Michael Crowley in Spiked:
It’s the year of John Ruskin. 2019 is the bicentennial of his birth and there continues to be events to mark it. Perhaps the celebrations will prove to be a turning point for him. For though during his lifetime, and for a generation or so afterwards, Ruskin was hugely influential, his achievements have now been neglected for decades. His collected works run to 39 volumes; he wrote around 250 books during his long life. As an author he commanded international respect, attracting praise from figures as varied as Tolstoy, George Eliot, Proust and Ghandi. He was cited as an influence by Clement Atlee and the founders of the National Trust. His ideas helped found the Labour Party and the welfare state. Gladstone wanted to make him poet laureate. Yet most of his books are now out of print. While you might see books about him, you would be lucky to find his work even in secondhand bookshops. Few artists have experienced such a decline in reputation. There are many factors in this steep descent, both personal and professional, and they began mid-way through Ruskin’s career. Chief among the personal is Ruskin’s failed marriage to Effie Gray, which was annulled on the grounds of impotency. Effie subsequently married Ruskin’s friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, and the scandal at the time was injurious to both parties. The affair is dramatised in Emma Thompson’s 2014 film Effie Gray.
Four years after the annulment, at the age of 39, Ruskin became infatuated with one of his drawing pupils, 10-year-old Rose La Touche. When she was 18 and he 47, he proposed marriage and Rose refused. The situation was complicated because Rose’s mother had designs on Ruskin. Three years later, Rose died – possibly of anorexia – which broke Ruskin’s own vulnerable mental health. There was no suggestion of any impropriety and this second romantic disaster was not as public at the time as his annulled marriage, but both episodes have subsequently got in the way of his work to the degree that he is too neglected by some and completely dismissed by others. His work fell foul of censorious opprobrium 150 years ago, and is doing so again in an age when artists are rarely judged for their work alone.