Tuesday, October 8, 2013

But I find nobody ever reads things which it takes any trouble to understand, so that it is of no use to write them. - John Ruskin

On the one hand, preach it, Brother Ruskin!  So true, so true.  On the other, this sentiment is buried by John Ruskin in a footnote on page 93 of the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), meaning somewhere around the 1,850th page of the entire monumental work, about 2,300 pages in the 19th century edition I read.

The first volume of Modern Painters was supposed to be the only one.  The 24 year-old Oxford punk meant the book to be a defense of the reputation and artistry of J. M. W. Turner, 68 at the time, but he soon discovered that it was impossible to understand Turner’s paintings  - really, really understand them – without exploring taste, truth, beauty, perception, geology, botany, atmospheric science, and to a limited degree art history, among many other topics.  The subtitle of the third volume (1856) is “Of Many Things,” a title both accurate and useless, but perhaps more inviting than that of the fourth volume (also 1856), “Of Mountain Beauty,” 497 pages on just what it says.

So I detect irony, that is what I am trying to say.  “No use to write them.”  I will come back to this idea.

During the seventeen years it took to write Modern Painters, Ruskin also wrote the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-3), masterful 1,500 page sequel or supplement or appendix to Modern Painters (or vice versa) and several other works that I have not read.  His final delay came from a request by the National Gallery to organize and catalogue the huge mass of Turner drawings the artist had bequeathed to the nation.

In seven tin boxes in the lower room of the National Gallery I found upwards of nineteen thousand pieces of paper, drawn upon by Turner in one way or another.  Many on both sides; some with four, five, or six subjects on each side (the pencil point digging spiritedly through from the foregrounds of the front into the tender pieces of sky on the back); some in chalk, which the touch of the finger would sweep away; others in ink, rotted into holes; others (some splendid colored drawings among them) long eaten away by damp and mildew, and falling into dust at the edges, in capes and bays of fragile decay…   (Vol. 5, Preface)

How I would love to continue that quotation.  Ruskin should have been offered a baronetcy for his efforts.

Over the last six years, I read Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and a couple of shorter Ruskin books, which would feel like an accomplishment if moving one’s eyes across a page of text and flipping pages were in and of itself so difficult.  I have written about Ruskin in fragments over that time, as needed, as useful, but never in a concentrated burst, which is what I will do this week, without argument or goal, but simply as a pleasant rummage through the book in front of me, the fourth and fifth volumes of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters.

I’ll get this out of the way here:  reading all of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice is Much Too Much, certainly, but the abridgements I looked at were Not Nearly Enough.  Much great writing is omitted.  I do not have an answer.  The Stones of Venice is the more interesting of the two books.


  1. Looking forward to your posts Tom, at least two of Ruskin's books will be part of my nineteenth century of books (his book on Pre-Raphaelitism and the one primarily on architecture). I've read so much about Ruskin and so many excerpts of his lectures, essays and newspaper pieces that I have always feel under-read for not tackling more of his full length work.

  2. Ruskin's idea permeate the culture, as they say. He is one of the founders of the way we think.

    I have not read either of the books you mention, but it is obvious from their dates that they must contain many - possibly all - of the key ideas of the big books. Likely a more sensible way to ingest Ruskin, to the extent that sense matters.

  3. I'd say you have made quite an accomplishment and also gotten a good education in art history to boot. I've been meaning to read Ruskin for years, particularly Sesame and Lilies. Perhaps your posts will goad me into finally getting to it!

  4. Yeah, art history, I guess, but also how people thought, circa 1860, clouds and rocks were formed.

    The Stones of Venice was actually an outstanding architecture textbook, clear and well-organized, although I would hardly recommend anyone read it for that purpose alone.

    I have not read Sesame and Lilies, but by the end of the week I hope to write a bit about why Ruskin turned from landscape painting and leaves to lectures about library funding. It is interesting.

  5. I know Ruskin only through other people's references to him. Whenever you post about Ruskin, I think, "Yes, Ruskin, I should really read some Ruskin" and then I am confronted by the sheer amount of writing he did and I have no idea where to start.

    You're reading Dostoyevski? Whose translation?

    1. I'm going to come in and suggest The Seven Lamps of Architecture if you're ever seriously looking for a starting point. It's shorter than Stones and Painters but the essential features are there, the language is there, the aesthetic anger that expresses itself as an attraction and repulsion pushing and tugging around the physical existences of objects, is there. "How many buildings [do we have] like King's College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns, but not at both ends." Then he says that the thing could be fixed if they whacked a few towers off. Geoffrey Hill likes him, especially the Fors Clavigera, and I think you can see Ruskin's flavour of outrage in Hill's poems. For example, there's the disgust around the word "scavenge" when Hill refers to Britain's politicians as "grandees risen from scavenge." That confluence of physical filth and "ignoble" activity is very Ruskinian.

    2. That's excellent. In fact I've just reserved Seven Lamps from the public library, and they'll send it to my local branch. I wonder if it'll be there by Friday, so I can spirit it off to Europe with me. Thanks for the suggestion.

    3. Good. Somebody who knows what he's talking about. The short Ruskins I have read (Unto This Last and The Queen of the Air) are whole 'nother kettles of fish.

      That passage of Pykk's is so good. Ruskin is often quite funny.

  6. I tell ya, sometimes Ruskin is superb. The first volume of The Stones of Venice ends with a famous "approach to Venice" passage that is astounding. Why does it not begin the book? But it is in fact in the right place.

    We'll see if I can get one of the examples from Modern Painters right - maybe the fantasia on a flake of mica, or the encomium to moss, or the chapter on Gloom.

    For the Dostoevsky, I am reading Constance Garnett, perhaps revised, perhaps not, in Great Short Works of Dostoevsky. If I am not sick of it all, The Idiot will soon follow, but in a more recent translation.

    1. I read The Idiot about eight years ago in the Peavar and Volokhonsky translation from Everyman. It seemed quite fine. Very twitchy but very readable.