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Power of Seeing shows Ruskin as Victorian force to be reckoned with

Photograph of John Ruskin taken in the 1880s
John Ruskin 1880s © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin, the art critic, educator, gifted painter, social reformer, and polymath. A man of many passions and a writer who commanded tremendous respect - writing on an astonishing array of topics, from art and architecture to craftsmanship, from nature to religion to social justice - he was a force to be reckoned with in Victorian England.

He was the man who championed the artist JMW Turner, regarding him as the greatest painter of the age, arguing in his book, Modern Painters (1843) that Turner recorded the truth of nature - a mountain, a stone, ‘the marvellous unexpectedness of trees’ - as no painter before him had ever done. A few years later he would champion the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, a group of artists that were influenced by Ruskin’s theories. He urged them to ‘go to Nature, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing’.

The depth and breadth of Ruskin’s thinking is immense. In a burgeoning industrial age he commented on its impact on both people and the environment; he encouraged a sustainable relationship between people, craft and nature; his writing was often highly moralistic; and he was a staunch advocate of life-long-learning....  Tolstoy later wrote that “He was one of those rare men who thinks... what everyone will think and say on the future.”

Painting by John Ruskin of moss, fern and wood
John Ruskin, Study of Moss, Fern and Wood -Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank 1875-79 Pen, ink, watercolour and bodycolour on paper © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

Yet it seems that he was a troubled genius. The opening room of a fascinating exhibition at Two Temple Place, London, which opened in time for the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birthday (he was born in London on February 8, 1819, and died of influenza eighty-one years later at Brantwood, his home on the shores of beloved Coniston Water), offers a direct impression of a man of countless passions and a bewildering complex personality.

A watercolour portrait of a man staring directly out at the viewer, his steel blue eyes challenging, is one of the first things you see. It is said to be by Charles Fairfax Murray, is possibly a self-portrait by Ruskin, but whomever its maker, it is an intense unforgiving observation.

The show takes place, fittingly in some respects, at a late Victorian mansion, Two Temple Place built by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, which opens its doors for three months annually for public exhibition. So, aside from enjoying the paintings, drawings, photographs and artefacts on display, some of which were used by Ruskin for teaching (he was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford), and the dazzling array of minerals and geological specimens on show, you can also enjoy the house’s richly panelled rooms, staircase, and stained glassed windows.

The notion that in opening ourselves to beauty we can find a more enjoyable and enriching path through our fast-paced and rapidly changing world was central to Ruskin’s philosophy. He spoke of ‘a power of the eye and a power of the mind’ that would help us to see, rather than simply look.

Looking is the key. To the practice of art, to observations of life, and as Louise Pullen, Curator of the Ruskin Collection, Museums Sheffield, hopes the key to this exhibition which she hopes will show exactly how he thought that could be done.

Drawing of south west corner of Doge's Palace in Venice by JW Bunney
J. W. Bunney, South West Corner of the Doge’s Palace, Venice 1871 Watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

Ruskin’s architecture studies, notably his Venetian drawings, are among the highlights. As for me are his daguerrotypes, the precursors of (and shown next to) the architectural drawings that followed. There are some Turners, of course, small but lovely, and landscape studies by Ruskin and artists influenced by him, including views of Alpine glaciers and forested mountains. In the final gallery there are some marvellous botanical and bird studies by Ruskin and others such as Edward Lear, John Gould, and John James Audubon’s White Pelican (1836).

Artworks and exhibits catch the eye for different reasons. For instance, exhibition visitors warmed to the picture of JMW Turner on Varnishing Day c.1840 portraying the stocky, top-hatted artist putting the finishing touches to his new oil painting. Familiar as it was from reproductions to present-day viewers, it was painted by William Parrott in the year that Ruskin first met Turner. A display listing some of the things that Ruskin ‘heartily loathed’ proved a showstopper at the top of the stairwell. Causes of Ruskin’s ire included, for example, railway stations (‘the very temple of discomfort’, from his essay the Seven Lamps of Architecture, written 1849), lawyers, cycling, Victorian church statuary, and being photographed. 

Bar such nods to his high Victorian morals and quirkiness, this admirable show is a valuable introduction - or reintroduction to Ruskin, his art and his thinking. It is high time that we took another look at this remarkable man.  I was particularly taken by Ruskin’s carefully-observed studies of leaves, feathers and minerals. They epitomised Ruskin’s truth to nature philosophy.

Sketch by John Ruskin of a peacock's feather
John Ruskin Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather 1873 Watercolour on paper © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

His sketch of withered oak leaves, for example, a fast sketch in watercolour and bodycolour made in 1879, perfectly captures the fragility of its subject.  As he wrote in Modern Painters, “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone...”. Ruskin loved nature in all its guises. Nature as it is seen not imagined. Not only this, he strongly believed that progress could be made by making art, books and cultural treasures available to all. Art was for everyone, he believed. So he created a small museum outside Sheffield (extant) beside the countryside, stuffing it to the hilt with objects from his collection, drawings, paintings, nature books and minerals... to encourage local working folk to go out of their smoky town and explore nature.  

Painting by John Ruskin of old oak leaves
John Ruskin Study of Spray of Dead Oak Leaves 1879 Watercolour and bodycolour on paper © Collection of the Guild of St George / Museums Sheffield

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing, jointly organised by Two Temple Place, Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George, pays tribute to his legacy, including the culture of museums, and the enduring relevance of his ideas and vision.

As such, it is un-ticketed and free of charge, and is on in London until Monday 22nd April. Thereafter it will be at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, from 29 May – 15 September 2019.


For details of bicentenary exhibitions, lectures, conferences, community projects and events taking place in the UK and internationally throughout the year, see the website:

Review by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels art correspondent


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