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This article is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

John Ruskin: Life or Works? Clive Wilmer

The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin runs to thirty-nine volumes. They are almost literally a monument to the great man's memory-massive, awe-inspiring and, for the most part, unread. In spite of the predictable academic industry that has grown up around him, in spite of the current popularity of artists he championed (Turner, his great hero, and the Pre-Raphaelites), in spite of the relevance to modern economic, social and environmental thought of his Tory radicalism (which the English have got used to thinking of as socialism), Ruskin remains for most people the self-righteous Victorian sage who lost his wife to Millais and was sued for libel by Whistler.

It was not always so. He was once a writer who changed people's lives. Charlotte Brontë declared that his Modern Painters had given her 'a new sense', sight. A questionnaire circulated among the twenty-nine Labour MPs of 1906, the first ever elected to Parliament, shows that Unto this Last was the book that had influenced them most deeply; and many of that book's proposals found their way into Labour government legislation as recently as 1948. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Proust and Frank Lloyd Wright all acknowledged their discovery of Ruskin as a watershed in their development, and their names reflect the range of interest and concern his writings encompass. It is not easy to see why such a man should have fallen into such neglect. But whatever the reason, the decline in his reputation has led to the disappearance ...


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