Introduction ‘There Is No Wealth But Life’

Kelly Freeman and Thomas Hughes

Ecology is not a word John Ruskin (1819–1900) used. But in defining this term, as we do, as ‘vital relations between things, same and different’, it becomes clear that Ruskin was deeply invested in thinking about ecology and in ecological ways of thinking. The scientific term ecology came into English from the German in the 1870s; Ökologie was a key concept for the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. As Raymond Williams points out, in his indispensable Keywords: A Vocabulary for Culture and Society (1976), the term’s semantic history encompasses the Greek oikos, meaning household, and logy (from logos), meaning discourse. Household, but also ‘habitat’ (from the Latin for ‘it lives’), and so ecology became the study of the relations of plants and animals with each other, and with their habitat. Relations between living things, and between living things and their homes. Not necessarily, or principally, human things, however. From the late-eighteenth century the human found itself bound to the related term ‘economy’, which developed from the sense of managing a household to the modern sense of economics, and it was not until the 1960s that a widespread sense of ecology reincorporated humanity into its remit to signify a ‘central concern with human relations to the physical world as the necessary basis for social and economic policy’.[1] However, for Ruskin the ecological and economic were never distinct in that way. Ruskin scholars have often identified 1860, the date of the publication of the final volume of Modern Painters (1843–60) and of Unto this Last, whence we take the title of this introduction, as a ‘shift’ or ‘pivot’ in Ruskin’s thinking from aesthetic to political—from ecological to economic—issues.[2] Ruskin’s Ecologies refutes this arbitrary distinction between Ruskin as aesthete and Ruskin as social prophet. The chapters in this volume reveal Ruskin to have been consistently concerned with the relations between human and other-than-human life, the material conditions for these relations, and the manifestation of relations—and these relations’ severing—in created material form, such as paintings and buildings. If there are distinctions to be made in Ruskin between the natural, the social, and the aesthetic, what binds all these things together, laced through and through them all, is a science of relations woven out of a reverence for connection and vital interrelation between things, same and different. The imagination was a divine gift Ruskin used to detect, maintain, strengthen, and enhance relations. He devoted his keen mind and significant energies, as well as his considerable resources, to apprehending the dense web of relations constituting life on this world, always shifting and changing and reorganising everywhere, from the most complex imaginative material down to the most mundane existence: a pool of muddy water, oxalis, Turner.

The seventh chapter of Modern Painters 1 (1843) is titled ‘Of Ideas of Relation’. Earlier chapters in the book addressed ‘Greatness in Art’, ‘Power’, ‘Imitation’, ‘Truth’, and ‘Beauty’, and ‘Relation’ comes last, as the climactic chapter of part one, ‘Of General Principles’, section one, ‘Of the Nature of the Ideas Conveyable by Art’. Relation, as Ruskin defines it, pertains to the ‘vast class of ideas’ that are ‘all those conveyable by art, which are the subject of distinct intellectual perception and action’. Relation primarily signifies meaning—it pertains to how art relates content to a viewer—including via expression, sentiment, and character, in figures and landscapes. Ruskin clarifies its meaning: ‘every thought, or definite exertion of intellect, implies two subjects’, he says, and therefore ‘some connection or relation inferred between them’. Elements within the canvas must relate to each other to activate meaning. But this is not the extent of relation. ‘By the term “ideas of relation,”’ Ruskin concludes, ‘I mean in future to express all those sources of pleasure, which involve and require, at the instant of their perception, active exertion of the intellectual powers’.[3] Relation extends beyond the configuration of thoughts, ideas and elements in the picture, to extend to the viewer, who actively participates in the composition, perceiving its manifold complex relations. This operation for Ruskin is a source of immense ‘pleasure’, pleasure earned through the intellectual exertion of the painter and of the viewer, communicated from one body, via art, to another. While Ruskin, in this early chapter, downplays the role of composition—from the Old French ‘componere’, meaning ‘to put together’—how to compose well becomes a crucial issue in Modern Painters 5. Part eight of that volume, ‘Of Ideas of Relation:—First, of Invention Formal’, is devoted to the subject. One of the most famous chapters on relation is Ruskin’s ‘The Law of Help’ (Modern Painters 5, part eight, chapter one) in which he sets out how all living things consist of the cooperation of elements, and how death, conversely, is the result of competition and discord between elements, which he terms ‘corruption’. What’s striking about Ruskin on relation in this chapter in particular (and, in light of this chapter, overall) is that the aesthetic ‘laws’ governing composition map onto social laws governing human interactions, and even biological laws, governing the relation of part to part, of root to stem, of branch to leaf, of body to limb, and ultimately, for Ruskin, of man to God. Distinctions between different kinds of relation disappear. In chapter three of part eight of Modern Painters 5 Ruskin puts things particularly well. Here, by ‘composers’ Ruskin means painters like J. M. W. Turner as much as composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, and, of course, the ultimate Creator:

the great composers, not less deep in feeling, are in the fixed habit of regarding as much the relations and positions, as the separate nature of things; that they reap and thresh in the sheaf, never pluck ears to rub in the hand; fish with the net, not line, and sweep their prey together within great cords of errorless curve;—that nothing ever bears to them a separate or isolated aspect, but leads or links a chain of aspects—that to them it is not merely the surface, nor the substance, of anything that is of import, but its circumference and continence; that they are preeminently patient and reserved; observant, not curious;—comprehensive, not conjectural; calm exceedingly; unerring, constant, terrible in steadfastness of intent; unconquerable; incomprehensible; always suggesting, implying, including more than can be told.[4]

