On May Day each year I open a small book, bound in red calf and with the signature ‘John Ruskin’ embossed in gold on its cover. It belonged to my grandmother and was given to her on May 1st, 1912, while she was studying at Whitelands College in south London. The date is important. In 1912, my grandmother, about to leave Whitelands to start her career, had been one of the attendants at the College’s annual ‘Crowning of the Queen of the May’ ceremony: my book carries the inscription “This book is given to Vera Dove. Signed Alice, Queen of the May, 1912” A book plate on the inside cover explains that this ‘quaint old ceremony’ had been revived at the College in 1881 ‘at the request of John Ruskin “to give real and elevating pleasure to the young”.’ Ruskin himself, during his lifetime, had presented a cross each year to the Queen of the May, together with ‘many purple calf-bound copies of his books, to be distributed to her subjects’. Both ceremony and book giving continued after Ruskin’s death.
The book is Ruskin’s A Joy Forever. When I inherited it, a red silk bookmark led me a page where I read this striking declaration:
It seems to me that one of the worst diseases to which the human creature is liable is its disease of thinking. If it would only just look at a thing instead of thinking what it must be like, or do a thing instead of thinking it cannot be done, we should all get on far better.
The disease of thinking - this seems at first an odd complaint from one of the great thinkers of the Victorian age, ‘the sage of Brantwood’. But Ruskin was a man who hated muddle, and muddled thinking aroused his wrath. When I recall Matthew Arnold’s definition of the aim of criticism – ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’ – I think of Ruskin. In his own paintings and drawings, whether of mountains, rocks or architecture, Ruskin was always concerned to see and record as accurately as possible: he was, after all, both scientist and artist: the principles of observation by which he classified geological specimens were no different from the way he classified the different types of arches in Venice. Painstakingly, first by clambering up ladders to inspect, record and draw arches at eye level, then by identifying their particular similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, Ruskin was able to establish what no one had attempted before: the evolution and characteristics of six distinctive orders (types) of the Venetian arch, which unlocked the sequence of Venetian architectural development.
It was hard work, and Ruskin was scathing about the ‘mischievous tendency of the hurry of the present day’. He had spent, he complained, ‘two long winters’ in the drawing of details on the spot, and yet
I see constantly that architects who pass three or four days in a gondola going up and down the Grand Canal, think that their first impressions are just as likely to be true as my patiently wrought conclusions.
The particular object of his contempt here is George Edmund Street. Street, architect of the Law Courts in the Strand, and one of the most prominent architects of the mid-nineteenth century, strikes me as an unlikely enemy: he would become an early and vocal member of William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) of which Ruskin was the presiding spirit; he would also proclaim himself a committed opponent of ‘those destructive works of church restoration which I suspect I deplore more than my critics, and of which an instance carried out under my direction will be looked for in vain’.
Neither Street nor Ruskin suffered from self-doubt. Though there was something of a rapprochement later on, (both men meeting in Venice in 1878, lamenting together the damaging effects of growing prosperity on La Serenissima), twenty years earlier Ruskin had been unsparing:
Mr Street glances hastily at the façade of the Ducal Palace – so hastily in fact that he does not even see what the pattern is, and misses the alternation of red and black in the centre of its squares – and yet he instantly ventures on an opinion on the chronology of its capitals, which is one of the most complicated and difficult subjects in the whole range of Gothic archaeology. It may, nevertheless, be ascertained with very fair probability of correctness by any person who will give a month’s hard work to it, but it can be ascertained no otherwise.
I can’t help thinking Ruskin was less than fair to Street here, and to those other architects going up and down the Grand Canal in their gondolas. He himself advocated using a gondola to get close to the architectural details on the façades of the waterfront palaces. Here he is, in The Stones of Venice, praising ‘the precision of chiselling and delicacy of proportion in the ornament and general lines’ of the palaces between Casa Foscari and the Rialto. He urges the traveller ‘to stay his gondola beside each of them long enough to examine their every line’; but Ruskin immediately continues with this warning :
… observe most carefully the peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament, which mark them as belonging to a period of decline, as well as the absurd mode of introduction of their pieces of coloured marble.
I admire Ruskin greatly, but there are times – this is one – when he surely protests too much. I wish he’d get back in his gondola and think more carefully about what he is seeing. He occasionally admitted he was prone to contradict himself, as I think he does here. Is it really possible simultaneously to admire ‘the precision of chiselling and delicacy of proportion in the ornament ‘ of Venetian Renaissance palaces yet to condemn ‘the peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament’? I doubt it.
[References: the Ruskin quotations from my grandmother’s book are in A Joy for Ever, 1880 edn., London: Geo. Allen and Unwin, p.188. Ruskin’s outburst about the ‘peculiar feebleness’ of the decoration (on the Palazzo Contarini delle Figuri) comes from The Stones of Venice, vol. III, §1. Quotations from, and references to, G.E. Street in Venice are taken from George Edmund Street, a Memoir, by Arthur Edmund Street (1886).
[Illustrations: (i) Palazzo Ducale – the courtyard, with the domes of San Marco behind; (ii) the decorative pattern on the façade of the Palazzo Ducale, which Ruskin claimed George Edmund Street had not studied with sufficient care.
Text and photographs © the author.
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