His Ideas InspiredJohn Ruskin was one of the most important art critics and social thinkers of the nineteenth century. He championed the art of J. M. W. Turner and exercised a profound influence on the Pre-Raphaelites. When he came to write his famous architectural history of Venice entitled The Stones of Venice, he began to contrast mediaeval craftsmanship with modern industrial manufacturing.
His ideas inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement but also had profound political implications. When the first Labour Party MPs were elected in 1906, the book that they said had most influenced them was Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Much of the second half of his life was spent defending his ideas that industrialisation and free markets were doing terrible damage to the ability of people to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. Ghandi and Tolstoy are amongst those who found his writing deeply compelling.
John Ruskin was born in London in 1819. His father was a successful sherry merchant who had grown up in Scotland. After studying at Oxford, Ruskin shot to prominence when the first volume of Modern Painters was published in 1843. Ruskin had a strong evangelical faith as a young man but underwent what he called his ‘unconversion’ at the age of 39 after which his religious beliefs became agnostic.
Ruskin married Effie Gray at the age of 29 but the marriage was never consummated. The disastrous collapse of the marriage remains mysterious. It caused a great sensation at the time and still provokes much speculation. He later formed a deep romantic attachment to a former pupil named Rose la Touche who died in 1875 at the age of 27 leaving Ruskin broken-hearted.
In later life Ruskin suffered several severe breakdowns and his last decade was passed reclusively. He died in 1900 at his home at Brantwood in the Lake District.
After his death Ruskin’s ideas found expression in the welfare state, the National Health Service, and widening access to education. His analysis of gothic buildings made a direct contribution to the development of modernist architecture.