26 January - 22 April 2019
Two Temple Place has once more opened its doors for the annual Winter Exhibition, and, as ever, the display does not disappoint. Organised in collaboration with the Guild of St George and Museums Sheffield, John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing is a fascinating tribute to the great Victorian polymath, which showcases the enduring relevance of Ruskin's ideas without attempting to make him fit a contemporary mould.
Charles Fairfax Murray, Portrait of John Ruskin, Head and Shoulders, Full Face, 1875
Photo: © Tate, London
Ruskin is one of those figures who defy snappy summaries and burst beyond the walls of any exhibition room. Considered to be among the most influential men of nineteenth-century England, he was both an art critic and a gifted artist himself, a social thinker and a philanthropist, whose interests ranged from architecture to the condition of the working classes to ornithology. Given the sheer scope of Ruskin’s pursuits, the curator Louise Pullen faced a formidable task, which she accomplished triumphantly; the exhibition pulls the strands of Ruskin’s thought into a cohesive whole, whilst foregrounding the remarkable variety of his preoccupations.
The first section serves as an introduction and is subdivided in a way corresponding to Ruskin’s formative early works: Modern Painters, a defence of the work of J.M.W. Turner, whom Ruskin revered; The Seven Lamps of Architecture, where he put forth the idea of buildings as an embodiment of a nation’s character; and The Stones of Venice, a treatise on Venetian art and architecture which also sounded a cautionary note about British imperialism, and as such marked a pivotal moment in Ruskin’s development as a thinker and social commentator. Out of the exhibits, in this part of the exhibition, emerges a man with a sharp, inquisitive mind, who believed in an essential correlation between art and the state of society and devoted his efforts to ‘nourish[ing] the greatest number of noble and happy human beings’.
John Ruskin, Snakes Head Fritillary, date unknown
Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
The exhibition goes on to trace Ruskin’s relationship with Sheffield, where he established St George’s Museum at Walkley. Located just outside the city centre, the museum was intended to fulfil a double purpose: educate the metal-workers in the appreciation of beauty and entice them away from the industrial smoke and into the surrounding countryside. A recreation of the original display can be found in the library. The diversity of objects, reflective of Ruskin’s own tastes, is once again striking: the collection comprises (but is not limited to) medieval manuscripts, mineral specimens and volumes published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press – a combination as unlikely as it is compelling.
The final room is dedicated to Ruskin’s relationship with the natural world, which he studied with an avid passion. Birds, flowers, mountains, glaciers, clouds – it seems there was hardly an element of environment that Ruskin did not find worthy of investigating. His own artworks are displayed alongside those of his contemporaries, constituting a visual love letter to the splendour of nature which, soberingly, came under threat from, as Ruskin put it, industrial ‘pollution, a panic-struck and feverish plague-wind’. The menace, however, is still contained; the impression the artworks convey is one of a tranquil landscape and resplendent abundance of natural life.
John Ruskin, Mer de Glace, Chamonix, France, 1860
Photo: © Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester
The Great Hall is also where Ruskin enters into dialogue with contemporary artists. The exhibition features works commissioned specifically to engage with Ruskin’s ideas from a present-day standpoint. Among these, Dan Holdsworth’s Acceleration Structures stands out: it is a footage recording the peaks and crevices of Alpine glaciers through a technique known as ‘photogrammetry’, the art/science of making measurements from photographs. The piece defies description: a dynamic digital rendering of the glaciers, it is both surreal and lifelike, captivating and somewhat menacing. Though the contemporary pieces serve to bring Ruskin into the twenty-first century, the fact that they are by no means the focal point of the exhibition means that the emphasis falls on Ruskin in his original context, which is one of the show’s main strengths. Faithful to Ruskin’s idiosyncrasy, it paints a vivid picture of the man himself and only gestures towards the modern-day implications of his thinking, rather than shaping his image to make him a spokesperson for currently pertinent issues.
Considering how finely attuned to context the show is, it is slightly puzzling to find two panels placed around the staircase, detailing ‘Fifteen Things Heartily Loathed by John Ruskin’. Admittedly, some of them, like his scathing critique of Wagner’s The Meistersingers, are amusing: ‘Of all the bete, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, that thing last night beat [...] and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, toplless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tuneless, scannepipiest - tongs and boniest - doggrel of sound I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest’. Although this feat of linguistics and rhetoric is not without interest, it is not clear what purpose this motley of quotations serves and because of this, they move away from the nuanced portrayal of Ruskin the rest of the exhibition offers towards a caricatural one. This is not to say that Ruskin’s controversial opinions should be disregarded, only that it is more useful to see them in context. This minor flaw, however, does not take away from what is overall an absorbing, elegantly-executed exhibition.
Is John Ruskin relevant today? The answer, it would seem, is yes. The exhibition, however, succeeds not because it proves a point, but because it provides an insight into the workings of an extraordinary mind, which might just make you see the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford