John Ruskin

2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Ruskin. Now, I have to admit I've never been one of Ruskin's biggest fans! Brantwood, yes. Ruskin, no! I've always loved trips to Brantwood and enjoyed exploring the gardens and Coniston lakeside, but Ruskin left me cold. He didn't seem to have any relevance to today and the issues surrounding us. Even after I'd fallen in love with the Romantics, I still held aloof from Ruskin.

Maybe I was influenced by the negative public image of Ruskin; the cold, austere Victorian. Maybe, over exposure to all things related to Literary Lakeland at an early age, caused me to rebel and dismiss Ruskin. I really don't know. All I know is that when I stumbled across Suzanne Fagence Cooper's beautiful little book about Ruskin: To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters, my rather entrenched views started to change.

As I read To See Clearly I realised that Ruskin has relevancy for today. He imagines new ways for "hand, head and heart" to work together. He teaches us how to travel with more care; the need to respond to our mental fragility and to the anxieties of others. Ruskin tells us to work more effectively, and more fairly. In our current world, all of these have a sense of urgency and importance.

I particular related to Ruskin's thoughts on labour and life. Suzanne Fagence Cooper writes about Ruskin's criticism of unstable employment and the short-termism of major employers who would not guarantee regular wages. This chimes with our current concerns about zero-hours contracts and the impact on the economy and family life. Ruskin writes about ethical sourcing of goods and labour, he says:

"Whenever we buy or try to buy cheap goods...remember we are stealing somebody's labour...taking from him the proper reward of his work and putting it into your pocket. You know well enough that the thing could not have been offered you at that price, unless distress of some kind had forced the producer to part with it. You take advantage of this distress."

My reading and thinking about Ruskin's relevance led me to read Ruskinland by Andrew Hill. The subtitle of this book, written by a Financial Times journalist, is "How John Ruskin Shapes our World". 

In both Ruskinland and Why Ruskin Matters I discovered a Ruskin I had never dreamed existed. A man of moral outrage with the state of his Britain; a man not opposed to the making of money but a man who believed in fair distribution and high standards of living for all men. In Unto This Last Ruskin wrote:

"There is no wealth but life. Life includes all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is the richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others."

Ruskin defined wealth by reference to its dark side "illth". "Illth" can be explained as rather than providing for the nation from their wealth and enhancing and improving the lives of the fellow man, the illthy cause "various devastation and trouble" with their misuded riches. Andrew Hill goes on to give examples from 21st Britain of some of the illthy wreaking destruction in lives and businesses.

I love the word "illthy". I love my newly found views on Ruskin and I'm looking forward to exploring the man and his work further during 2019, the bi-centenary of his birth.