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Beacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents online

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engravings by Turner. Nor, early in manhood, did he escape a youth's
fond dream of love, for as a worshipper of beauty, and an enthusiast of
the "Wizard of the North," we find him drawn tenderly to a daughter of
Lockhart, editor of the "Quarterly Review," a grandchild of his famous
countryman, Sir Walter Scott. The affair, however, though encouraged by
his parents, who longed to see their son settled in life, came to
nought, chiefly owing to the young lover's weak physical frame and
uncertain health. Later on, unhappily, he was caught in the toils of
another Scottish lass, for whom, it is related, he had written "The King
of the Golden River" (1841), and whose rare beauty had readily attracted
him. With her, in 1848, he made an ill-assorted marriage, only to find,
some years afterwards, his heart riven and a bitter ingredient dropped
into his life's chalice by a fatal defection on the wife's part, she
having become enamoured of the then rising young painter, Millais, whom
Ruskin had trustingly invited to his house to paint her portrait. The
sequel of the affair is a pitiful one, which Ruskin ever afterward hid
deep in his heart, though at the time, finding that the woman was unable
to live at the intellectual and spiritual altitude of her loyal husband,
the latter, with a magnanimity beyond parallel, pardoned both Millais
and the erring one, consented to a divorce, and actually stood by her at
the altar as the faithless one took upon herself new vows unto a new
husband. The estrangement and loss of a wife gave Ruskin afresh to
Art, - his true and fondly cherished bride.

At this period, as we know, English painting was at a low ebb, mediocre
and conventional, though with a show of artificial brilliance. Ruskin,
with his scorn of the artificial and scholastic, threw himself into the
work of overturning the established, complacent school of the time, and
with splendid enthusiasm and an unfailing belief in himself and his
ideas he undertook to reform what had been, and to raise current
conceptions of art to a more exalted and lofty plane. We have seen what
he had already achieved in his first dashing period of literary
activity, in the production of the early volumes of "Modern Painters,"
and in his "Seven Lamps" and "Stones of Venice." While he was at work on
the concluding volumes of the first and last of these great books there
arose in England the somewhat fantastic movement in art, launched by the
Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included such Ruskinites and other
devotees of early Christian and mediaeval painting as Rossetti, Millais,
Morris, Burne-Jones, and Holman Hunt. Towards this new school of
symbolists and affectationists Ruskin was not at first drawn, since it
seemed to him unduly idealistic, if not mystic, and smacked not a
little, as he thought, of popery. Later, however, he saw good in it, as
a breaking away from academic trammels; while he recognized the earnest
enthusiasm of the little band of artists and artist-poets, as well as
their technical dexterity and brilliance. With ready decision as well as
with his accustomed zeal for art, Ruskin ended by defending and
applauding the new innovators, particularly as their chief motive was
the one the master had always strenuously pled for, - adherence to the
simplicity of nature. Their scrupulous attention to detail,
characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites, later on bore good results, even
after the Brotherhood fell apart, especially in William Morris's
application of their art-principles to household decoration and
furnishings. But for the time the movement was loudly mocked and
decried, and perhaps all the more because of Ruskin's espousal of the
fervid band, his letters of defence in the London "Times," and his
discussion in his booklet on "Pre-Raphaelitism." Heedless of the outcry,
Ruskin pursued his own self-confident course, and by the year 1860 he
had completed his "Modern Painters," and, in spite of objurgation and
detraction, had won a great name for himself as a critic and expounder,
while expanding himself over almost the whole world of art.

