Ruskin was a true local European

A new book Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London looks at the life of the writer, philosopher and art critic. Ruskin was an extraordinarily varied writer, whose literary forms included essays, poetry, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. His critique on political economy even inspired Mahatma Gandhi. PATRICK ROBERTS looks at the part South London played in shaping the thinking of Ruskin, one of the most articulate, original and influential critics and thinkers of the Victorian age.

This book about John Ruskin, the writer, artist and critic, who was born in London in 1819, seeks to set the record straight on one of South London’s most important residents.

His family moved to a house in Herne Hill in 1823, then relocated to a larger house in Denmark Hill until 1872.

He then continued to stay regularly in the old Herne Hill house, now the home of his cousin, until the mid-1880s, before living out the final decade at Brantwood, his house in the Lake District, where he died in 1900.

The important thing was that in spite of Ruskin’s national and even international reputation during the Victorian period, and despite ceaseless foreign travel, public lecture programmes, academic posts at Oxford and work for London museums and galleries – Herne Hill was the place in which he grew up and where he would continue to live into old age.

To his contemporaries, Ruskin was an extraordinary and a dynamic figure.

He was a European, at a time when most English people had little sense of abroad.

He was a man, who by the age of 34, had already written the key works that gave him his reputation: Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

All of these books looked out from beyond England to a larger European cultural tradition.

Modern Painters positioned the English artist Turner as the culmination of a canon of great artists through a detailed critique of earlier Dutch, French and Italian painting.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture looked for a moral order of architecture for new English buildings via the Gothic cathedrals and churches of Normandy, Paris and northern Italy.

While The Stones of Venice began as a study of the history and architecture of that city before metamorphosing into a style guide and pattern book for the would-be architects of the English Gothic revival.

What can we learn from Ruskin?

Coming to Ruskin 200 years after his birth, some of his writing can read as remote or even unattractive.

We are unlikely to seek out his views on the role of women in society, on imperialism or on racial equality and cultural diversity.

But apart from his core works on art and architecture, what still feels extremely relevant are some of the causes and campaigns which he pursued and which seem to anticipate the concerned environmentalism of the 21st century.

In Ruskin, the opponent of insensitive and uncontrolled railway building one can trace the germ of current campaigning against high-speed rail links, expressways and airport runway extensions.

In his protest against the flooding of the Thirlmere valley in the Lake District to create a monster reservoir to supply water to Lancashire cities, he was one of the earliest opponents of dam-building.

In his protests against unrestricted suburban building, loss of rural landscapes and the destruction or botched restoration of historic buildings, one finds the genesis of the National Trust and of much 20th planning and conservation legislation.

His late work, The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, is one of the earliest explorations of the impact of air pollution being produced by industry.

Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London

Ruskin was one of the first people to question the self-confident and assured capitalism of the 19th century – what he referred to as “the Great Goddess of Getting-on” – and to foresee the destructive physical and social consequences of unfettered industrial and urban growth.

In the 21st century, with the same concerns, we have much to learn from him. What is more, the destruction and damage that he started to observe around him, became more and more focused on his immediate surroundings in South London.

Around Herne Hill he finds confirmation of his antipathy to railway building, uncontrolled suburban growth and the consequent destruction of the landscape.

The Crystal Palace, glittering on his skyline, came to exemplify the philistine commercialism of Victorian capitalism for him, while his despair at the architects and house builders who have betrayed his vision for a moral Gothic architecture into an endlessly replicable form of stick-on ornament is also very precisely located in South London.

When he finally left Denmark Hill to live in the Lake District, he published a public letter in a newspaper to explain his decision.

“I have had an indirect influence on nearly every cheap villa-builder between here and Bromley; and there is scarcely a public house near the Crystal Palace but sells its gin and bitters under pseudo-Venetian capitals copied from the Church of the Madonna of Health or of Miracles.

“And one of my principal notions for leaving my present house is that it is surrounded everywhere by accursed Frankenstein monsters of, indirectly, my own making.”

The book explores these local preoccupations, his antipathy to railways, his difficult relationship with the Crystal Palace, his campaign for a Gothic revival in architecture and the enduring importance to him of the natural world.

Another chapter looks at the way in which Ruskin has been since commemorated, locally and nationally, and the creation of Ruskin Park.

It concludes with a detailed examination of the social and historical context of Herne Hill and Denmark Hill in the 19th century, its built environment and the extent to which Ruskin and his family were integrated, or not, within its suburb.

Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London, is written by Jon Newman of Lambeth Archives and Laurence Marsh, Herne Hill Society vice-chairman and local historian.

It contains 80 colour and black and white illustrations and a commissioned map by David Western.

