Ruskin at 200

John Ruskin (left) with William Holman Hunt circa 1894

The Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that “wise work” has three characteristics: it is honest, it is useful, and it is cheerful.

Ruskin looked with admiration upon gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages. He determined, writes P.D. Anthony, in John Ruskin’s Labour, “that it required forms of social organization and forms of manual labour that are superior to those of contemporary society” and “which are essential to human development and happiness.” Modest masons and craftsmen working in their own limited spheres had the opportunity “to express themselves in magnificent creations which transcended the humble contributions of ordinary men.”

By 1854 Ruskin was contemplating “a great work” he meant “to write on politics—founded on the thirteenth century.” However Nicholas Shrimpton writes, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, that by the end of the decade he “had turned away from overt medievalism to a deeper, more implicit use of medieval assumptions. Pre-modern concepts, such as intrinsic value and the ‘just price,’ were applied to modern problems in a series of controversial books and lectures.”

In the 1870s Ruskin founded the Guild of St George. Its mission was to encourage arts education, independent craftsmanship, and sustainable agriculture among the working classes. He attempted to spread the message of the guild through a series of pamphlets collectively titled, Fors Clavigera. Shrimpton writes, “these texts would seek to suggest an alternative to the industrialism, capitalism, and urbanization of modern society.”

Ruskin’s program was the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts movement developed by William Morris in the 1880s. Morris’s philosophy was a somewhat uneasy amalgamation of Ruskinian and Marxist ideas. But Ruskin’s own critique of laissez-faire came from the Right, not the Left. “I am, and my father was before me,” he once wrote, “a violent Tory of the old school,” whose politics were marked by “a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them.” He was a strict Protestant, and although he had a religious crisis in middle age, Anthony writes, his “Christian faith developed and broadened as he grew older.”

From the perspective of the present day, when the interests of labor are considered the purview of the political Left, it is interesting to consider someone who devoted the whole of his considerable talents to the welfare of the working classes, for reasons of traditionalism and noblesse oblige. Shrimpton traces Ruskin’s thought, writing that he was not,

an ancestor of the British Labour Party…Neither the Marxian nor the Fabian branch of English socialism was significantly Ruskinian…his politics and economics belong to a different and more marginal tradition which stretches from the Ultra-Tories and Götzists…of the 1820s and ‘30s, through the Tory Young Englanders of the 1840s, to the Arts and Crafts and ‘back to the land’ movements of the 1880s, and the Guild Socialism and Distributism of the early twentieth century, with partial echoes in some of the Green or Ecological parties of the present day.

This entire “marginal tradition” has been pushed well outside the margins of political debate in the twenty-first century and our civic life seems poorer for it.


Anthony, P.D. (1983) John Ruskin’s Labour: A Study of Ruskin’s Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruskin, John. (1866) The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War. New York: John Wiley & Son.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Politics and economics,” in O’Gorman, Francis (ed). (2015) The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Souvenirs of Paris


Raymond Duncan (1874-1966) was a noted eccentric of the twentieth century. The brother of dancer Isadora Duncan, he was born in San Francisco but spent most his life in Europe. Duncan developed a philosophy of living that combined labor, the arts, and physical movement, which he called “Actionalism.” He taught simplicity and self sufficiency at his Academy on the Rue de Seine in Paris, where he made his own textiles, books, ceramics, and sandals. (He dressed in classical Greek attire.)

Orson Welles interviewed Duncan for an episode of the 1955 ITV program, Around the World with Orson Welles.

Years ago I purchased a second-hand volume of Duncan’s (not very good) poetry, which had tipped into it several handbills advertising events at the “Akademia.” The book and the flyers had been printed by Duncan himself in his workshop around 1953, shortly before Welles’s visit.

A Portrait of the Raj


This painting by an unknown artist depicts King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. It is dated to the early twentieth century and attributed to the Company School. The likenesses were presumably copied from a photograph. The fanciful costume mixes Eastern and Western regalia.