We have said that Pre-Raphaelitism, as a movement in art, was
contemporaneously jeered at; while to-day, among superficial or
inappreciative students of the period, seriously to mention it or any of
its cultured brotherhood is to provoke a smile. Nevertheless, there was
not a little high merit in the movement, which Ruskin was keen-eyed and
friendly enough to recognize, while much that is worthy afterwards came
out of it in the later work of the more notable of its members as well
as in that of their unenrolled associates and the admirers of the
Pre-Raphaelite method. What the movement owed to Ruskin is now frankly
conceded, in the lesson the brotherhood took to heart from his
counsellings, - to divest art of conventionality, and to work with
scrupulous fidelity and sincerity of purpose. Nor was contemporary art
alone the gainer by the movement; it also had its influence on poetry,
though this has been obscured - so far as any beneficial influence can be
traced at all - by the tendency manifested in some of the more amorous
poetic swains of the period, who professed to derive their inspiration
from the Brotherhood, to identify themselves with what has been styled
the "Fleshly School" of verse. Of the latter number, Swinburne, in his
early "Poems and Ballads," was perhaps the greatest sinner, though
atoned for in part by the lyrical art and ardor of his verse, and much
more by the higher qualities and scholarly characteristics of his later
dramatic Work. Nor is Dante Rossetti himself, in some of his poems, free
from the same taint, despite the fact of his interesting individuality
as the chief inspirer and laborer among the Brotherhood. Yet the
movement owed much to both his brush and his pen of other and nobler,
because reverential, work, as those will admit who know "The Blessed
Damozel," "Sister Helen," and his fine collection of sonnets, "The House
of Life," as well as his famous paintings, "The Girlhood of Mary
Virgin," and his Annunciation picture, "Ecce Ancilla Domini." Of the
product of other Pre-Raphaelites of note, - such as Ford Madox Brown,
Millais, Morris, Woolner the sculptor, Coventry Patmore, and Holman
Hunt, - much that is commendable as well as finely imaginative came from
their hands, and justified Ruskin in his gallant advocacy of the
movement, its founders, and their work.

By this time, of which we have been writing, Ruskin had reached the
early meridian of his powers, and, as we have hinted, had wrested from
the unwilling many a juster recognition of his amazing industry and
genius. To his fond and indulgent parents this was a great source of
pride and satisfaction, and the practical evidence of it was the throng
of visitors to the family seats of Herne Hill and Denmark Hill, in the
then London suburbs, where Ruskin long had his home, and by the
attentions and honor paid to their son by universities, academies, and
public bodies, as well as by many eminent personages and the
intellectual _élite_ of the nation. Among those with whom the young
celebrity was then ultimate and reckoned among his admiring
correspondents were, besides Turner (who died in 1851) and the chief
artists of the time, the Carlyles and the Brownings, Mary Russell
Mitford, Charlotte Bronté, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Monckton Milnes (Lord
Houghton), Charles Eliot Norton, Lady Trevelyan (Macaulay's sister),
Whewell, Maurice, Kingsley, Dr. John Brown (author of "Rab and his
Friends"), Tennyson, and Dean Milman. To these might be added many
notable foreigners whom he either met with in his continental travels or
who were attracted to him by a lively interest in his writings. In his
home, thanks to a wealthy and indulgent father, he was surrounded with
every comfort, short of luxury, if we except under the latter the large
sums expended on the purchase of "Turners" and many famous foreign
pictures, and a vast and increasing collection of favorite books and
other treasures and curios.

Of the author's home-life we get many delightful reminiscences in
"Praeterita," with entertaining talks of his childhood days, his
youthful companions, his toys and animate pets, his early playful
adventures in authorship, and other garrulities with which, late in life
when the work, as it remains, was incompletely put together, he beguiled
the weariness and feebleness of old age. But we are anticipating, for we
are writing of Ruskin when his hand was yet on the plough, and the
plough was still in the furrow, and half a long life's arduous work was
yet before him. At this era, no brain could well have been more active
or fuller of philanthropies than his, for we approach the second period
of his life's grand activities, - the era of a new departure in the
interests that occupied him and the herculean tasks he set himself
to do.

