Biography of John Ruskin

19th Century Philosopher of the Arts & Crafts Movement (1819-1900)

Black and White Photo of a Young British Social Critic John Ruskin
British Social Critic John Ruskin. Photo © Hulton Deutsch / Corbis Historical / Getty Images (cropped)

The prolific writings of John Ruskin (born February 8, 1819) changed what people thought about industrialization and ultimately influenced the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and the American Craftsman style in the US. Rebelling against Classical styles, Ruskin reawakened interest in heavy, elaborate Gothic architecture during the Victorian era. By criticizing the social ills resulting from the Industrial Revolution and disdaining anything machine-made, Ruskin's writings paved the way for a return to craftsmanship and all things natural.

In the US, Ruskin's writings influenced architecture from coast to coast.

John Ruskin was born into a prosperous family in London, England, spending part of his childhood in the natural beauty of the Lake District region in northwest Britain. The contrast of urban and rural lifestyles and values informed his beliefs about Art, especially in painting and craftsmanship. Ruskin favored the natural, the hand-crafted, and the traditional. Like many British gentlemen, he was educated at Oxford, earning a MA degree in 1843 from Christ Church College. Ruskin traveled to France and Italy, where he sketched the romantic beauty of medieval architecture and sculpture. His essays published in Architectural Magazine in the 1930s (today published as The Poetry of Architecture free from Gutenberg), examine the composition of both cottage and villa architecture in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland.

 

In 1849, Ruskin traveled to Venice, Italy and studied Venetian Gothic architecture and its influence by the Byzantine. The rise and fall of Christianity's spiritual forces as reflected through Venice's changing architectural styles impressed the enthusiastic and passionate writer. In 1851 Ruskin's observations were published in the three-volume series, The Stones of Venice, but it was his 1849 book The Seven Lamps of Architecture that Ruskin awakened an interest in medieval Gothic architecture throughout England and America.

Victorian Gothic Revival styles flourished between 1840 and 1880.

By 1869, Ruskin was teaching Fine Arts at Oxford. One of his chief interests was the construction of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (view image). Ruskin worked with the support of his old friend, Sir Henry Acland, then Regius Professor of Medicine, to bring his vision of Gothic beauty to this building. The museum remains one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic Revival (or Neo-Gothic) style in Britain.

Themes in the writings of John Ruskin were highly influential to works of other Brits, namely designer William Morris and architect Philip Webb, both considered pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. To Morris and Web the return to Medieval Gothic architecture also meant a return to the guild model of craftsmanship, a tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired the Craftsman cottage style home in America.

It's said that the last decade of Ruskin's life was difficult at best. Perhaps it was dementia or some other mental breakdown that disabled his thoughts, but he eventually retreated to his beloved Lake District, where he died January 20, 1900.

Ruskin's Influence on Art and Architecture:

He's been called a "weirdo" and "manic-depressive" by British architect Hilary French, and a "strange and unbalanced genius" by Professor Talbot Hamlin.

Yet his influence on art and architecture stays with us even today.  His workbook The Elements of Drawing remains a popular course of study. As one of the most important art critics of the Victorian era, Ruskin gained respectability by the Pre-Raphaelites, who rejected the classical approach to art and believed that paintings must be done from direct observation of nature. Through his writings, Ruskin promoted the Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner, rescuing Turner from obscurity.

John Ruskin was a writer, critic, scientist, poet, artist, environmentalist, and philosopher. He rebelled against formal, classical art and architecture. Instead, he ushered in modernity by being a champion of the asymmetrical, rough architecture of medieval Europe. His passionate writings not only heralded Gothic Revival styles in Britain and America, but also paved the way for the Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain and the United States.

Social critics like William Morris studied the writings of Ruskin and started a movement to oppose industrialization and reject the use of machine-made materials—in essence, rejecting the spoils of the Industrial Revolution. American furniture-maker Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) brought the Movement to America in his own monthly magazine, The Craftsman, and in building his Craftsman Farms in New Jersey. Stickley turned the Arts and Crafts Movement into the Craftsman style.  American architect Frank Lloyd Wright turned it into his own Prairie Style. Two California brothers, Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, turned it into the California Bungalow with Japanese overtones. The influence for all these American styles can be traced back to the writings of John Ruskin.

In the Words of John Ruskin:

We have thus, altogether, three great branches of architectural virtue, and we require of any building,—

  1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
  2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
  3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

—"The Virtues of Architecture," Stones of Venice, Volume I

Architecture is to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her.—"The Lamp of Memory," The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Learn More:

John Ruskin's books are in the public domain and, so, are often available for free online.

Ruskin's works have been studied so often throughout the years that many of his writings are still available in print.

  • The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849
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  • The Stones of Venice, 1851
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  • The Elements of Drawing, In Three Letters to Beginners, 1857
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  • Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts, Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life, 1885
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  • The Poetry of Architecture, essays from Architectural Magazine, 1837-1838
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  • John Ruskin: The Later Years by Tim Hilton, Yale University Press, 2000
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Sources: Architecture: A Crash Course by Hilary French, Watson-Guptill, 1998, p. 63; Architecture through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam, Revised 1953, p. 586. Oxford University Museum of Natural History photo By RDImages/Epics/Getty Images ©Epics/2010 Getty Images. Lake District National Park [accessed January 21, 2017]

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Craven, Jackie. "Biography of John Ruskin." ThoughtCo, Jan. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/john-ruskin-philosopher-for-today-177872. Craven, Jackie. (2017, January 23). Biography of John Ruskin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/john-ruskin-philosopher-for-today-177872 Craven, Jackie. "Biography of John Ruskin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/john-ruskin-philosopher-for-today-177872 (accessed November 23, 2017).