King Edward was the second British monarch to rule India directly. The British Raj had been instituted in 1858 during the reign of his mother Queen Victoria. King Edward ascended to the throne in 1901. This painting was possibly commissioned during the Delhi Durbar of 1903 when he was proclaimed Emperor of India. It belongs to the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Dehli.

Doré in Camelot

From The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J Lacy:

[Gustave] Doré’s most significant contribution to Arthurian art was his illustration of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Already famous for his editions of Dante, the Bible, Cervantes, and others, Doré was commissioned by Moxon & Co., Tennyson’s publisher, to provide thirty-six wash drawings for the immensely popular 1859 Idylls, nine for each of Tennyson’s four poems: “Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere.” His work was then copied by English steel-engravers rather than being carved into wood blocks, Doré’s usual practice. The illustrated poems were issued separately in folio editions from 1867 to 1868 by Moxon in London and by Hachette in Paris (trans. Fransique Michel). In 1868, the separate editions were gathered into one volume, for which Doré added a frontispiece depicting Tennyson surrounded by his Arthurian characters, with some creatures of Doré’s invention. The illustrations were popular, especially in England, and went through several editions.

Edyrn with His Lady and Dwarf Journey to Arthur’s Court
Yniol Shows Prince Geraint His Ruined Castle
Viviane and Merlin
Geraint Slays Earl Doorm
King Arthur Discovering the Skeletons of the Brothers
The Sea Fight
The Cave Scene

England By Train With Eric Ravilious

The aesthetic of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) blends traditional landscape painting, folk art, and modernism. He painted England in watercolors, with compositions often juxtaposing the contemporary and the ancient. The effect was always surprisingly harmonious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the related works, Westbury Horse (1939) and Train Landscape (1940), which feature railways passing a Medieval, possibly prehistoric monument.

In his book, Eric Ravilious: Imagined Realities, Alan Powers describes these paintings: “One is seen from an adjacent slope at the same level, with a view over the Wiltshire plain, across which runs the railway with a train passing in the middle distance. The second…reverses the relationship, by viewing the hills and horse from the windows of a third class railway compartment.”

Westbury Horse, by Eric Ravilious, 1939
Train Landscape, by Eric Ravilious, 1940

According to Powers, “Train Landscape originally showed the Wilmington Giant from a similar viewpoint (both figures overlook railway lines near the foot of their hills), but was altered by Ravilious who cut away the window area and almost invisibly inserted three new panels.”

Around the same time, Ravilious painted a separate work featuring the Wilmington Giant. Here again we see (what might be) the view from a railway compartment, dynamic and static: the monument caught by the eye just before it passes.

The Wilmington Giant, by Eric Ravilious, 1939

The Art of František Kupka

The Way of Silence, by František Kupka, 1903

The Czech painter František Kupka (1871-1957) is best remembered for his abstract Modernist works. But at the turn of the twentieth century he was the author of a series of striking Symbolist paintings that show his talent for representational art.

Kupka began his training at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he studied between 1889 and 1892. Thereafter, in rapid succession, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the Académie Julian in Paris, and the atelier of Jean-Pierre Laurens at the École des Beaux-Arts.

He had a lifelong interest in esotericism that influenced both his representational and abstract periods. Tessel M. Bauduin writes of “his personal mystical world view,” his experience as a spiritualist medium, and his visions that “resonated with Theosophical theories of astral vision and the astral world.”

The Beginning of Life, by František Kupka, 1900

The Black Idol, by František Kupka, 1903

Autumn Sun (Three Goddesses), by František Kupka, 1906

The Yellow Scale (Self Portrait), by František Kupka, 1907

The Grave of William Blake Rediscovered

Photo: Victoria Jones/PA

On August 12, 2018 a new memorial was unveiled at Bunhill Fields in London marking the grave of poet, artist, and printer William Blake (1757-1827). Previously a stone in the burial ground attested that Blake and his wife Catherine were interred “near by.” The unveiling of the new monument marks the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death and the culmination of fourteen years of work by Luis and Carol Garrido to identify the location of the grave.

The Guardian reports:

“When you see the stone that says ‘near by’, it’s so vague,” Luis Garrido said. “We wanted to know the exact spot.”

