I just attended a lecture given by a very senior (and fun) academic who shed loads of light on John Ruskin, the famous Victorian art critic, artist, author, and general weirdo.
Ruskin is probably most notorious nowadays for falling in love with 12-year old Effie Gray when he was 22, for whom he wrote his only work of fiction, the children’s story The King of the Golden River. They married seven years later, when she was 19 and he was 31, only to have the marriage become tempestuous and have a high-profile annulment due to reasons of non-consummation.
There is a famous story (urban legend?) that Ruskin had never seen a naked woman before his wedding night, except in artistic sculptures and paintings. As depictions of women’s naked forms almost never included pubic hair, he was horrified to see Effie Gray’s pubes and thought she was in some way defective; this lead him to postponing their sexual relationship indefinitely, until the marriage collapsed.
As far as I’m aware, this story has been largely discounted by scholars, but Effie Gray’s own letters reference at least some sort of revulsion that Ruskin held towards her physical form:
“He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.”
Equally importantly, Ruskin confirmed this during the annulment proceedings, but didn’t explain exactly what he objected to.
But this is all old hat, as far as scholars are concerned. Most Victorianists will be at least vaguely familiar with this story. Also, Emma Thompson’s movie Effie came out just the other year. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m DYING to (probably going to be the feature of a movie night soon with @VictorianMasc on Twitter). I will blog our reactions.
The point is, Effie moved on and married the artist John Everett Milais, and she FINALLY got a good shag (they had 8 children) and had, as far as I know, a long and happy life together. Ruskin didn’t marry again, but he DID do a lot of other weird stuff that has nothing to do with his sex life (or lack thereof).
In no particular order, here is what I learned from the lecture:
1.) Ruskin absolutely LOATHED Whistler, leading to a famous libel trial between the two men. The short version of this is that Ruskin denounced Whistler’s painting skills heavily in print, leading Whistler to sue him. It was a really ugly showdown, and Whistler hoped to be awarded £1,000 pounds in damages.
Even though the trial was more heavily weighted on Ruskin’s side, the jury found in favor of Whistler. But instead of the £1,000 pounds he asked for, they awarded him one farthing (one-fourth of a penny). Basically, no one won.
Here’s where it gets weird, though. He hated Whistler, who is now seen as one of the greatest artists of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries, but Ruskin LOVED the caricaturist George Cruikshank, and thought Cruikshank was the greatest artist since Rembrandt.
Not that there is anything wrong with Cruikshank’s work, but . . . he’s no Rembrandt:
Ruskin had some weird tastes.
2.) Ruskin wrote a crazy letter to Kate Greenaway, a children’s book illustrator, asking her to paint him some pictures of naked girls. She refused.
3.) Despite being considered a world-class scholar, he graduated with a 4th-class university degree (for my US friends, that’s like just barely passing with straight Ds) and actually had to purchase his Master’s degree because he couldn’t earn it. I guess that was a thing you could do back in the day: throw enough money at a university and they’ll just hand you a degree, with zero work involved. If anyone could back me up on the history of this practice, that would be great, as this is the first I’m hearing about it.
4.) The first chapter of his book that he wrote for Effie Gray has the DULLEST opening chapter title ever seen in children’s fiction. It’s called: “How the Agricultural System of the Black Brothers was Interfered with by Southwest Wind, Esquire“. That’s just the thing to have children glued to their seats in anticipation. Ooooh, agriculture systems.
5.) This isn’t strictly related to Ruskin himself, but the Utopian theme of his book, The King of the Golden River, was apparently very popular in North America, causing at least one Utopian reform movement to found a settlement based on some of the morals and principles laid out in his book.
Now, instead of naming these settlements or towns “Treasure Valley” or “Golden River“, after the little agricultural paradise found in the story, many of these settlements rather lamely chose to call themselves “Ruskin” (these places include Ruskin Colony, Tennessee, and Ruskin, British Colombia, the latter of which, as far as I’m aware, was not a Utopian settlement)
HOW BLOODY DISAPPOINTING IS THAT?
YOUR MARKETING AND BRANDING SKILLS NEED SO MUCH WORK.
DON DRAPER WOULD BE HORRIFIED.