5 Themes in the Works of John Ruskin

open watercolor box, brushes, tape measure, and open notebooks
Ruskin's Notebooks.

Tony Evans/Getty Images (cropped)


We live in interesting technological times. As the 20th century turned into the 21st century, the Information Age took hold. Digital parametric design has changed the face of how architecture is practiced. Manufactured building materials are often synthetic. Some of today's critics caution against today's ubiquitous machine, that computer-aided design has become computer-driven design. Has artificial intelligence gone too far?

London-born John Ruskin (1819 to 1900) addressed similar questions in his time. Ruskin came of age during Britain's domination of what became known as the Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered machinery quickly and systematically created products that once had been hand-hewn. High-heating furnaces made hand-hammered wrought iron irrelevant to a new cast iron, easily molded into any shape without the need of the individual artist. Artificial perfection called cast-iron architecture was prefabricated and shipped around the world.

Ruskin's 19th-century cautionary criticisms are ones applicable to today's 21st-century world. In the following pages, explore some of the thoughts of this artist and social critic, in his own words. Although not an architect, John Ruskin influenced a generation of designers and continues to be on the must-read lists of today's architecture student.

Two of the best-known treatises in architecture were written by John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849, and The Stones of Venice, 1851.

Ruskin's Themes

Montage of Verona, Italy, a Ruskin watercolor of Verona, manuscript and Ruskin photo
Getty Images by John Freeman (Lonely Planet Images Collection), De Agostini Picture Library (De Agostini Picture Library Collection), Culture Club (Hulton Archive Collection), and W. Jeffrey/Otto Herschan (Hulton Archive Collection)

Ruskin studied the architecture of northern Italy. He observed Verona's San Fermo, its arch being "wrought in fine stone, with a band of inlaid red brick, the whole chiseled and fitted with exquisite precision."* Ruskin noted a sameness in the Gothic palaces of Venice, but it was a sameness with a difference. Unlike today's Cape Cods in Suburbia, architectural details were not manufactured or prefabricated in the medieval town he sketched. Ruskin said:

"...the forms and mode of decoration of all the features were universally alike; not servilely alike, but fraternally; not with the sameness of coins cast from one mould, but with the likeness of the members of one family." — Section XLVI, Chapter VII Gothic Palaces, The Stones of Venice, Volume II

*Section XXXVI, Chapter VII

Rage Against the Machine

Throughout his life, Ruskin compared the industrialized English landscape with the great Gothic architecture of medieval cities. One can only imagine what Ruskin would say about today's engineered wood or vinyl siding. Ruskin said:

"It is only good for God to create without toil; that which man can create without toil is worthless: machine ornaments are no ornaments at all." — Appendix 17, The Stones of Venice, Volume I

Dehumanization of Man in an Industrial Age

Who today is encouraged to think? Ruskin acknowledged that a man can be trained to produce perfect, quickly made products, just like a machine can do. But do we want humanity to become mechanical beings? How dangerous is thinking in our own commerce and industry today? Ruskin said:

"Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool." — Section XI, Chapter VI - The Nature of Gothic, The Stones of Venice, Volume II

What is architecture?

Answering the question "What is architecture?" is not an easy task. John Ruskin spent a lifetime expressing his own opinion, defining the built environment in human terms. Ruskin said:

"Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure." — Section I, Chapter I The Lamp of Sacrifice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Respecting the Environment, Natural Forms, and Local Materials

Today's green architecture and green design is an afterthought for some developers. To John Ruskin, natural forms are all that should be. Ruskin said:

"...for whatever is in architecture fair or beautiful, is imitated from natural forms....An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome." — Sections II and XXIV, Chapter III The Lamp of Power, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ruskin in Verona: Artistry and Honesty of the Hand-Crafted

Watercolor (C.1841) of Piazza delle Erbe in Verona, Italy, by John Ruskin
Photo by De Agostini Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library Collection/Getty Images

As a young man in 1849, Ruskin railed against cast-iron ornamentation in the "Lamp of Truth" chapter of one of his most important books, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. How did Ruskin come to these beliefs?

As a youth, John Ruskin traveled with his family to mainland Europe, a custom he continued throughout his adult life. Travel was a time to observe architecture, sketch, and paint, and continue to write. While studying the northern Italian cities of Venice and Verona, Ruskin realized that the beauty he saw in architecture was created by man's hand. Ruskin said:

"The iron is always wrought, not cast, beaten first into thin leaves, and then cut either into strips or bands, two or three inches broad, which are bent into various curves to form the sides of the balcony, or else into actual leafage, sweeping and free, like the leaves of nature, with which it is richly decorated. There is no end to the variety of design, no limit to the lightness and flow of the forms, which the workman can produce out of iron treated in this manner; and it is very nearly as impossible for any metal-work, so handled, to be poor, or ignoble in effect, as it is for cast metal-work to be otherwise." — Section XXII, Chapter VII Gothic Palaces, The Stones of Venice Volume II

Ruskin's praise of the hand-crafted not only influenced the Arts & Crafts Movement but also continues to popularize Craftsman-style houses and furniture like Stickley.

Ruskin's Rage Against the Machine

Photo of Piazza Erbe in Verona, Italy
Photo by John Freeman/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

John Ruskin lived and wrote during the explosive popularity of cast-iron architecture, a manufactured world he despised. As a boy, he had sketched the Piazza delle Erbe in Verona, shown here, remembering the beauty of the wrought iron and the carved stone balconies. The stone balustrade and the chiseled gods atop the Palazzo Maffei were worthy details to Ruskin, architecture, and ornamentation made by man and not by machine.

