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John Ruskin

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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, 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.

The Ruskin Letters from the Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside.

The Ruskin Letters from the Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside. 

John Ruskin said he had “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. He was referring to James Whistler, and the ensuing libel action became one of the most celebrated cases of the 19th century. With famous artists testifying as expert witnesses on both sides, the public found it hugely entertaining. Gilbert and Sullivan based ‘Patience’ on it.

Ruskin, who lost, pleaded that ill health prevented him from attending in court. But a batch of Ruskin’s confidential letters held at the Armitt Library, suggest that this wasn’t quite the whole truth. They reveal that Ruskin had a child-like dependence on his doctor, and a desperate addiction to “tonic” – almost certainly opium. They help to explain why one of the most prolific and respected men of the age spent the last 15 years of his life in seclusion.

Ruskin wrote the 40 highly personal letters while living at Coniston in the Lake District, to the local physician, Dr George Parsons, between 1873 and 1888. They were found during the 1980’s locked in a wooden box in the Armitt Library at Ambleside, Cumbria. The Armitt is rich in material on the artists and writers of the Lakes, with former members including Arthur Ransome, G M Trevelyan, the Collingwoods (W.G and R.J) and Beatrix Potter, who left it over four hundred of her scientific and natural history paintings and drawings.

The library that Ruskin himself founded is now part of the Armitt too, but the discovery of the letters took came as something of a surprise. The then librarian, Dr Sydney Chapman, forced the lock on the box while updating the library’s catalogue and was astounded by its contents.

Dr Parsons was practising in Ambleside until the 1920’s and it is believed that it was his successor, Dr Johnson who gave the letters to the Armitt about 1950. Though Ruskin died in 1900, the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship evidently outweighed the curiosity of scholars and the letters were clearly suppressed by the then Trustees of the Armitt.

Perhaps the letters’ intimate revelations encouraged a conspiracy of silence among those who remembered the great man at Coniston. He comes across with an embarrassing lack of dignity, writing to Parsons as “darling doctor”, and casting himself as a “bad boy” who has “not been good, but not very disobedient.” He plays hide and seek with the doctor and his wife in the gardens at Brantwood, his Coniston home; and then there are the pleas for “tonic.”

Although today we may frown upon the use of opium, before the development of modern analgesics it was a godsend. For the relief of pain and stress, it was almost universally taken. Whether Ruskin knew what he was taking, and its addictive effects, is unclear. Perhaps he preferred not to know. He asks the doctor simply for “some more terrifying and some more sleepifying mysterious compounds,” to help him with his laziness after a morning in bed. It eases his depressions, too, which always seem to coincide with bad weather. But soon he is clearly in its grip. “I look forward with anxiety to the time for ‘tonic’ as an exciting circumstance in the even tenor of the day,” he tells Parsons. The doctor seems to have restricted the dosage, for a few months later Ruskin requests it again, to help him while his cousin and companion Joan Severn is away from Coniston. Shortly afterwards he is writing, “The tonic is really necessary three times a day just now to support me under Joan’s loss.”

In the same letter he tells Parsons that he will be happy to settle his bill, “unless it means that I’m to have no more tonic.” It evidently meant just that. The next week he is complaining of a cold. “It’s all the leaving off of that tonic, I believe.” But the drying out periods didn’t last. The following spring Ruskin boasts of his “revived energy produced by the tonic.”

The letters catalogue the low spots of Ruskin’s addiction, too. He is “flabbier and shakier every month.” He has grown “cold-footed, giddy-headed and loose-throated.” He suffers continual languor, distaste for work, and a “carelessness about everything.”

He has bad dreams - “being late for trains, walking on dirty roads, etc.” He collects ‘11 bad colds’ at railway stations on a journey from Coniston to Ingleton. Despairing, he tells Parsons, “I feel, I suppose, the brokenest bottle and raggedest rag doll in a rag and bottle shop. I’m cold, stiff, blind, deaf, and tasteless.” 

It’s a condition that any drug addict would recognise. He is off his food, able to stomach only peas, pea soup, and new potatoes, at the height of his tonic cravings. A couple of years later he tells Parsons he is “impressed by the arguments of vegetarians,” and “my diet consists chiefly of green peas, gooseberries, melons, cucumbers and wedding cake.”