Before recording some of the achievements of this time and glancing at
the inciting causes of the transition which marks the era we have now
reached, let us note the demands made upon Mr. Ruskin's thought and
labor by universities and public institutions, whose audiences desired
to have him appear before them in person and address them upon topics in
which he and they were interested. These appearances on the lecture
platform were now numerous, since many throughout the kingdom were eager
to see and know the man whose art criticisms, principles that govern the
beautiful, and stimulating thought on all subjects, had made so deep an
impression on the reflecting minds of the age. His earliest appearance
on the rostrum was at Edinburgh, where he delivered four lectures
before the Philosophical Institution, chiefly on landscape-painters and
on Christian art, with a plea for the use of Gothic in domestic
architecture. Subsequent appearances were at Manchester, where he spoke
on the Political Economy of Art and the relation of art to manufactures;
at the South Kensington Museum, London, which had just been opened; and
later at Oxford, where further on in his career he became Slade
Professor of Art in his own University. From the accounts of these
public lectures we get opinions as to the personal appearance of Ruskin
at the period which add to our knowledge of him from paintings,
drawings, and photographs, though not a few of these accounts vary from
those given us in books, chiefly sketched by his lady friends and
correspondents. The more trusty of the contemporary pictures speak of
him as having "light, sand-colored hair; his face more red than pale;
the mouth well cut, with a good deal of decision in its curve, though
somewhat wanting in sustained dignity and strength; an aquiline nose;
his forehead by no means broad or massive, but the brows full and well
bound together; the eye [says the observer from whom we are quoting] we
could not see, in consequence of the shadows that fell upon his
[Ruskin's] countenance from the lights overhead, but we are sure that
the poetry and passion we looked for almost in vain in other features
must be concentrated here." Miss Mitford speaks of him at this time as
"eloquent and distinguished-looking, fair and slender, with a gentle
playfulness, and a sort of pretty waywardness that was quite charming."
Another, a visitor at his London home, characterizes him as "emotional
and nervous, with a soft, genial eye, a mouth thin and severe, and a
voice that, though rich and sweet, yet had a tendency to sink into a
plaintive and hopeless tone." Later on in years we have this verbal
portrait from a disciple of the great art-teacher, occurring in an
inaugural address delivered before the Ruskin Society of Glasgow: "That
spare, stooping figure, the rough-hewn, kindly face, with its mobile,
sensitive mouth, and clear deep eyes, so sweet and honest in repose, so
keen and earnest and eloquent in debate!"

When the fifth and last volume of "Modern Painters" was finally off his
hands, Mr. Ruskin not only engaged, as we have seen, in occasional
lecturing, but began (1861) to add a prolific series of
_brochures_ - many of them with quaint but significant titles - to his
already stupendous mass of writing. Their subjects were not alone
aesthetics, but now treated of ethical, social, and political questions,
the prophetic declarations and earnest appeals of a man of wide and
varied culture, deep thought, and large experience. The attempted
alliance of political economy with art was a novel undertaking in that
sixth lustrum of the past century, even by a man of Mr. Ruskin's
eminence and fame in the world of letters. But Mr. Ruskin was a bold and
earnest man, as well as a genius; and he had too much to tell his
heedless, _laissez-faire_ age to keep silent on themes, remote as they
were from those he had hitherto taught, and of which he desired to
deliver his soul, whatever ridicule it might provoke and however adverse
the criticism levelled against him. His humanity and moral sense were
outraged by the manner in which the mass of his countrymen lived, and
trenchant was his castigation of this and eager as well as righteous his
desire to amend their condition and elevate and inspire their minds. As
an economist, it is true, there was not a little that was false as well
as eccentric in what he preached; moreover, much of his counsel was
directly socialistic in its trend, repugnant in large degree to his
English readers and hearers; but all this was atoned for by the honesty
and philanthropy of his motives, by his phenomenal fervor and eloquence,
and by the literary beauty and charm of every page he wrote.
Nevertheless, as in Carlyle - for in these depreciations the style of the
seer of Chelsea was deeply upon him - the note of calamity and the wail
of despair are too much in evidence in Ruskin's writings at this period,
while, like Carlyle also, he was equally precipitate and impulsive in
his attacks on things as they were. Yet in the economic condition just
then of England, and in the circumstances environing the labor world,
there was, possibly, justification for the rebukes and objurgations of
onlookers of the type of both of these men, and very humanitarian as
well as practically helpful were Ruskin's counsel and aid to labor and
to all who sought to raise and expand their outlook and better their
condition in life. Towards politics Ruskin was never drawn, but had he
been more prosaic and less given to anathematizing, most valuable would
have been his aid in legislation at this era of political and moral
reform. But if political science, or science in any other of its
branches or departments, did not come within his purview, great was the
revolution he wrought in the working-man's surroundings, and immense the
illumination he shed upon industry and on the spirit in which the
laborer should think and work.

