The Elements of Ruskin: Ruskin Now
Robert Hewison / Paper for the Ashmolean Study Day on the Elements of Drawing / 3|6|2011
On the 8th May 1945, the day that signalled the end of the war in Europe, Winston Churchill announced: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing” (in Hewison 1981.1). Today, in spite of the cultural wars that are still going on around us, we have rightly allowed ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, not only at the relaunch of the Electronic Elements of Drawing, but also at other ways that modern technology has made Ruskin available to the 21st century: The Venetian Notebooks, the electronic edition of Modern Painters volume one, and the electronic version of the Library Edition, which is managing to transcend the ageing process of technological redundancy. Louise Pullen’s contribution has also reminded us of another important relaunch this year, the redisplay of the Museum of the Guild of St George at the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield.
In this spirit of celebration, we might also wish briefly to rejoice in the extent to which Ruskin studies have flourished since the 1970s. It was then that the value of the Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford began to be recognised, not just as a lucky dip of masterpieces and miscellanea, but as a sequence with a specifically Ruskinian ratiocination behind it. In Oxford the Ruskin School of Drawing has also revived – and the Ashmolean itself is utterly transformed. The Guild of St George is doing a great deal more than ensuring the display of a collection of treasures – treasures that I recall seeing for the first time mostly in packing cases in a basement at the University of Reading. The Whitehouse Collection, once the object of arduous scholarly pilgrimage to the Isle of Wight, is now housed in Richard McCormac’s jewel box at Lancaster University, and Brantwood, the decaying destination of the international group of enthusiasts who founded the Ruskin Association there at the conference of 1969, flourishes as never before. The Ruskin Association, whose newsletter was James Dearden’s single-handed hard labour of love for so many years, wound itself up in 2000 because it felt its job was done – and it was in 2000 that that looser, but essential, new grouping, Ruskin To-Day, first proved its value.
The theme I would like to try to address was suggested by one of the spaces on the tool bar of the home page of “The Elements of Drawing: John Ruskin’s Teaching Collection at Oxford”. It is the one marked “Ruskin Now”. In one sense, as long as there are people who are willing to read Ruskin, and so long as he remains available, in print or electronic form, so that they can engage critically with his texts and images, there will always be, I hope, a “Ruskin Now” in the field of scholarship. What Ruskin would have made of his new found electronic availability, and of the technology that supports it, is a counter-factual question, and not really very helpful. Ruskin has been dead for one hundred and eleven years, and is in no position to comment.
But it is clear that Ruskin is more than a scholarly resource: his ideas extend much further than the utilitarian tick boxes of the Research Excellence Framework. The contributions to the Elements of Drawing website by Philip Hoare and Adrian Piggott – and indeed Stephen Farthing’s delightful drawing lessons – show the way that Ruskin stimulates the creative, as well as the purely scholarly, pulse. The “Praeterita” photographs of John Riddy commissioned for Ruskin’s centenary in 2000, the work of Alexander Hamilton and other artists who have stayed at and been inspired by Brantwood, the “Can Art Save Us” exhibition and its successors at Sheffield, Sarah Rodgers’ musical setting of The King of the Golden River, the philosophical speculations of Wolfgang Scheppe’s Done Book and accompanying exhibition in the British Pavilion at last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, are all evidence of an imaginative response to ideas that have Ruskinian roots. So, beyond the field of scholarship, what should our contemporary relationship with the historic Ruskin be? […]