[Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent, ca. 1875-1877]
As someone who's thought about, & even dabbled in, the genre of literary biography, I yield to no-one in my admiration for Tim Hilton's enormous two-volume biography of Ruskin, John Ruskin: The Early Years (Yale UP, 1985) & John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale UP, 2000). It really does seem one of those books "unlikely to be superceded" – Hilton seems to capture every last significant detail of Ruskin's doings, at the same time keeping up a running & very perspicacious commentary on his writings. I've read some 4 or 5 lives of Ruskin now – more than anyone except Pound & Shakespeare, I think – & Hilton's is by far the best (tho John Batchelor's much more manageable life has much to recommend it, & John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin is 150 pages in a rather extraordinary book – of which more anon).
But I turned the other day back to the first Hilton book I'd ever read, The Pre-Raphaelites, a 1970 monograph now available in the usually excellent Thames & Hudson "World of Art" series. After you've read Hilton's biography, his book on the P-Rs seems very much a footnote to his later work on Ruskin – The Pre-Raphaelites is saturated with references to Ruskin, takes Ruskin as a pivot around which Hilton's entire assessment of the movement revolves.
And the book, while it's beautifully written & full of strongly & wittily stated opinions, hasn't aged particularly well in some respects. Take sexual politics, for instance. It's difficult to imagine an art historian getting away with a passage like this these days:
Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent [see above] has a fine slimy monster, and the added advantage of an extremely fetching naked girl. Here is an aspect of Burne-Jones's art which deserves manly [!] commendation, for even if he did it with something of a sly, voyeuristic quality, Burne-Jones did put an end to the latitancy of the mid-Victorian nude.... It is always nice to see a breast in a painting, or as delicately glorious a bottom as Andromeda's, like a pale peach at sunrise [!!]. There are many such pleasantnesses in Burne-Jones's painting. The historical point is that he painted nudes at a time when naturalism could be combined with idealism, and it is the idealism that makes his nudes so much more shapely than those of [William] Etty, but at the same time less tangible. That, of course, is the trouble with ideal girls.Of course.
In re/ Ed's question as to writing instruments: the metal dip pen began to be mass-produced in 1822 (when Ruskin was 3), & by the middle of the century had rendered the quill pen entirely obsolete. Ruskin & Dickens, & all those prolific Victorians, used Manchester-made steel pens. You still have to periodically re-dip, of course, but it obviates the need for the periodical re-trimming of the nib that one suffers thru with the quill. Ruskin really didn't live long enough to enter the fountain pen era, tho if he had I'm sure he would've jumped on that bandwagon enthusiastically. (Note for future blog post: Influence of pen technology on poets' handwriting, with special reference to Zukofsky.)