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Mediating Ruskin: ‘Through a Kaleidoscope, Brightly’

Au prisme de Ruskin
Fabienne Gaspari et Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

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1February 2019 marked the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birth, and for the members of the French Victorian and Edwardian Society (SFEVE) the anniversary provided a timely opportunity to reappraise the ways in which Ruskin’s ideas have been interpreted, translated, and accommodated in the numerous fields that were impacted by his writings. The selection of essays presented in this volume emerged from a two-day conference jointly organised by the Université de Pau and the Université de Bordeaux-Montaigne and held in Pau in early 2019.

2In a distant echo of one of Ruskin’s often-used lines from the Bible, and in homage both to classical studies of Ruskin (John Rosenberg’s The Darkening Glass, 1986) and to more recent, thought-provoking studies (Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Glassworlds, 2008), this volume aims to explore the filters and theoretical frames through which Ruskin’s ideas have been viewed and appropriated but also distorted, enlarged and in some ways diminished.

3The notion of mediation which informs the title of this collection points in several directions, referring to the ways in which Ruskin’s prolific writings have been read and translated, and his thoughts disseminated from a corner of the globe that he himself travelled to others on which he never set foot. Starting by focusing on the most famous translator of Ruskin in France, Marcel Proust, this volume considers some of the ways in which Ruskin’s writings have been interpreted and, in a sense, appropriated by his various readers whose political, social or cultural agenda sometimes coincided but also often conflicted with Ruskin’s own views.

4Many of the contributors to the volume do not overtly address Ruskin’s ideas so much as show how instrumental they have been in shaping others’ thoughts. While some contributions clearly focus on specific writers and periods or movements, others recast Ruskin’s texts and give them new significance and outreach by exploring specific aspects or fields. In keeping with the image of the kaleidoscope, the main objective of the collection is to exemplify how the vast sum of Ruskin’s writings reverberates beyond what the standard Library Edition gives us as each text can be rearranged and recast in a different light and given new colouring through translation, adaptation or exegesis. In this optical and intellectual reconfiguration, the main claim made here is that one can actually gain new insight into many topics Ruskin touched on or even failed to properly address by looking at how his ideas expanded in time without becoming embroiled in the prickly question of influence.

  • 1 Francis O’Gorman, ‘“Influence” in the Contemporary Study of the Humanities: The Problem of Ruskin’. (...)

5Indeed, as Francis O’Gorman rightly pointed out in a recent article on Ruskin and the contemporary study of the humanities,1 thinking in terms of influence necessarily entails giving a distorted vision of the past and ‘assuming that men and women meant to achieve what they actually achieved’ (O’Gorman 26). Examining the relevance of Ruskin’s thoughts to today’s world and trying to relate his writings to contemporary ideas—an attractively tempting and intellectually rewarding operation in many ways—may thus undercut the complexities not only of his own thoughts but also of their reception by writers and critics alike.

6By contrast with that approach, the contributors to this volume strive to unravel the various threads of interpretation that surface in texts written by authors whose common point is to have become familiar with Ruskin,—either through first-hand personal contact and correspondence (such as William Robinson or Oscar Wilde) or through translation and reading (as in the case of Marcel Proust).

Literary and Aesthetic Mirroring(s)

7The articles in the first part of this volume highlight how, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some writers filtered and recycled essential traits of Ruskin’s work, a process which enhanced their own idiosyncrasies and helped them build their own vision. In France, Marcel Proust, translator and exegete of Ruskin, appears as his most eminent mediator. Ruskin’s texts were for him an optical instrument which helped him to view the world and therefore achieve this power of vision and insight which the English art critic valued so much. In his knowledge of Ruskin, Proust also relied on other eyes, and Robert de La Sizeranne’s Ruskin et la religion de la beauté helped him admire the Alps through the perceptions of the English master. First showing these complex interactions, Emily Eells examines the relationships between Marcel Proust and Ruskin, and focuses on the influence of the English art critic’s dialectic of word and image on Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu. She invokes the image of the prism and starts with Proust citing Ruskin’s own words about Turner: ‘through those eyes, now filled with dust, generations yet unborn will learn to behold the light of nature’.