It is published by the Herne Hill Society and Backwater Books, price £14.50.

Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London can be bought from the Herne Hill Society https://www.hernehillsociety.org.uk/publications/sunset-over-herne-hill/ and also from bookshops in Herne Hill and Dulwich.

Main pic: John Ruskin self-portrait aged 55

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Dulwich never matched beauty of Venice

To his contemporary readership, Ruskin in his pomp was an extraordinary and a dynamic figure: a European, at a time when most English people had little sense of ‘abroad’; a man who by the age of 34 had already written the first two volumes of Modern Painters, the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, and The Seven Lamps of Architecture – arguably the key works which define him as a public intellectual.

All three of these titles look out from beyond England to a larger European cultural tradition.

Modern Painters positions Turner as the culmination of a canon of great artists through a detailed critique of earlier Dutch, French and Italian painting.

Ruskin’s first home at 28 Herne Hill, photographed around 1900

The Seven Lamps of Architecture seeks a ‘moral’ order of architecture for new English buildings via the Gothic cathedrals and churches of Normandy, Paris and northern Italy.

The Stones of Venice begins as a study of the history and architecture of that city before metamorphosing into a style guide and pattern book for the would-be architects of the English Gothic revival.

What Ruskin’s contemporary readership would not have known, amid this flurry of assured work, was that its cosmopolitan and multi-talented author (researcher, writer, illustrator, etcher and photographer) was at the same time a rather sheltered and solitary young man still living with his parents in South London: and that Herne Hill – despite ceaseless foreign travel, public lecture programmes, academic posts at Oxford and work for London museums and galleries – was the place in which he would continue to live into old age.

Everyone has to live somewhere and many people spend a lifetime in the same place without developing any strong sense of it – without turning into a Hardy writing about his Wessex or a John Clare lamenting his Northamptonshire village.

But rather like those two writers, a powerful sense of place does come to pervade Ruskin’s work, so that by the time he finally leaves London in the mid-1880s, having been embedded in Herne Hill for almost 60 years, there is a sense that he hadn’t merely been inhabiting South London, but that South London had come to inhabit him.

Ruskin resented the tangle of new railway lines hemming in Herne Hill

Europe had been the place in which he first located his anxieties about the modernising processes of the 19th century.

It is its lakes and mountains and its ancient cities that he saw “vanishing like ghosts”.

In his youth, if he thought about South London at all, it was a prosaic counterpoint to beauty and grandeur elsewhere, a place to which he can express an ironic “gratitude to the formalities and even vulgarities of Herne Hill, for making me feel by contrast the divine wildness of Jura forest”.

But as he ages and becomes more assured, a clearer sense of place emerges.

Increasingly too, the locality embodies many of his larger preoccupations.

Around Herne Hill he finds confirmation of his antipathy to railway building, uncontrolled suburban growth and the consequent destruction of the landscape.

The Crystal Palace, glittering on his skyline, comes to exemplify the philistine commercialism of Victorian capitalism, while his despair at the architects and house builders who have traduced his vision for a moral Gothic architecture into an endlessly replicable form of stick-on ornament is equally precisely located in South London.

Ruskin’s childhood garden at 28 Herne Hill

To be sure, the mundane brick vernacular of a Camberwell or a Dulwich was never going to match the beauties of Venice or Amiens; nor could the gentle contours of Sydenham and Norwood’s hills hope to equal the sublimity of the Alps.

Yet there is a crucial linkage between Ruskin’s domestic childhood on Herne Hill and the marvels and epiphanies that he experienced during teenage coach holidays with his parents that prompted his first writings.

It is a paradox that he only finds himself able to unpack towards the end of his life, when in recalling the small walled back garden of his childhood home at Herne Hill he reflects how, “That great part of my acute perception and deep feeling of the beauty of architecture and scenery abroad was owing to the well-formed habit of narrowing myself to happiness within the four brick walls of our fifty by one hundred yards of garden; and accepting with resignation the aesthetic external surroundings of a London suburb”.

Ruskin has to be one of the most closely analysed English writers of the 19th century.

Even so, one aspect of the man that appears to have been if not overlooked, then at least relegated to the status of footnote, is this significance of a sense of place to the development of his thinking.

What this book seeks to explore is the extent to which Ruskin’s personal life embedded in South London impinges on, influences and finally comes to embody many of the larger preoccupations of his writing, as well as the way that the place offers an emotional and domestic obverse to the cultured, cosmopolitanism of that larger European world which has been the focus of many studies of the man.”

Extract from ‘Sunset over Herne Hill: John Ruskin and South London’ From the Introduction, pages 11-13

 

 


 

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