"For it is not the material, but the absence of the human labor, which makes the thing worthless," Ruskin wrote in "The Lamp of Truth." His most common examples were these:

Ruskin on Cast Iron

"But I believe no cause to have been more active in the degradation of our natural feeling for beauty, than the constant use of cast iron ornaments. The common iron work of the middle ages was as simple as it was effective, composed of leafage cut flat out of sheet iron, and twisted at the workman's will. No ornaments, on the contrary, are so cold, clumsy, and vulgar, so essentially incapable of a fine line, or shadow, as those of cast iron....there is no hope of the progress of the arts of any nation which indulges in these vulgar and cheap substitutes for real decoration." — Section XX, Chapter II The Lamp of Truth, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ruskin on Glass

"Our modern glass is exquisitely clear in its substance, true in its form, accurate in its cutting. We are proud of this. We ought to be ashamed of it. The old Venice glass was muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut, if at all. And the old Venetian was justly proud of it. For there is this difference between the English and Venetian workman, that the former thinks only of accurately matching his patterns, and getting his curves perfectly true and his edges perfectly sharp, and becomes a mere machine for rounding curves and sharpening edges, while the old Venetian cared not a whit whether his edges were sharp or not, but he invented a new design for every glass that he made, and never moulded a handle or a lip without a new fancy in it. And therefore, though some Venetian glass is ugly and clumsy enough, when made by clumsy and uninventive workmen, other Venetian glass is so lovely in its forms that no price is too great for it; and we never see the same form in it twice. Now you cannot have the finish and the varied form too. If the workman is thinking about his edges, he cannot be thinking of his design; if of his design, he cannot think of his edges. Choose whether you will pay for the lovely form or the perfect finish, and choose at the same moment whether you will make the worker a man or a grindstone." — Section XX, Chapter VI The Nature of Gothic, The Stones of Venice Volume II

Dehumanization of Man in an Industrial Age

Black and white portrait of 19th century writer critic John Ruskin, wild bushy beard
Photo ©2013 Culture Club/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The writings of critic John Ruskin influenced social and labor movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ruskin did not live to see Henry Ford's Assembly Line, but he predicted that untethered mechanization would lead to labor specialization. In our own day, we wonder if an architect's creativity and ingenuity would suffer if asked to perform only one digital task, whether in a studio with a computer or on a project site with a laser beam. Ruskin said:

"We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this — that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages."—Section XVI, Chapter VI The Nature of Gothic, The Stones of Venice, Volume II

When in his 50s and 60s, John Ruskin continued his social writings in monthly newsletters collectively called Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. See the Ruskin Library News to download a PDF file of Ruskin's voluminous pamphlets written between 1871 and 1884. During this time period, Ruskin also established the Guild of St George, an experimental Utopian society similar to the American communes established by the Transcendentalists in the 1800s. This "alternative to industrial capitalism" might be known today as a "Hippie Commune."

Source: Background, Guild of St George website [accessed February 9, 2015]

What is Architecture: Ruskin's Lamp of Memory

Hand written opening chapter of John Ruskin's The Lamp of Memory
PPhoto by Culture Club/Getty Images ©2013 Culture Club

In today's throw-away society, do we build buildings to last through the ages or is cost too much a factor? Can we create lasting designs and build with natural materials that future generations will enjoy? Is today's Blob Architecture beautifully crafted digital art, or will it seem just too silly in years hence?

John Ruskin continually defined architecture in his writings. More specifically, he wrote that we cannot remember without it, that architecture is memory. Ruskin said:

"For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity....it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture...." — Section X, The Lamp of Memory, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

John Ruskin's Legacy

John Ruskin's Lake District home called Brantwood, at Coniston, Cumbria in England
photo by Keith Wood/Britain On View Collection/Getty Images

As today's architect sits at his computer machine, dragging and dropping design lines as easily as (or easier than) skipping stones on Britain's Coniston Water, the 19th-century writings of John Ruskin make us stop and think — is this design architecture? And when any critic-philosopher allows us to partake in the human privilege of thought, his legacy is established. Ruskin lives on.

Ruskin's Legacy

  • Created new interest in reviving Gothic architecture
  • Influenced the Arts & Crafts Movement and hand-crafted workmanship
  • Established interest in social reforms and labor movements from his writings on man's dehumanization in an Industrial Age

John Ruskin spent his final 28 years at Brantwood, overlooking the Lake District's Coniston. Some say he went mad or fell into dementia; many say his later writings show signs of a troubled man. While his personal life has titillated some 21st-century film-goers, his genius has influenced the more serious-minded for more than a century. Ruskin died in 1900 at his home, which is now a museum open to visitors of Cumbria.

If John Ruskin's writings do not appeal to a modern audience, his personal life certainly does. His character appears in a film about British painter J.M.W. Turner and, also, a film about his wife, Effie Gray.

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Craven, Jackie. "5 Themes in the Works of John Ruskin." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/themes-in-works-of-john-ruskin-177883. Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 29). 5 Themes in the Works of John Ruskin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/themes-in-works-of-john-ruskin-177883 Craven, Jackie. "5 Themes in the Works of John Ruskin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/themes-in-works-of-john-ruskin-177883 (accessed April 2, 2023).