopian communities. Inheriting a considerable fortune from his father, Ruskin was a generous patron, who subsidised many worthy causes. Many, however, found Ruskin's political views increasingly eccentric, and his influence waned from the later 1870s.
Ruskin continued to influence public taste, following his appointment as first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University in 1870. He threw himself into this work with characteristic intensity, establishing a school of drawing, donating a number of works of art to the University, and attracting great crowds to his lectures. Several volumes of the lectures were later published. Disagreements with senior University figures saw him resign the professorship twice in 1878 and following a brief return in 1885.
Ruskin's private life was unhappy. He married Euphemia Chalmers Gray in 1847, but she left him for the artist John Everett Millais, and they were divorced in 1854 on grounds of non-consummation. Ruskin formed a number of passionate friendships with young women after this, the most important of which was with Rose La Touche, to whom he proposed marriage in 1866 when she was eighteen. Her parents opposed the match, and she died, after succumbing to madness, in 1875. By the late 1870s Ruskin was also showing signs of a mental illness, which was to become progressively worse in the following decade. Although he published an uncompleted autobiography, Praeterita (1885-1889), his literary output diminished greatly after 1880. He lived increasingly as a recluse and invalid at his home, Brantwood on Coniston Water, cared for by his cousin and heir, Joan Severn and her husband, Arthur, together with his secretary, W.G. Collingwood. Ruskin died on 20 January 1900 and was buried in Coniston churchyard.
Ruskin was a remarkably successful critic, who influenced by the style as well as the substance of his writings. One of the best-selling writers of his age, Ruskin had few peers as a prose stylist. He was a compelling public speaker and an active man of affairs. His appreciation of art was heightened by his gifts as a draughtsman and artist (many of his works contained his own illustrations). A talented geologist, he had a remarkable talent for observation and description of natural phenomena.
Source: Robert Hewison, 'Ruskin, John (1819-1900)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/24291.