Referring to Ruskin at this period of his career, and to his influence
as a social and moral exhorter, Frederic Harrison, from whom we have
already quoted, has an admirable passage on "Ruskin as Prophet," [2]
which, as it is presumably too little known, we take pleasure in
embodying in these pages.

[Footnote 2: "Tennyson, Ruskin, Mill, and other Literary Estimates," by
Frederic Harrison; London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1900.]

"The influence of Ruskin," says Mr. Harrison, "has been part of the
great romantic, historical, catholic, and poetic revival of which
Scott, Carlyle, Coleridge, Freeman, Newman, and Tennyson in our own
country have been leading spirits within the last two generations in
England. There is no need to compare him with any one of these as a
source of original intellectual force. He owns Scott and Carlyle as his
masters, and he might vehemently repudiate certain of the others
altogether. His work has been to put this romantic, historical, and
genuine sympathy inspired by Scott, Wordsworth, and Carlyle into a new
understanding of the arts of form. The philosophic impulse assuredly was
not his own. It is a compound of Scott, Carlyle, Dante, and the Bible.
The compound is strange, for it makes him talk sometimes like a Puritan
father, and sometimes like a Cistercian monk. At times he talks as Flora
MacIvor talked to young Waverley; at other times like Thomas Carlyle
inditing a Latter-day Pamphlet. But to transfuse into this modern
generation of Englishmen this romantic, catholic, historical, and social
sympathy as applied to the arts of form, needed gifts that neither
Scott, nor Carlyle, nor Newman, nor Tennyson possessed - the eye, if not
the hand, of a consummate landscape painter, a torrent of ready
eloquence on every imaginable topic, a fierce and desperate courage that
feared neither man nor devil, neither failure nor ridicule, and above
all things an exquisite tenderness that is akin to St. Francis or St.
Vincent de Paul....

"Here is a man who, laboring for fifty years, has scattered broadcast a
thousand fine ideas to all who practise the arts, and all who care for
art. He has roused in the cultured world an interest in things of art
such as a legion of painters and ten royal academies could never have
done. He has poured out a torrent of words, some right, some wrong, but
such as have raised the level of art into a new world, which have
adorned English literature for centuries, and have inspired the English
race for generations; he has cast his bread upon the waste and muddy
waters with a lavish hand, and has not waited to find it again, though
it has been the seed of abundant harvest to others."

Again, speaking of what Ruskin sought to accomplish in the regeneration
of modern society, and the reformation of our social ideals, and of that
"heroic piece of Quixotism" he founded, "the Guild of St. George," Mr.
Harrison remarks: -

"The first life of John Ruskin was the life of a consummate teacher of
art and master of style; the second life was the life of priest and
evangelist.... Here is the greatest living master [the passage was
written while Mr. Ruskin was yet alive] of the English tongue, one of
the most splendid lights of our noble literature, one to whom a dozen
paths of ambition and power lay open, who had everything that could be
offered by genius, fame, wealth, social popularity, and intense
sensitiveness to all lovely things - and this man, after thirty years of
untiring labor, devotes himself to train, teach, delight, and inspire a
band of young men, girls, workmen, children, - all who choose to come
around him. He lavishes the whole of his fortune on them; he brings to
their door his treasures of art, science, literature, and poetry; he
founds and endows museums; he offers these costly and precious
collections to the people; he wears out his life in teaching them the
elements of art, the elements of manufacture, the elements of science;
he shows workmen how to work, girls how to draw, to sing, to play; he
gives up to them his wealth, his genius, his peace, his whole life. He
is not content with writing books in his study, with enjoying art at
home or abroad; he must carry his message into the streets. He gives
himself up - not to write beautiful thoughts: he seeks to build up a
beautiful world.... When I see this author of 'Modern Painters' and the
'Stones of Venice,' the man who has exhausted almost all that Europe
contains of the beautiful, who has thought and spoken of almost every
phase of human life, and has entered so deeply into the highest
mysteries of the greatest poets - when I see him surrounding himself in
his old age with lads and lasses, schoolgirls and workmen, teaching them
the elements of science and art, reading to them poems and tales,
arranging for them games and holidays, ornaments and dresses, lavishing
on these young people his genius and his wealth, his fame and his
future - I confess my memory goes back instinctively to a fresco I saw in
Italy years ago - was it Luini's? - wherein the Master sat in a crowd of
children and forbade them to be removed, saying that 'of such is the
kingdom of heaven.'"

