Editorial: "Of Many Things" | John Dixon Hunt

Editorial: “Of Many Things” | John Dixon Hunt

John Ruskin’s “The Lamp of Memory” is the central text for Ruskin as a preservationist. Yet it is itself but one chapter in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and his writing of the Seven Lamps was itself a detour from work on Modern Painters—a “supplementary volume,” he wrote (8.311).1 This in its turn served as an antechamber to the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, after which the work on painting in Modern Painters was resumed. Nor was the lamp of memory kindled on that one occasion in 1849. From his early years until the last years of madness, Ruskin was obsessed with a combination of concerns that mark all historic preservation: memory, of course; but also fascination with old materials, truth and beauty, ancient buildings in an age of increasing industrialization, sites of nostalgia both cultural and highly personal, and the fabric of buildings as evidence of civilization.

His attention to “many things” (the title he gave to the third volume of Modern Painters in 1856) was enlarged, maybe even scattered, even more after its fifth and final volume was completed in 1860. He sometimes signaled his awareness of the “many things” that drew his attention by citing Tintoretto’s phrase on the huge ocean that awaited a painter: “Sempre si fa il mare maggiore”;2 the sea just gets bigger and bigger, more and more a challenge to navigate it.

The thirty-eight volumes of his Collected Works, with the thirty-ninth volume serving as a less than satisfactory index, has, since its completion in 1912, been fleshed out with just as many further volumes—diaries, letters, archival research, commentaries; so the extent of Ruskin’s role as historic preservationist is much occluded by the sheer bulk of what he produced and what has been written about him. Ruskin also changed his mind—no harm there, although he is sometimes castigated for it by his critics. For example, he rejected “the use of cast or machine-made ornaments” in 1849, but in 1880, he acknowledged that “the dishonesty of the machine would cease, as soon as it became universally practiced, of which universality there seems every likelihood in these days.”

Ruskin was, in fact, as both writer and speaker, skillfully able to practice what today we would call “speech acts”—suiting what he said to the audience or correspondents he wrote for or who sat before him in often very different institutions; sometimes he had to suppose who the readership of his books would be, which is why he came to prefer public performances before audiences that he knew better or could identify. Thus, his observations on historic preservation are both scattered through the published writings and not always offered in situations where that topic was foremost or paramount. One way to focus upon his contributions to this subject is to anthologize some of his obiter dicta, a move that Kenneth Clark undertook in Ruskin Today (1964), though without specifically isolating his preservationist ideas. So that contribution to Ruskin’s responses to “change over time” is made here in a miscellany of his remarks, and it forms the last item in this issue of Change Over Time. For he acknowledged “change,” or what he also called “Imperfection,” namely “a sign … of a state of progress and change.” But the change he best acknowledged was the “perpetual variety of every feature of a building” (10.202–4), something that was at odds with Viollet-le-Duc’s perfectionism.

One of the best, most useful (because succinct) introductions to his preservationist instincts and ideas is still the 1969 lecture by Nikolaus Pevsner on Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc.3 Between these two “actors” (as he calls them), he makes good distinctions: the one was a doer, the other a critic; one was an agnostic, the other an evangelical Christian who never wholly lost that faith; one draws wonderful, but incomplete fragments of buildings, whereas Viollet drew structures that revealed the logic of rational construction.4 Both relished the authenticity of truth to materials; both admired the Gothic, and (as Pevsner notes) both were enthusiasts “of stone and hence of geology”—Ruskin’s fourth volume of Modern Painters was largely concerned with geology to sustain his larger appeal to “the brotherhood between the cathedral and the alp” (10.188), and hence to his delight in how stone was used (and sculpted) in buildings.

Pevsner’s attention to what distinguishes the Frenchman from the Englishman suggests several ways in which Ruskin’s preservation ideas can be foreground: what are the pertinent preservationist principles that Ruskin implied or endorsed? What are unhelpful guidelines? The seven lamps are evocative, but not strictly architectural: Pevsner notes Viollet-le-Duc’s insistence, in Volume Two of his Dictionnaire, on specific architecture items (altars, bases, capitals), while Ruskin gave only one ground plan of a building and revered the sculpture of capital carving rather than its structural role in architecture. The lamps (apart perhaps from that of Sacrifice as an offering to God) are still useful to preservationists, but our understanding of their abstractions or metaphors has changed since he formulated them, and the terms have been given firmer, more precise architectural weight, to which we bring different cultural assumptions to what his words celebrate. Ruskin above all admired ornament: “The right question to ask respecting all ornament is simply this: was it done with enjoyment—was the carver happy, while he was about it?” (8.218); but today, ornamentation requires, if at all, a more fundamental architectural argument. Both Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin, for example, admired how architecture derived from the people. For Ruskin, this was his praise of the Gothic carver; for Viollet-le-Duc, architecture and sculpture were “the work of the whole race” (“les enfants du people”) and “personne ne songeit à les diriger” (nobody directed their work), a move that came, says Pevsner, only with “Louis XIV and the academies.”5 Both valued, in their different ways, that the past was just a past that must nonetheless be carefully perused (“fouiller [search, excavate] avec soin” [care]), not for revival, but for future service. Yet Ruskin hated so much of the age he lived in (though not photography, which saved him time in registering building details)6—railways, climate, and above all the “Immaculate Virginity of Money, mother of the Omnipotence of Money [that] is the Protestant form of Madonna worship” (23.162). Ruskin hated work that was inauthentic of the materials used (though by the end of his life he seemed to admit possibilities of “a new system of architectural laws” [8.66]), whereas Viollet-le-Duc used ironwork that had its own material authenticity and, for his contemporaries, a sense of the justness of its use, because that authenticity was that of modern people.

