As part of Ruskin 200, a bold exhibition at York Art Gallery looks at John Ruskin’s mental health, his relationship with JMW Turner and his interest in environmental issues
Biographers have not delved too deeply into what was going on with John Ruskin in the 1870s and 1880s. But Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s portrait, made in 1879 in the aftermath of his first serious mental illness, captures some of the great Victorian art critic’s crippling anxiety and his fear of darkening skies and polluted storm clouds.
For a time Ruskin’s manic behaviour made him a virtual prisoner in his Lakeland home, Brantwood, and the debilitating illness is just one of the elements of the Victorian sage’s life, ideas and legacy expertly woven into this new exhibition opening in York on March 29.
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As if to try and counteract the melancholy effects of the rain and dark clouds of the Lake District, above his bed Ruskin hung one of JMW Turner’s monumental paeans to light and atmosphere, Lake Constance (1842).
The bedroom was where he suffered his most severe hallucinations and episodes of mental instability as he watched the ‘Storm Clouds’ scudding across the fells and Coniston Water, and the painting is now part of the collection at York Art Gallery.
“If you read the Brantwood diaries, [Ruskin moved to Brantwood in the early 1870s] you get these descriptions of how the clouds seem to come down upon him and how he tries to get outside but can’t escape it. He is basically writing himself into these episodes of mania,” says curator, Suzanne Fagence Cooper.
Using innovative digital media to enhance the watercolours and drawings on display, the York exhibition reconsiders Ruskin’s bedroom as a space to look out and to look inwards.
The exhibition not only probes Ruskin’s mental health but also his own thoughts and ideas about weather patterns, mountains and his ground breaking ideas about the built and wider environment. And for lovers of nineteenth century art, it also explores his response to Turner’s paintings.
Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud brings together many watercolours and drawings by both artists – and others – from the collections of York and partner Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Cumbria as well as national collections like Tate and the V&A. From them emerges the story of the ongoing influence and importance of Ruskin’s work and ideas.
“Turner is an ideal painter for Ruskin, even if the two didn’t always get on”
As well as the dozen works by Turner and more than 40 by Ruskin, the exhibition includes art by their contemporaries including Constable, who were also experimenting with cloud-watching and storm-chasing. There are also some John Pipers – Piper was an avid reader of Ruskin, and his paintings of Coventry Cathedral during and after World War Two offer some interesting reference points – not least Ruskin’s early opposition to industrial warfare and his interest in the Gothic and the notion of rebirth.
There are also examples of Ruskin’s remarkable watercolour studies of plants and architectural details, showing his determination to see the world intently, and open the eyes of his audiences. Visitors will be treated to Ruskin’s mesmerising images of Venice together with studies of churches and the lagoon made by Turner.
“Turner is an ideal painter for Ruskin, even if the two didn’t always get on,” says Fagence Cooper who is research curator at the gallery. “Turner was not always particularly enthusiastic about what Ruskin was saying about him, particularly when Ruskin used incredible overblown descriptions of Turner ‘standing like an angel in the clouds’. Turner was not that sort of man.
“But for Ruskin these beautiful moments where Turner captured a landscape or a sunset – or showed a particular cloud formation or the movement of the wind across a lake or mountain – were snapshots of the pre-industrial or just industrial world, which was being lost.”
Apart from succour during his darkest moments, Turner’s sun-drenched scenes and his later storm pictures were also where Ruskin found his famous ‘Truth to Nature’ which he so long desired and which he famously wrote about in his many books during the Victorian period.
“For Ruskin there is more than a factual truth in Turner’s work,” adds Fagence Cooper, “there is an impression – the truth of impression and the truth of feeling. When Turner makes his mountains bigger and his torrents faster he’s trying to convey what it’s like to walk up that hill, see that view and really feel that sense of elation.”
When Turner died in 1851, it was Ruskin who took up the task of cataloguing the things left behind in his studio, including countless unseen earlier works and sketches, which were not for the public to see, but which for Ruskin offered further evidence of what he described as the “Manchester manufacturing mist”.
Both artists had been making drawings, notes and sketches, every morning and evening of what the sky looked like, and with the studio sketches Ruskin now had what he believed to be a record of the effects on industrialisation on the sky and the clouds.
“He talks about Turner painting the clouds and rain and he becomes concerned about what these changes mean for our relationship with the natural world,” says Fagence Cooper.
Later, when Ruskin had battled his own storm clouds in Brantwood he began to properly consider the effects of the industrial revolution on the environment. His lecture, Storm Clouds, crystallised his meteorological musings and talked about the natural world and our responsibility for taking good care of it through what Fagence Cooper describes as “good stewardship, good husbandry and not squandering our resources.”
“And people are still talking about this now – using slightly different language – but it’s exactly the same story,” she adds.
For modern readers coming to Ruskin’s many books – from the art theory in Stones of Venice (1851 – 53) and Modern Painters (1843 – 60) through to the socialist political economy of Unto this Last (1862), the biblical language may make them seem remote. Despite their very modern ideas of social utility and the transformative power of art they can still seem like curiosities from another era. Yet his ideas about art, society and the environment were not only ground-breaking and wide ranging, they were enduring.
“There was an appetite for somebody who wasn’t just writing about art and landscape but who was actually relating those things to people’s real lives,” says Fagence Cooper. “He was saying “we can take responsibility; this is how we can look at the world, this is how we can respond to industrialization and this is why we make art. It’s not just for the rich, it’s for everybody.
“He wanted people to think about the ground under their feet and the sky over their heads. How we relate to people we work with, how we relate to the past. All of these things are quite complex but because of his interconnectedness and because he wasn’t party political or even establishment, then people of all sorts of backgrounds listened to him.”
“What we’re trying to show is how there was something very real happening outside, which was the industrial revolution, but there was also something happening inside, which was spiralling down into this depression.”
Curators have been working with artist, botanist and author Emma Mitchell who has brought some of these concerns to contemporary audiences via her book Wild Remedy, a kind of nature diary in which she describes her own depression in terms of a cloud descending, and how, by going into the countryside and making an active connection with nature, she lifts her mood and finds the strength to carry on.
Artist Emma Stibbon has also been commissioned to create a series of monumental drawings and cyanotypes of the glaciers around Mont Blanc where Ruskin stood and recorded in the 1850s. Ruskin was already noting the retreat of glaciers 40 years later and Stibbon’s 21st century records using a Victorian printing medium are a strangely beautiful but bleak record of their complete demise.
So it’s an exhibition revolving around two of the 19th century’s greatest artists but which, says Fagence Cooper, is one filled with contemporary resonances.
“In the early 20th century when people were talking about Ruskin he was inspiring the people who set up the National Trust and the National Health Service and I think we’ve forgotten that legacy – perhaps because we have got bound up in his peculiar biography, his beard or whatever.
“But we forget that people like Mahatma Ghandi were hugely inspired by Ruskin to transform their life and way of thinking about how you can be active and oppositional but not in a traditional way.
“Ruskin does look like an old white bearded man, but we don’t want Ruskin to be someone who’s just put in a Victorian box.”
Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud: Watercolours and Drawings: An exhibition to mark the 200th birthday of art and social critic John Ruskin is at York Art Gallery from March 29 – June 23 2019.
After York Art Gallery, the exhibition will also be on display at Abbot Hall Art Gallery from July 11 to October 5 2019.
Suzanne Fagence Cooper’s book, To See Cleary, Why Ruskin Matters, is available from Quercus Books priced £12.99.
A catalogue of essays accompanying the exhibition Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud accompanies the exhibition and is released on March 29, priced £20.00.
York Art Gallery
York, North Yorkshire
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