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John Ruskin as a Teacher

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October 25, 2016

We usually remember of the great Victorian critic of art, literature, and culture, John Ruskin, for his massive multivolume works: Modern Painters in five volumes (1843-1960) or Stones of Venice in three volumes (1851-1853). But Ruskin was also the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford for many years. Especially in his later years his reputation among undergraduates filled his lecture rooms. Here is the great English poet A. E. Housman looking back to his college days in 1877 and to a lecture by the eminent Professor Ruskin. The lecture was as much as about water and air pollution in England as about Great Art.

“This afternoon Ruskin gave us a great outburst against modern times. He had got a picture of Turner’s, framed and glassed, representing Leicester and the Abbey in the distance at sunset, over a river. He read the account of Wolsey’s death out of Henry VIII. Then he pointed to the picture as representing Leicester when Turner had drawn it. Then he said, ‘You, if you like, may go to Leicester to see what it is now. I never shall. But I can make a pretty good guess.’ Then he caught up a paintbrush. ‘These stepping-stones of course have been done away with, and are replaced by a be-au-ti-ful iron bridge.’ Then he dashed in the iron bridge on the glass of the picture. ‘The color of the steam is supplied on one side by the indigo factory.’ Forthwith one side of the steam became indigo. ‘On the other side of the soap factory.’ Soap dashed in. ‘They mix in the middle like curds,’ he said, working them together with a sort of malicious deliberation. ‘This field, over which you see the sun setting by the abbey, is now occupied in a proper manner.’ Then there went a flame of scarlet across the picture, which developed itself into windows and roofs and red brick, and rushed up into a chimney. ‘The atmosphere is supplied—thus!’ A puff and cloud of smoke all over Turner’s sky: and then the brush thrown down, and Ruskin confronting modern civilization amidst a tempest of applause, which he always elicits now, as he has this term become immensely popular, his lectures being crowded, whereas of old he used to prophesy to empty benches.”

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Paul Varner


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