Ruskin was connected from his earliest days with issues of preservation; during his undergraduate days, he was a founding member of the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture. His good friend, William Morris, founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, and Ruskin remained on its committee until his death. He served as a council member for the Arundel Society, and he was actually elected to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1853.7 He was nonetheless more driven by associationist ideas about preservation than by its practical requirements; he valued preservation over restoration, largely because it allowed him to shine the seven lamps onto architecture. Ruskin, unlike Viollet-le-Duc, rarely moved his social criticism into “violent action,” although he did once embark on road-building near Oxford, a task in which he was helped briefly by an undergraduate called Oscar Wilde; but he was an eloquent writer and speaker (never mind how this is presented in the recent 2014 movie on Turner), and his instinctive and cultivated literary rhetoric served him well there as a polemicist.

This issue explores one of his most significant essays on preservation, “The Lamp of Memory,” in The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Gabrielle Ruddick takes up the theme of “character,” and she parses Ruskin’s use of that key word, which had been a fundamental concern of many writers, from the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in his Characteristics of Men, Morals, Opinions and Times, to Thomas Whately’s discussions of expressive and emblematic characters of landscape in Observations of Modern Gardening. Ruskin, it should be noted, was much influenced by eighteenth-century writings on responses to landscape and architecture, and found them useful in steering his Victorian readers to an understanding of place, memory, and genius loci.

Another article treats one of Ruskin’s later contacts and communications with sympathetic architects and preservationists in Venice, a huge theme that is being taken up now in modern commentaries.8 Ruskin gave financial support for Alvise Zorzi’s Osservazioni intorno ai ristauri interni ed esterni della Basilica di San Marco (Observations on the Internal and External Restoration of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, 1877), which was in its turn dedicated to him. There was his friendship and patronage of the painter, Angelo Alessandri of the Accademia di Belle Arte (an institution that not only taught the practice of painting but was involved in monitoring the restoration of buildings and art works); it was Ruskin who encouraged Alessandri to see paintings in their original or similar settings—notably the St. Ursula series by Carpaccio, a painter with whom Ruskin was much obsessed. Among these Venetian contacts, it is Ruskin’s correspondence and support for the architect and archeologist Giacome Boni that is the subject of the essay here by Myriam Pilutti Namer, who charts some of the restoration debates that preoccupied Venice. Yet the debates had far wider implications, which were made clear by William Morris’s interventions in the Venetian question in letters to Ruskin, Robert Browning, Gladstone, and The Times.9

Ruskin bought his Lake District home, Brantwood, sight unseen in 1871, and it was a place that sustained and sheltered him in the final years. It survived after his death in 1900, until a sale in 1923 removed much of its accumulations (many acquired by locals who kept boxes without much exploring what they contained), and it was acquired by J. H. Whitehouse, one of Ruskin’s disciples. It became a field study center in the 1950s, emerged as a “historical house” in the 1970s, and has since been one of the unavoidable locales for Ruskin scholarship. Its current preservation, along with its history, is taken up by Howard Hull, for the past nineteen years the director of the Ruskin Foundation and the Brantwood Trust.



1. I use E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, eds., The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin (London: George Allen, 1903–12) throughout, citing it by volume and page number. Some of my own remarks are advanced both in the use of Tintoretto’s phrase for the title of my biography of Ruskin, The Wider Sea (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1982), and in my essay, “Oeuvre & Footnote,” in The Ruskin Polygon, edited by John Dixon Hunt and Faith Holland (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1982), 1–20, where we adopted Ruskin’s remark that “trotting round a polygon is severe work for people any way stiff in their opinions” (16.187).
2. Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse, eds. The Diaries of John Ruskin, 3 vols. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1956–59), 3.925, 6, for instance, and its citation again in his memoir, Praeterita, 35.372.
3. Nikolaus Pevsner, Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969); it obviously derives from Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art (New York: Praeger, 1956), but also suggests much that is à propos for preservation.
4. Robert Hewison’s Ruskin on Venice (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009) makes an interesting point by juxtaposing a Ruskin drawing of the façade of the Ca d’Oro with a 1845 daguerreotype that shows the dereliction of the palace, which Ruskin’s sketch might have wished to avoid (102). But that simply does not explain Ruskin’s many drawings of buildings, including ornament, that are also of bits and pieces and incomplete records; and he wrote in the prospectus to Examples of Architecture of Venice (London, 1851) that, “In order to prevent further disappointments, MR RUSKIN wishes it especially to be observed that very few of the drawings will be of entire buildings. Nearly all the subjects are portions of buildings, drawn with the single purpose of giving perfect examples of their architecture, but not pictorial arrangements” (11.313, 4).
5. Pevsner, Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, 30.
6. Ruskin bought his first daguerreotype camera in 1849 (Hewison, Ruskin on Venice, 127).
7. Hewison, Ruskin on Venice, 213. Ruskin never came to the United States, in part, he observed, because it contained no ruins!
8. Ruskin’s attention to Venice is focused in Robert Hewison’s dense and contextual Ruskin on Venice and in his earlier Ruskin and Venice (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), and in John Unrau’s Looking at Architecture with Ruskin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), and his Ruskin and St. Mark’s (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984); Jeanne Clegg, Ruskin and Venice (London: Junction Books, 1981) and Ruskin’s Venice (London: George Godwin, 1976); Margaret Plant, Venice Fragile City 1797–1997 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002) offers a detailed narrative of Venice in the years when Ruskin was most involved in its fragility. A recent advertisement for Kirker’s Tours “for Discerning Travellers” offered five days in “Ruskin’s Venice” to explore “La Serenissima through its Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance past,” not forgetting Ruskin’s late fascination with Carpaccio.
9. See Plant, Venice Fragile City 1797–1997, 186–87.