With this generous tribute to and appreciation of Ruskin, despite the
economic vagaries into which the great critic and teacher of his time
fell, we may more confidently approach the busy era of his later and
self-sacrificing labors, and with less apology take space to deal - as
compactly and intelligently as we can - with some of the more notable of
the many books and _brochures_ of the period. Difficult as would be the
task, fortunately there is little need to epitomize these works, as many
of them are better known, and perhaps more attentively read, than his
earlier, bulkier, and more ambitious writings. A few of them lie outside
the economic gospel of their apostolic author, and these we will first
and briefly deal with. A number of them are instructive and inspiring
lay sermons on the mystical union between nature and art, beauty and
utility, and their reflex in the reverential homage for the beautiful
and the worthy in the mind and character of the English-speaking race.
The whole form a great body of fine and thoughtful work, which is as
enchaining as its meaning is often profound. The best-known of these lay
sermons is: "The Queen of the Air" (1869), a splendid blending of his
fancy with the Greek nature-myths of cloud and storm, represented by
Athena, goddess of the heavens, of the earth, and of the heart. The
parable drawn is that "the air is given us for our life, the rain for
our thirst and baptism, the fire for our warmth, the sun for our light,
and the earth for our meat and rest." Related to the work is "Ethics of
the Dust" (1865), lectures to little housewives on mineralogy and
crystallography, nature's work in crystallization being the text for a
diatribe against sordid living. "Sesame and Lilies," which belongs also
to this period of the writer's work, consists of three addresses,
delivered at Manchester and at Dublin, designed specially for young
girls, and treating in the main of good and improving literature. The
first of them, "Of Kings' Treasuries," deals with the treasures hidden
in books, the writings of the world's great men; its sequel, "Of Queens'
Gardens," deals with the function and sphere of woman, and, by way of
application, with the how and the what to read; the third lecture, on
"The Mystery of Life and its Arts," is a discursive but inspiring
consideration of what life is and how most successfully to battle with
it in the way of our work and of our appointed duty. All three lectures,
observes a commentator, "tell men and women of the ideals they should
set before them; how to read and to build character under the
inspiration of the nobility of the past, fitting one's self for such
great society; how to develop noble womanhood; how to bear one's self
toward the wonder of life, toward one's work in the world, and toward
one's duty to others."

Other lectures and _brochures_ of or about this period are "Hortus
Inclusus" (The Enclosed Garden), being "Messages from the Wood to the
Garden sent in happy days to two sister ladies," residing at Coniston,
and collected in 1887; "Arrows of the Chace," letters on various
subjects to newspapers, gathered and edited in 1880; "The Two Paths,"
lectures on art and its application to Decoration and Manufacture
(1859); "Ariadne Florentina" (1873), a monograph on Italian wood and
metal engraving; "Aratra Pentelici" (1872), on the elements and
principles of sculpture; and "The Eagle's Nest" (1872), on the relation
of natural science to art. Still pursuing his delightful methods of
interpreting nature and teaching the world instructive lessons, even
from the common things of mother earth, we have a series of three
eloquent discourses, entitled (1) "Proserpina," studies of Alpine and
other wayside flowers, dwelling on the mystery of growth in plants and
the tender beauty of their form; (2) "Deucalion," a sort of glorified
geological text-book, treating of stones and their life-history, and
showing the wearing effect upon them of waves and the action of water;
and (3) "Love's Meinie" (1873), a rapture about birds and their
feathered plumage, delivered at Eton and at Oxford. This trilogy,
dealing with botany, geology, and ornithology, was presented to his
audiences with illustrative drawings, representing the flora met with in
his travels or found in the neighborhood of his new home in the
Lancashire lakes, with sketches of regions, including the
characteristics of the soil, in which he had been reared, and talks of
the note and habit of all birds that were wont to warble over him their
morning song. "The Pleasures of England," the "Harbours of England," and
the "Art of England" further treat of his loved native land, the first
of these being talks on the pleasures of learning, of faith, and of

Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents → online text (page 5 of 26)