Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World

Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World



The Pequod Review:

John Ruskin (1819-1900) is a somewhat forgotten Victorian Era intellectual, but Andrew Hill's biography Ruskinland makes a strong argument for his continued influence on modern society:

Ruskin shaped -- and still shapes -- the world we live in, the way we think and work, the environment, built and natural, that surrounds us, and many of the services we enjoy. Two hundred years since his birth in 1819, we live in 'Ruskinland'.

It becomes obvious that Ruskinland exists as soon as you pick up the trail of Ruskin, say in an art gallery or a museum. Those are the places where his legacy is most obvious, but he is also present in the work of craftspeople and artisans, the thinking of ecologists and scientists, and even in the dry regulatory crevices of modern finance, or the ambitious mission and purpose statements of big companies.

Almost everyone knows at least a little about John Ruskin or his work. Very few people, though, have sight of the whole of Ruskin -- which is hardly surprising given the protean, polymathic nature of the man and his thinking.

As a teenager, studying the history of art, I acquired the best-known piece of the patchwork: his role as artist and art critic, a fixture in London artistic circles before he had turned forty. When I revisited Venice for the first time in decades, I found that the places and works that astonished and energised Ruskin in the 19th century -- the Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Carpaccios in the Academia -- were on my itinerary in the second half of the 20th, when I first visited his 'paradise of cities', aged 16, with a school art trip. As a regular traveller in the Lake District, with a holiday home not far from Brantwood, I knew about Ruskin's love of the region. I was well aware that Oxford boasted a Ruskin College and a Ruskin School of Art.

But even to those who know a part of Ruskin's legacy, other parts remain obscure. Only relatively recently did I come across his social and economic criticism, and observations on the en-vironment, which seem ever more relevant in an unequal and polluted world. It turned out that people who knew about those corners of Ruskinland were as eager to show me round as I was to explain my journey through other regions of his influence.

The whistlestop tour -- which, incidentally, Ruskin, one of the greatest and most leisurely travellers in history, would never deign to join -- goes like this.

Ruskin's ideas sowed the seeds of the modern welfare state, universal state education and healthcare free at the point of delivery.

His acute appreciation of natural beauty underpinned the National Trust, while his sensitivity to pollution and environmental change, decades before it was considered other than a local phenomenon, prefigured the modern green movement.

He staked his reputation on Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites when they were under fire, ensuring their reputations have continued to burn brightly even as his has suffered.

His violent critique of free market economics, Unto This Last, was the book that most influenced the first intake of Labour MPs in 1906 -- more than 40 years after its publication. Those articles, and a series of other writings and lectures in which Ruskin laid into the smug captains of Victorian capitalism, are striking precursors of the current debate about inequality, executive pay, ethical and purposeful business, and the perils and opportunities of greater automation.

Even some elements of Ruskin's personal style could translate to the modern age. After I lectured in 2015 about the lessons for modern business in Unto This Last, someone asked me whether Ruskin would have joined Twitter. He would have struggled with a 280-character limit, that is for sure.

Ruskin even offers advice on ways to live a better life:

Seeing and understanding. Ruskin's great lesson to his successors was the vital importance of learning to see clearly in order to understand the world around us. He used to say that such understanding could be achieved through drawing. But the mark on paper was not the point. He wanted people to exercise and refine their powers of observation in a way that fits precisely with today's quest to improve visual literacy.

Reflection. In the same way, Ruskin wanted us to devote time to seeing and thinking. His way of travelling -- by horse-drawn carriage, slowly -- looks old-fashioned to us and he was wealthy enough, thanks to his father's commercial success and patronage, to be able to take his time. But his leisurely approach chimes with the counsel of monks, mindfulness experts and other advocates of slow food, slow travel and slow living, in our fast-moving world, to live 'in the moment'.

Provenance. Ruskin believed strongly that buildings, work and craft should be rooted in the landscape and communities around them. He urged young artists to start by being true to nature, and artisans to use local materials. As the consequences of globalisa-tion become clearer, it is important to see this not as a prescription to move backwards or stay stuck in the past, but as a more productive, happier and better-balanced way of advancing.

Humans and their environment. It is too tempting to think of Ruskin as an unbending defender of the status quo, or a grumpy crusader for neo-feudalism, cottage life and unattainable rural idylls. He was, rather, someone who thoucht deeplv about how to encourage the fruitful co-existence of people and the places where they lived and worked. He loved wild open spaces, such as the Lakeland fells, but he understood how people related to them. He loathed overbuilt industrial cities -- the hellish melting pots of the mid to late 19th century -- but he supported ways to make those communities more bearable and more liveable.

One way was through thoughtful planning and building. Ruskin fought to conserve buildings and landscapes, not to restore them in new and inauthentic ways, and to preserve a balance of ere-ative architecture, nature, and public amenities. He outlined for the first time, through study of his beloved Venice, among other places, that buildings and cities can have a moral quality, expressed through their art and architecture. There are lessons here for planners, architects and builders, as they strike a balance between pressure to house growing urban populations and to preserve green spaces.

Ethical leadership and meaningful work. Ruskin was rightly criticised in his day for not always being able -- or even willing -- to put into practice his wild-sounding ideas. He relied on disciples, delegates and the occasional long-suffering employee to do so. It is hard, then, to see why any chief executive, team leader or member of staff should listen to a man who never had a conventional job. Ruskinland is more than ever in need of his principles of ethical leadership, though -- what I call rules for the modern merchant. Ruskin was the first great standard-bearer for meaning in work, which he saw shining through the creative impulses of the anonymous builders and decorators of the great Gothic cathedrals.

Finally, connectedness. Ruskin was the central weaver of a web of extraordinarily diverse interests. He saw -- if not always clearly -- how art, science, nature, history, the environment, politics, economics and industry sprang from and relied on each other. We would now describe this linkage using many dull words with the prefix 'inter': interdisciplinary, interconnection, interdependence, the internet itself. John Ruskin's one-man worldwide web had plenty of gaps, patches and oddities (as does its technologically fuelled modern equivalent, for all its claims to comprehensiveness). But in it, Ruskin cultivated myriad hyperlinks to new areas of enlightenment and exploration.

Ruskin was, in other words, a genius at what modish strategists now sometimes call 'joining the dots'. He was much more than that, though. He was also aware that if we did not carefully cultivate the links between these dots, the whole web could col-lapse. That insight was obvious in his prophetic concern about air pollution and destruction of the natural world and in his pragmatic focus on the education of workers ground down by industrialisation.