8Using Ruskin’s own term of ‘incrustation’, her discussion of ‘Proust’s Ruskin’ explores intertextuality regarded as both textual layering and ornamentation, the inclusion of ‘decorative gems gleaned from Ruskin’. It also concentrates on Proust’s article on Ruskin in the Gazette des Beaux Arts (April and August 1900) and on intermediality, which Eells defines as ‘reciprocal influence’ (another Ruskinian phrase), showing Proust’s appropriation of two images, Giotto’s ‘Charity’ and the copy by Ruskin of the sculpted figure from the façade of Rouen cathedral. Drawing on a sustained analogy between ecclesiastical architecture and decorated books, Ruskin showed that cathedrals, ornamented with sculptures inspired from the Bible, were to be regarded as illuminated books or ‘iconotexts’ in Eells’s own words. This insightful analogy must have led Proust to see the creation of La Recherche in architectural terms, linking this masterpiece with a cathedral. He also took his inspiration from Ruskin’s references to illuminated texts and ‘not only studded his text with decorative allusions to Ruskin’s text but overlaid it with images drawn from his works’. It becomes clear that Ruskin’s ideas, thus filtered through Proust’s innovative writing, anticipated modernism.

9However, Proust’s uses of these illustrations or ‘illuminations’ could be contrasted with the more paradoxical reception of Ruskin’s ideas by Maurice Barrès. For Jessica Desclaux, Barrès, who wrote on Venice and who encouraged Proust to translate St Mark’s Rest, contributed to Ruskin’s fame in France but also initiated a movement that resisted his theories. Barrès wrote ‘against’ the English art critic by including in his own novels or travel writings polemical fragments that responded to Ruskinian theories that had become widely accepted and even fashionable.

10Barrès became interested in Ruskin when he first visited Italy in 1887 and found himself immersed in the Ruskinian atmosphere or ‘climat ruskinien’ which then reigned in Florence among a set of English aesthetes (Henry James and Vernon Lee among them), a ‘milieu préraphaélite’ according to the French writer. He thus gained his initial knowledge of Italian art through conversations with these aesthetes who were themselves influenced by Ruskin but who were beginning to criticize him and to appreciate Walter Pater’s ideas instead. Barrès also read Joseph-Antoine Milsand’s Esthétique anglaise. Étude sur M. John Ruskin, which he regarded as a landmark. If his initial opinion was therefore second-hand, Barrès then started to read Ruskin’s writings and to define more accurately his reaction to the art critic. Ruskin appears in Un homme libre (1889), among a list of travellers who wrote on art, and this novel, followed by ‘La mort de Venise’ (1897–1903), foregrounds a polemical dialogue not only with Ruskin but also with Paul Bourget, another mediator of Ruskin’s ideas in France. In a much more complex way, Barrès aimed at responding to some of his contemporaries, among whom Léon Daudet and Hughes Rebell who also challenged Ruskin’s vision of Venice and of Italian art.

11Thus it appears that envisioning Ruskin through multilayered intertextual and intermedial connections also meant appropriation and recreation. These two notions were also central to the ways Ruskin relied on his own experience of the reception of Turner’s painting to define the act of perception, as shown by Lawrence Gasquet in her analysis of his reflections on ‘perceptual aberration’. Starting from comments on photography, viewed as opposed to Turner’s art (‘Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp, not like a Turner’s?’), this article pays close attention to Ruskin’s elaborate thoughts on optical experience.

12The writer of this article demonstrates how, in Ruskin’s writings, ‘the gaze itself is under extensive scrutiny, examining how human perception functions, and how it translates into successful pictorial representation’. More precisely, what is at stake here is Ruskin’s interest in perceptual aberration, which he studies through Turner’s treatment of infinity and of distance, proving that the painter focused mostly on direct optical experience and on its conditions, hence his fascination with light. Ruskin’s appraisal of Turner’s landscapes in Modern Painters greatly emphasises the indeterminacy they convey, which Gasquet connects to the definition of the Gothic formulated in The Stones of Venice. She writes that, for Ruskin, ‘what we do not see is more fascinating than what we actually see’. Thus the value given to what eludes the eye, together with his defence of imperfection, anticipated the major breakthroughs of the 20th century regarding physiological perception.

13Besides what one may consider as the visionary quality of some of his thinking, the complex—and sometimes contradictory—formulation Ruskin gave to his aesthetic principles can account for the ambivalent reception those very principles found in the Aesthetic movement in England, more particularly in the works of two of its most emblematic representatives, Oscar Wilde and William Morris.

14The next article in the first section introduces these English ‘aesthetic mirrorings’ and Carole Delhorme’s contribution emphasizes the ambivalence of Wilde’s stance illustrated by the evolution that led him to ‘embrace’ and then ‘reject’ the Ruskinian legacy in his own aesthetic theories. In his early career, Wilde acknowledged Ruskin’s influence since, for him, the art critic had contributed to the restoration of the praise of beauty, included in theories on the social role of art. These theories, taken up by William Morris in his writings on the decorative arts and by the Art and Crafts Movement, stressed the necessity to reintroduce beauty at the heart of everyday life. Like Ruskin, Wilde addressed the issue of Victorian materialism and of the ugliness of surroundings defaced by industrialization and urbanization. The praise of beauty involved criticizing mechanical production and advocating the return to hand-made objects, thereby connecting the artisan and the artist and giving meaning to a work designed and done by man.

