Sunday, April 01, 2012

illustrated living

A couple of years ago in this space I reported on "brief lives" of Ruskin, offering capsule reviews of capsule biographies by Quentin Bell, George Landow, Robert Hewison, and Francis O'Gorman. I won't take back anything I said there – the recommendations still stand – but I've got to admit that, so far as the possibly mythical "general reader" goes, Kevin Jackson's The Worlds of John Ruskin (Pallas Athene & the Ruskin Foundation, 2010) is the brand-new, shiny and beautiful state-of-the-art vade mecum.

Last time I mentioned the role which biographical series played in the production of those earlier books: Bell's Ruskin was written for the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series; Landow's for Oxford UP's "Past Masters"; Hewison's for the grandparent of all English capsule biography series, the Dictionary of National Biography (then republished in OUP's "Very Interesting People" series). One series I didn't mention, and one book I didn't note, was Frederic Harrison's John Ruskin (Macmillan, 1902), published in the "English Men of Letters" series, edited by John Morley. That series, which Morley took on in 1877, seems to have attained almost Cliff's Note status for British students. As John Gross notes in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,
No comparable series has ever come so close to attaining the rank of a traditional British institution. In [Harold Nicolson's] Some People, the unlovable J. D. Marstock keeps a complete set on his mantelpiece while cramming for the Foreign Office examination, a long row of thin yellow Men of Letters and square red ones: '"My tutor," Marstock would say, "told me that the examiners expect one to have read the E.M. of L.S."'
Be that as it may, Harrison's is a really delightful little book. Harrison was an erstwhile disciple of Ruskin's who found his true spiritual home with the religion of Positivism, but who retained his deep love and respect for Ruskin's thought. He writes very well indeed; his remarks on Ruskin's celebrated "purple" style are matched only by Chesterton's.

But flashing forward a century, were I asked to put a single book on Ruskin in the hands of a neophyte, right now it would be Jackson's Worlds of John Ruskin. Jackson isn't so much a critic or scholar of Ruskin (as are Hewison, O'Gorman, and Landow) as he is a deeply invested advocate. Jackson is a literary journalist who writes on all manner of subjects for the Independent; he's scripted two comic book adaptations of Ruskin's thought, How To See and How to Be Rich; he apparently has a big illustrated history of high modernism in the works. He writes very well, in the manner of intelligent British journalists. And he's immersed himself in Ruskin to an impressive degree to produce The Worlds of John Ruskin.

This large-format book is not at all in the category of the handy pocket Men of Letters or Past Masters series; it reminds me more of Thames & Hudson's illustrated "Literary Lives" series (Peter Ackroyd on Pound, Chester Anderson on Joyce, etc.). But it's larger & longer than the T&H books, and the typeface is more compact. In the course of his 140 pages, Jackson presents a judicious life of Ruskin – he doesn't pass over any of the weird bits (the messed-up marriage to Effie Gray, the obsession with Rose La Touche, the icky fascination with young girls) – and a thumbnail overview of the works, highlighting what's ground-breaking and not passing over what's problematic (JR's inability in his later years to stick to a point for more than 5 pages, for instance).

So far so good, but Jackson's text is still outclassed at least by Bell, Hewison, and Landow. What's really the selling point in The Worlds of John Ruskin, however, is the illustrations, 165 of them, all beautifully reproduced (if occasionally too small) and lovingly captioned in detail. It's always nice to know what the subject of a biography looks like, & the picture inserts in most big biographies enable us to put faces to the subject & (with luck) many of the other major players. Here we've got plenty of pictures of JR, along with Effie, Millais, Rossetti, William Morris, Rose La Touche, and so forth. But we've also got 111 of Ruskin's own drawings and watercolors, ranging from architectural details, to self-portraits (cf. the cover), to fully-realized landscapes.

Ruskin's writings are peppered with bilious little complaints: while he's got to explain something in prose, he's got to write this lecture or book, he's got somehow to save the world through this piece of writing – but he'd rather be looking at flowers or stones, he'd much rather be drawing. The book manages, as no other biography of Ruskin I've encountered, to keep us in touch with Ruskin's eye, the sense that is at the center of all of his aesthetic and cultural thought.

[John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock at Glenfinlas, 1853]

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