John Ruskin was the adored child of wealthy parents (his father was a sherry merchant) and was recognised from an early age as a prodigy. He became one of the leading art critics and social commentators of his day, possessing an acute sensitivity and judgement allied to a stern Protestant morality instilled in him by his mother.
Ruskin‘s artistic judgement is reflected in his championing of the works of J.W.M.Turner (some of which he bought and hung at Brantwood, his house near Coniston from 1872) and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as well as in his architectural criticism. In his Seven Lamps of Architecture Ruskin set out to define seven principles: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. In The Stones of Venice he recorded in lyrical prose the architectural decoration that he felt was in danger of extinction. Ruskin believed that the beauty of medieval architecture arose from the pleasure the workman took in his craft, a view which William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement took up and developed.
Following a period in which his writing focused upon controversial economic issues, as in Unto This Last, John Ruskin was elected the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford. His Guild of St. George extended the range of his teaching through his monthly Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. By the time he attacked the work of the painter Whistler in Fors Clavigera, his mental health was causing grave concern, and he was excused from giving evidence in the Whistler libel case in 1878 on medical grounds.
He won but was awarded damages of only a farthing! The Armitt has many of Ruskin’s letters surrounding this notorious court case.
However, supported by his secretary W.G.Collingwood, Ruskin continued to write and to play an active, if intermittent, role in the defence of the Lake District until his death in 1900.