15Yet Wilde went beyond this Ruskinian reformative stance to become a disciple of Art for Art’s sake, a movement which dissociated aesthetics and ethics, while Ruskin’s endeavour was to maintain a constant connection between them. Wilde’s claim that art is superior to nature (seen as imperfect and lacking style) further disconnected his thoughts on art from Ruskin’s legacy. Thus, if Wilde’s US lectures (1882) echoed Ruskin’s outcry against the ugliness of industrialized cities and foregrounded the social mission of art, the essays written ten years later in the early 1890s (‘The Decay of Lying’, ‘Intentions’), adhered to the tenets of the Aesthetic Movement of Art for Art’s sake. However, as Delhorme shows, rather than simply testifying to Wilde’s own evolution, this change also reflects contradictions (or rather, contradistinctions) that are inherent to Ruskin’s writings and that make him appear both as a precursor to the Aesthetic Movement and as one of its opponents.

16Another way of envisaging the impact Ruskin had on the Aesthetic Movement is proposed by Martine Lambert-Charbonnier through an analysis of William Morris’s philosophy of interior design and a study of the influence of Ruskin’s ‘The Nature of Gothic’ on Morris’s ‘The Lesser Arts of Life’. Morris’s conception, based on a revival of the Gothic style but also on Walter Pater’s celebration of music that led the Aesthete to view internal design as a musical composition, originated in and reinterpreted two major features of Ruskin’s writings: his insistence on the minute observation of nature, itself a source of inspiration in all its forms to craftsmen, in order to reach truth; his resistance to mass production and praise of craftsmanship and of ‘roughness’ as opposed to mechanical perfection.

17Ruskin’s advocacy of craftsmanship and of the imitation of nature’s beautiful designs, linked with his belief in the social function of art, greatly inspired Morris’s conception. In the wake of Ruskin who brought forth the creative qualities of the Middle Ages in The Stones of Venice, Morris wanted the decorative arts to be included in the Gothic Revival. The value given to craftsmanship stemmed from Ruskin’s and Morris’s opposition to manufacturing and the division of labour that also resulted in loss of meaning and alienation for the workers. Yet Morris’s concern for the welfare of his contemporaries and for current social and economic issues coexisted with the aesthete’s desire to escape into aesthetic ideals cut off from reality, all the more so as aestheticism also came to embrace Walter Pater’s celebration of music and dream. According to Lambert-Charbonnier, there was a paradox in Morris’s aesthetic venture, ‘the paradox of creating new designs in modern times while looking up to past centuries’, which led to ‘the subtle contradiction in some aesthetic homes between the desire to open to nature and the withdrawal into the House Beautiful as a shelter for one’s own dreams’.

18In both contributions the reader is made aware of how Ruskin’s connections—from the circle of second wave Pre-Raphaelite artists like Edward Burne-Jones or William Morris to later aesthetes like Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater—contributed to nuancing Ruskin’s writings while leading both authors to perpetuate his ideas as much as to challenge them: in that regard, one could even argue that Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorisms are the best evidence that he was following in the footsteps of Ruskin whose very habit of contradicting himself and regularly changing his mind about certain subjects was a self-conscious gesture he almost cultivated as a writer’s stance to signal his mobile character and freedom. At the same time, the ground covered by Ruskin was undoubtedly expanded by a number of passeurs d’idées or mediators whose approach was either more practically oriented or anchored in a very different soil than his own and that of his immediate followers.

New Prospects

19The next section in our volume, ‘New Prospects’, includes four contributions that all focus on the nuances brought about by contemporaries of Ruskin who applied some of his ideas in other fields both at a literal and a cultural level.

20Aurélien Wasilewski’s essay, entitled ‘“Modern Gardeners” with Rustic Ideals: Fruitful Congruencies between John Ruskin and William Robinson’, explores the ways in which the prominent gardener and editor of The Garden magazine used some of Ruskin’s theories to develop his own views on gardening. Starting with Ruskin’s famous recommendation that one should be true to nature, Wasilewski builds on Robinson’s admiration for Modern Painters to show how the gardener’s vision was shaped by Ruskin’s writings on art and beauty, influencing Robinson’s view of the gardener as ‘interpreter of nature’—a notion that thereafter led him to invent and develop the concept of ‘wild garden’ (a quintessentially English way of grouping plants according to their natural habitats and habits). The author then goes on to give concrete examples of the two men’s congruent views on nature in gardening practices and method.

