The Forest, 1887
Art,  Art and Design,  English

Ruskin’s Literary Contributions: Writing and Criticism in the Arts and Crafts Movement

The text below is the excerpt from the book The Arts & Crafts Movement (ISBN: 9781783103836), written by Oscar Lovell Triggs, published by Parkstone International.

“Art is no recreation, it cannot be learned at spare moments, nor pursued when we have nothing better to do. It is no handiwork for drawingroom tables, no relief for the ennui of boudoirs; it must be understood and undertaken seriously or not at all. To advance it men’s lives must be given, and to receive it, their hearts.”

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1843.
The Victorian Drawing Room, c. 1892-1894, Arts and Crafts
Philip Webb and Morris & Co., The Victorian Drawing Room, c. 1892-1894. Standen, East Grinstead.

The primary motive of the Arts and Crafts movement was, as the name implies, the association of art and labour. Initially an English movement, it slowly emerged from the general industrial field over about forty years, though its differentiation into a distinct phase of industrialism belonged to the last ten years. The year 1860 was counted as the approximate year of its beginning, when William Morris built his famous Red House on the outskirts of London, and served his apprenticeship to the industrial arts by designing and executing the decoration and furniture of his home. The Arts and Crafts theory appeared before 1860 though, through the writings of Ruskin and Morris.

The story of John Ruskin’s pilgrimage, his passage from naturalism to artistic interests, and thence to socialism, is one of the most significant life histories of the nineteenth century. In all his early writings on nature and art it was the relation of these to man for which he cared. Ruskin’s moral sentiments were the element that differentiated him from other art teachers and thus marked him early for the mission of social reform. He declared himself that the beginning of his political economy is to be found in the assertion in Modern Painters that beautiful things are useful to men because they are beautiful, and for the sake of their beauty only, and not to sell, or pawn, or in any way turn into money. We are fortunate also to have Ruskin’s own statement of the purpose of his art studies, following upon Modern Painters. He told an audience at Bradford:

Wandle, 1884, Arts and Crafts
William Morris, Wandle (name of the river next to Morris’ workshop), 1884. Indigo-discharged and block-printed cotton, 165 x 92 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

“The book I called The Seven Lamps was to show that certain right states of temper and moral feeling were the magic powers by which all good architecture, without exception, had been produced. The Stones of Venice had, from beginning to end, no other aim than to show that the Gothic architecture of Venice had arisen out of, and indicated in all its features, a state of pure national faith and of domestic virtue, and that its Renaissance architecture had arisen out of, and in all its features indicated, a state of concealed national infidelity and of domestic corruption.”

The recognition of the relations between art and national character signifies the social bearing of these volumes. Concerning the Stones of Venice, W. G. Collingwood makes the following comment:

“The kernel of the work was the chapter on the nature of the Gothic, in which he showed, more distinctly than in The Seven Lamps, and connected with a wider range of thought, suggested by Pre-Raphaelitism, the great doctrine that art cannot be produced except by artists; that architecture, in so far as it is an art, does not mean the mechanical execution, by unintelligent workmen, of vapid working-drawings from an architect’s office; that, just as Socrates postponed the day of justice until philosophers should be kings, and kings philosophers, so Ruskin postponed the reign of art until workmen should be artists, and artists workmen. . .

Three Angels, 1870, Arts and Crafts
Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Edward Burne-Jones (for the design) and Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (for the production), Three Angels, 1870. Stained glass window removed from the East window of St. James’ Church. Brighouse, West Yorkshire (now demolished), Bradford Museums Galleries and Heritage, Bradford.

Out of that idea the whole of his doctrine could be evolved, with all its safe-guardings and widening vistas. For if the workman must be made an artist, he must have the experience, the feelings, of an artist, as well as the skill; and that involves every circumstance of education and opportunity which may make for his truest well-being. And when Mr. Ruskin came to examine into the subject practically, he found that mere drawing-schools and charitable efforts could not make an artist out of a mechanic or country bumpkin; for wider questions were complicated with this of art – nothing short of the fundamental principles of human intercourse and social economy. Now for the first time, after much sinking of trial-shafts, he had reached the true ore of thought, in the deep-lying strata; and the working of the mine was begun.”

The volume entitled A Joy Forever being the substance of lectures delivered in 1857 on the political economy of art – the title is significant – marks definitely the parting of the ways, and his intention thereafter to speak out openly on social themes.

The Tomb of Tristan and Iseult the Fair from the Story of Tristan and Iseult, Arts and Crafts
Edward Burne-Jones, The Tomb of Tristan and Iseult the Fair from the Story of Tristan and Iseult. Stained glass window from the Music Room. Harden Grange, Bradford Museums Galleries and Heritage, Bradford.

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