Finding it proved a bigger challenge than they imagined. Bunhill Fields was a cemetery popular with Dissenters, and when Blake died, largely unrecognised, in 1827, his was the fifth of eight coffins to be buried in the plot.

The graveyard had been arranged in a grid, and the co-ordinates were in the Bunhill Fields burial records, given as “77, east and west, 32, north and south”. But after bomb damage during the second world war, the Corporation of London decided to transform part of the site into gardens, leaving only two remaining gravestones, and moving Blake’s stone next to a memorial to an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe.

The burial records were not always precise, according to Carol Garrido, whose skills as a landscape architect were vital. “You could see the handwriting in the burial order book change,” she said. “We imagined someone who was a clerk in the office, writing what the foreman of the gravediggers told them.” By using the two existing graves to find a point of origin, after two years they had found the right place.

The crowd-funded monument was designed by Lida Cardozo and is inscribed with a passage from Blake’s poem Jerusalem: “I give you the end of a golden string / Only wind it into a ball / It will lead you in at Heavens gate / Built in Jerusalems wall.” A detailed account of how Luis and Carol Garrido located the grave can be read here.

See also: The Tomb of Coleridge Rediscovered.

Three Victorian Cityscapes

The Irish watercolorist and scenery designer John O’Connor (1830-1889) produced a series of striking topographical portraits of London in the late nineteenth century. His style is both intensely realistic and somehow otherworldly (perhaps an effect of light and fog in the actual London atmosphere of the time).

I like his paintings very much, especially an 1884 view of St Pancras Station and the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel, which does justice to the majesty of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s architecture, enshrouded in cloud in the background.

The painting, titled, From Pentonville Road Looking West, London, Evening, is in the collection of the Museum of London. It has spent most of its recent history in storage because curators considered it a “deeply unfashionable, prime [example] of Victorian art,” which is galling.

Here are three paintings completed by O’Conner over a thirteen year period between 1874 and 1887.

The Embankment, by John O’Connor, 1874

From Pentonville Road Looking West, London, Evening, by John O’Connor, 1884

Ludgate, Evening, by John O’Connor, 1887

The Watercolors of Anna Alma-Tadema

The reputation of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema has been revived lately thanks to the major exhibition of his paintings at the Leighton House Museum last year. His daughter Anna (1867–1943) was an equally talented artist in her own right. I would like to see her given proper due. Below is a selection of her watercolors and a self-portrait in oil.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Library in Townshend House, London, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1884

The Drawing Room, Townshend House, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1885

Eton College Chapel, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1886

Self-portrait, by Anna Alma-Tadema, 1887

Doré’s London

From the British Library:

In 1869 the journalist Blanchard Jerrold (1826–1884) joined forces with the famous French artist Gustave Doré (1832–1883) to produce an illustrated record of the ‘shadows and sunlight’ of London. As Jerrold later recalled, they spent many days and nights exploring the capital, often protected by plain-clothes policemen. They visited night refuges, cheap lodging houses and the opium den described by Charles Dickens in the sinister opening chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood; they travelled up and down the river and attended fashionable events at Lambeth Palace, the boat race and the Derby. The ambitious project, which took four years to complete, was eventually published as London: a pilgrimage with 180 engravings.

Contemporary critics had severe reservations about the book. Doré disliked sketching in public so there were many errors of detail; it showed only the extremes of society, and Jerrold’s text was superficial. Both were transfixed by the deprivation, squalor and wretchedness of the lives of the poor, even though they realised that London was changing and some of the worst social evils were beginning to be addressed. Despite these criticisms, Doré’s work has become celebrated for its dramatic use of light and shade, and the power of his images to capture the atmosphere of mid-Victorian London.


An imagined East End slum

Sir Paul Pindar’s House in Bishopsgate, demolished 1890; the façade is preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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Gower Street station on the London Underground, one of the original Metropolitan Railway stations, opened in 1863; now Euston Square tube station

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An imagined City thoroughfare

Hampstead Heath

The stalls, Covent Garden Opera

The London Docks

Bluegate Fields in Shadwell

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The Still and Star in Aldagate

Sleeping rough on London Bridge