21The investigation reveals that this was a two-way process: Robinson most certainly knew and read Ruskin’s books in the first place but Ruskin was later also very much aware of Robinson’s own ideas and gardening theories, especially around the time when he was busy developing the grounds around his house at Brantwood. What’s more, as Wasilewski rightly argues, both men perceived gardening as a means to ‘foster an ethical relation to the world in general’ which led them to correspond not only about botanical nomenclature but also about drawing and teaching so that ‘Robinson . . . managed to develop and spread [Ruskin’s] vision through a kaleidoscopic rendering of [his] work.’

22At a time when some of Ruskin’s botanical books have just resurfaced and new discoveries on his botanical studies are underway, Wasilewski’s contribution convincingly demonstrates that Ruskin’s lesser-known, or at least lesser-studied, interest in botany revealed how his engagement with nature and the environment had concrete and visible effects on the landscape of English gardens and the very practice of gardening.

23In a similar vein, in ‘Over-hopefulness and getting-on-ness’, Sara Atwood sheds an interesting light on the reception of Ruskin abroad by confronting his view on nature and art with that of three major American natural philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. In her essay, she first details the reasons behind Ruskin’s critical view of America, a country he never visited and considered as lacking the cultural heritage Europe could boast; she next sets out to examine antagonistic contemporary responses to his own attitude towards nature and art, pondering on the dissensions expressed by Thoreau, Emerson and Muir. As she rightly points out, it is rather surprising to observe that these four high priests of nature should not have expressed similar views as they shared a similar attraction for nature and the natural world. However, as she stresses, Ruskin’s feeling for nature was considered by Thoreau and Muir as mediated or filtered through art and religion rather than directly inspired by nature alone. Conversely, Thoreau’s vision of nature was far from conservative and entailed ‘leaving the past behind, shedding the very influences that shaped Ruskin’s understanding of the natural world’. Seen in that American mirror, Ruskin’s outlook on nature and dualistic prose could not fail to seem dark and obscured by a pessimistic attitude that Muir described using a visual metaphor, as occluded ‘by the heaviest and most opaque stuff in the universe’. As Atwood finely states, to these three American contemporaries, Ruskin lived ‘beneath a bell-glass’ and failed to fully see nature as it was—a biased appreciation that was perhaps partially due to Ruskin’s language and contorted prose.

24In this contribution, what clearly comes to light is the complexity of the reception of Ruskin’s ideas abroad and in a land where readers (albeit arguably) shared a common language. Likewise, in her essay ‘Se souvenir du tribun et de l’apôtre. John Ruskin par son traducteur Emile Cammaerts (1878–1953)’, Julie Lageyre explores yet another facet of Ruskin’s reception abroad by focusing on the translation work by the Belgian-born poet journalist and dramatist writer, Emile Cammaerts. Here too, the question Lageyre addresses not only concerns language itself but the connection between Ruskin’s prose and its interpretation by Cammaerts. As her investigation into the meanders of Cammaerts’s correspondence unfolds and progresses, the author clearly shows how Cammaerts used Ruskin’s writings to support his own vision of art as a form allying aesthetics and religion. Contrary to Robert de la Sizeranne’s famous critical study of Ruskin, Ruskin and the Religion of Beauty, Lageyre argues that Cammaerts chose to emphasize the religious aspects of Ruskin’s writings so as to bring out his own belief that art and religion are one, and that the state of any given society can be assessed by looking at the art it produced. Just as Ruskin had praised the Gothic architecture of Northern France, such a belief naturally led Cammaerts to praise the medieval period and its Gothic architecture as a climax in the history of Belgium and to encourage the promotion of a national art tradition. Lageyre then goes on to demonstrate that Cammaerts’s translations of Ruskin’s texts into French were not only instrumental in popularizing British art among the French avant-garde and accelerating the development of impressionism but also in involving a Belgian link in artistic and cultural transmission: the landscape artist Paul Rubens.

25In all three articles, Ruskin’s political, social and aesthetic stance and critical posture are not only closely examined but also contrasted with those of the people he emulated and inspired outlining, ‘a portrait of his oeuvre’(in Cammaerts’s words) as much as a portrait of the man. Sometimes, the portrait is expressed through words, sometimes through concrete action. In some cases, it can also be composed of a rich combination of text and image as exemplified by the Japanese Ruskin scholar Ryuzo Mikimoto whose name remains attached today to a special lecture given every year by a Ruskin scholar at the Guild of Saint George’s annual meeting.

