Born 200 years ago this week, John Ruskin was an artist, art critic and a major shaper of the taste of his time, whose fierce critique of Victorian industrialism has kept its sting
Born in London on 8 February 1819 and brought up as a beloved but socially isolated only child, Ruskin longed for close female companionship. He largely failed to find it. His first marriage, to Effie Gray, was annulled due to non-consummation. The circumstances generated much scandal and gossip and have excited curiosity ever since.
His later, much more sympathetic, relationship with Rose La Touche also ran into difficulties. Her parents forbade Rose to see him, partly because of the age difference between the two – 29 years – but also because of the social contamination they believed his failed first marriage would bring. Rose died in 1875, aged 27. Her death was the prelude to the mental breakdowns that disfigured Ruskin’s life until his own death in 1900.
Victorian England was a free-market economy. It saw a rapid rise in mechanical power in industry, which, in turn, generated a large number of staggering personal fortunes. To most of the new elite – not surprisingly – it seemed obvious that the fierce competition that the market allowed had brought greater social harmony as well as increased prosperity.
But to Ruskin, following Thomas Carlyle and anticipating William Morris and Karl Marx, free-market capitalism, whose only rationale was the production of profit, was fundamentally amoral. What he saw, when he looked out of his window, was poverty, urban ugliness and gloom. The capitalist, it seemed, felt no more responsibility for those who worked for him than to pay them the lowest wage necessary to secure their labour for no longer than they were required.