In all the letters, Ruskin is lavishly grateful for Parsons’ help. It is almost the addict’s dependence on his supplier. He pays the doctor more than he asks in his bills, signing himself “With much love and many, and many, and many more thanks.” He had reason to be grateful when the Whistler case came to court.

Ruskin had seen Whistler’s ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket’, an impressionist view of a fireworks display, at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877. He published his ill-judged remarks soon after, and Whistler claimed £1,000 damages.

The artist and his critic could not have had more antagonistic temperaments. Ruskin was the grave sensitive aesthete. Whistler revelled in notoriety; an egotist and poseur, he claimed to be abnormally sensitive to colour. It was rumoured he tinted his butter green to complement his china. He had proudly done a study of Price’s Patent Candle Factory; Ruskin would have swept all factories off the face of the earth. He did not believe that a personality such as Whistler’s could produce great art.

The case was delayed in coming to court through Ruskin’s ill-health He was described as suffering from “brain fever” - a favourite 19th century diagnosis for a mental breakdown. The British, American, and Italian newspapers carried daily bulletins on his progress. By autumn he was able to visit Gladstone, and travel to London. It is odd that no-one has ever questioned his excuse a month later that he was too ill to attend the trial. When he first got the writ he had told the artist Burne-Jones that he looked forward to using the court as a platform for his views on art. But one of the letters tells a different story.

They show that Ruskin was desperate to avoid facing Whistler in court. He pleads to Dr Parsons: “The infernal lawyers say that unless they have a medical certificate that I’m unfit to appear in court, I must be there or at least within call on Monday week. Is it within your conscience to say that you think it definitely dangerous for me to face the excitement of a public trial? I can assure you that my contempt and anger at the whole business are so great that I scarcely know what might be the effect upon me of some things that I might hear, or try to speak, and that I think with most honourable and accurate adherence to strict truth you may say it would be dangerous for me.”

Maybe Ruskin felt his intellectual prowess so weakened by opium that he couldn’t face Whistler’s powerful personality in a public sparring match on the nature of art. In a postscript, he adds, pathetically, “I miss my tonic dreadfully.” Perhaps memories of his public humiliation when his unconsummated marriage broke up deterred him from running the risk of becoming a laughing stock.

Parsons agreed to play the game handsomely. His affidavit – found in the box with the letters – states that Ruskin “is altogether unable to take part in any serious business as even slight irritation, annoyance, or excitement upsets him very much.”

Parsons clearly misled the court. Ruskin was hardly under sedation. In his letter of thanks to Parsons, he describes the “bustle and overwork of the day, with dinners in the evening.”

It is unlikely that Ruskin, raddled with the effects of drug addiction, would have been a match in court for the monocle dandy, Whistler. Suave, witty and relaxed, Whistler parried the gibes of cross-examination. Having taken only two days to “knock off” the painting, wasn’t 200 guineas rather steep, asked Ruskin’s counsel?”  “ I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime,” Whistler answered to applause.

The trial was rich in farce, with counsel disputing whether one of Whistlers paintings produced in evidence was the right way up. As another was passed to Whistler for identification, it fell on a bald man’s head, much to the amusement of the overflowing court.

Whistler won damages of a farthing, which he later wore on his watch chain. Friends paid Ruskin’s £386 costs. But Whistler, who hadn’t sold a painting since Ruskin’s sour comment, was bankrupt within six months.

Ruskin would not discuss the case, but resigned as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford because of it. Significantly, he refused a friend’s suggestion that he make ill health the excuse. From then on he began to retire from public life. His friends murmured about his health, but if they were aware of his addiction they kept it to themselves.

The secret stayed safe among Dr Parsons’ papers, passing in the 1920s to his successor, Dr Ainslie Johnson. The two doctors form a curious link in the history of art. For Johnson’s most illustrious patient was Kurt Schwitters, who moved to Ambleside in 1945, after spending the war interned on the Isle of Man as a refugee from Hitler.

Johnson and Schwitters played chess together, and Schwitters painted the doctor’s portrait in payment for his treatment. Whether they ever discussed Ruskin, no one knows. And we can only speculate what Ruskin would have made of Schwitters, who said, “Everything the artist spits is art,” and whose greatest works feature sticks, tickets, and labels stuck on walls.