26As Haruka Miki writes in the last essay in the section, ‘Ryuzo Mikimoto and the Ruskin “Relics” Exhibitions (1926, 1931 and 1933)’, Ryuzo was not only the first person to have written a complete translation of Modern Painters in Japanese but he also acted as a cultural bridge between Britain and Japan–collecting Ruskin books and artefacts from 1920 and then mounting exhibitions to disseminate Ruskin’s thoughts in his country. His fascination with Ruskin led to the foundation of the Ruskin society in 1931 and of the Ruskin Library in 1934, which initially started as a coffee-shop he opened in the Ginza district of Tokyo and then became an institution, and which today holds the largest collection of Ruskin’s works outside the UK. In her contribution, Miki first traces the reception of Ruskin in Japan by giving a detailed account of the so-called ‘Relics’ exhibitions Ruyzo commissioned in 1926, 1931 and 1933—usefully contextualizing each venue and focusing on the religious context of early twentieth-century Japan. As she argues, ‘[c]loser examination of the five shows casts light on the social and religious background to the reception of Ruskin. In the newly established “nation-state”, in which there was a concerted political attempt to devise even a religious belief system, Japanese young intellectuals struggled to find a unified cultural and religious landscape that could strike a balance between Western and traditional Japanese moral values, and also between the idealism of Western thought and the demanding new realities of the age: the rise of capitalism, resultant economic disparity, and institutional imperialist warfare. Under such circumstances, many turned to Ruskin and to other thinkers for spiritual guidance.’ She then moves on to reconsider Ryuzo’s reception of Ruskin as a trajectory of the spiritual struggle characteristic of young Japanese intellectuals of the time.

27As Miki rightly observes in her conclusion, ‘a collection is not merely an array of objects amassed by an individual, but it is also a clear reflection of the numerous paths the collector travelled in life’. In this case, it reveals how Ryuzo turned to Ruskin’s writings and overall outlook on life, nature and art to find meaning in his own path. In the process, no doubt Ruskin’s initial ideas were not only translated but adapted and transformed through a new cultural lens that may have diffracted his original beam of thought but also generated new shades of meaning and new thought-patterns.

Ruskin Mediated

28The last section in our volume, entitled, ‘Ruskin Mediated’ offers two original contributions by Jérôme Bastianelli and Professor Landow that illustrate the way Ruskin scholarship itself has extended and may continue to extend beyond the written text, so as to resonate beyond a restricted academic sphere to the wider world.

29In a contribution that stems from a brilliant lecture delivered at the University of Pau, Museum curator and polymath Jérôme Bastianelli thus demonstrates how his original and independent research on Proust and Ruskin has led him to reflect on the current approach to national cultural heritage and conservation practices in England and in France. In ‘Repenser le patrimoine, hier et aujourd’hui: Le génie de John Ruskin’, Bastianelli first reminds us of Ruskin’s aversion towards the Crystal Palace—a negative appreciation he shared with several of his contemporaries from Charles Dickens to the French art critic Hippolyte Taine. He then considers Ruskin’s famous pamphlet, ‘The Opening of the Crystal Palace’, published in 1854 in the light of the latter’s previous writings on the protection and restoration of ancient buildings and usefully reminds us of the connection between Ruskin’s initial proposal and public stance with other preservationist endeavours like William Morris’s foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 and Octavia Hill’s founding of the National Trust in 1895.

30In the second part of his lecture-talk, Bastianelli draws an interesting parallel between Ruskin’s preservationist attitude and Victor Hugo and Prosper Mérimée’s engagement for the protection and restoration of French national buildings. From the mid-nineteenth century to today, some conservation issues may have changed but the underlying concern with cultural heritage remains vital today on both sides of the Channel.

31Finally, the last text included in this volume is both a portrait of and a homage to Professor George Landow who was awarded Honorary membership of the SFEVE at the Ruskin conference in 2019 and whose Victorian Web has helped to further disseminate Ruskin’s thought far and wide through translation and international collaboration. In the short interview he kindly agreed to give, Landow rehearses the reasons that led him to study Ruskin and nicely sums up the relevance of the latter’s writings for today’s society. From Ruskin’s text to hypertext, The Victorian Web may thus be perceived as a form of montage and digital kaleidoscope transforming Ruskin’s singular vision into a myriad of promising and stimulating insights.

Pau University, February 2020

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1 Francis O’Gorman, ‘“Influence” in the Contemporary Study of the Humanities: The Problem of Ruskin’. Carlyle Studies Annual 28 (2012): 5–30. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Feb. 2020.

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Fabienne Gaspari et Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Mediating Ruskin: ‘Through a Kaleidoscope, Brightly’ »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 91 Printemps | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL :

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