Things become visible when their interdependence is perceived. With each expressive, sweeping cord—‘cord of errorless curve’—the great composer sets in motion ‘a chain of aspects’, and each vital aspect links with and shows itself in relation to its neighbours and its order in the perpetual chain. In showing itself, each link renews the chain, shines a new and finer light on, and gives pleasure to its neighbours’ different aspects. For Ruskin, unending relation—‘more than can be told’—is the attempt to describe the mystery of life in art. The words quoted above obviously characterise Ruskin’s own work. His perspective is constantly shifting to perceive new interdependencies, throwing new light on different aspects of things. This process is always on the go, on the move; the journeying never ceases. In the next chapters in Modern Painters 5, Ruskin traces series of relations between ‘great’ things and ‘small’, and between pairs of painters: Albrecht Dürer and Salvator Rosa, Claude and Nicolas Poussin, Peter Paul Rubens and Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Wouwermans and Fra Angelico, culminating in the imaginative comparison of ‘The Two Boyhoods’ of Giorgione and his English descendant, Turner. ‘Relation’, then, is the keyword of Modern Painters, bookending it at the start of volume one and the end of volume five. It is always polysemous, full of related meanings, but in essence for Ruskin ‘to relate’ means to witness, to tell, to communicate (intellectually and emotionally), to interconnect, to fit together, to sympathise, to help.

The last chapters of Modern Painters 5, however, are extremely, unremittingly dark; they describe everywhere competition, discord, and death, as the full corruption of modern life is revealed by Ruskin. It is interesting to note that the term ‘relation’ ceases to be a keyword for Ruskin in the same way after Modern Painters. We insist that Ruskin goes on thinking, looking, and writing ecologically, on the relations between mythology and nature in The Queen of the Air (1869), on the physiology and ecology of birds in Love’s Meinie (1873–81), and on the relations between industrial pollution, weather and the body in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), for example. We venture, however, that relations die with Modern Painters. By staging the death of relations at the end of Modern Painters (and resurrecting them afterwards) Ruskin shows us what is at stake in modernity, what has been and will continue to be lost in our disconnections from nature and from each other. To corrupt this world is to corrupt ourselves. In a terrible, prophetic feedback loop spiralling between desolation and the hope of salvation, art, for Ruskin, seems to deepen and, in turn, resist this corruption.

Study of Gneiss Rock
Fig. 0.1 John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853–4). Lampblack, bodycolour, and pen and ink over pencil on wove paper, with some scratching out, 47.8 × 32.7 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Figures of relation

We do see, then, 1860 as a significant moment in Ruskin’s career, but it is not a defining moment, nor one that can be understood without its relation to other moments. In taking in the whole of Ruskin’s career from ‘The Poetry of Architecture’ (1837) to Praeterita (1886–9), the chapters in this book reveal a Ruskin who changes, grows, and develops—unevenly, ‘awkwardly’ sometimes, to be sure (to use Ruskin’s description of the trefoil and small quatrefoil of a window at the cathedral at Coutances in France), but grows nevertheless—steadily, earnestly, unabatingly, and in relation to the changing world around him. This book traces the sweeping curves and shapes of Ruskin’s relations. It identifies particular configurations of relations, momentarily foregrounding these configurations before the mass of entanglement, but only momentarily. Each chapter is like a link on the chain of aspects, luminous and discrete, but undeniably part of a greater whole. Themes running through the chapters link them together in multiple sub-configurations. One of the principal themes concerns the body. The chapters in this volume bring Ruskin’s figure into clearer view, revealing that Ruskin also devoted his body to apprehending vital relations. The chapters present a Ruskin who disciplines his body in the analysis of relation, maintains vigour—rowing through Venice, climbing buildings and mountains, walking for miles—a Ruskin who nourishes himself on his material relations with the Earth, and also a Ruskin who luxuriates in his body, rewarding and stimulating it with food and drink after hard work. Ruskin notices, too, others’ bodies, bodies left idle and to waste, bodies out of place, bodies different to his own. And he inscribes the world he encounters, writes about and draws, with the forms and sensations of the human body. To look at Ruskin’s Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853–4) is not to look at a world devoid of the human, it is to peer at a planet experienced, felt, imagined, and visualised via the human body (Fig. 0.1). The palpable absence of the figure from Ruskin’s drawing—the absence of Ruskin’s own suave physique, delineated so conspicuously in John Everett Millais’s masterpiece portrait of Ruskin of the same date standing in front the same mass of rock (Fig. 0.2)—uncannily reaffirms the figure’s presence everywhere. This visual comparison has cropped up repeatedly in recent scholarship. It has not, however, been fully mined in terms of relation, the way the pictures are, and are not, alike. We might say that time is at work here in this dynamic of presence and absence. However, this is not so much a haunting by Ruskin. Rather, readers and viewers of Ruskin’s work continuously re-encounter his sensations as traces of his lived experience of the world, inviting them to take the measure of their own sensations in relation to the traces, and to consider the traces they themselves—we ourselves—will one day leave behind. To read and look at Ruskin is to begin to see and feel a chain of aspects of embodied sensation curving through time, more than can be told. His work stands as a monument to his life that is alive to the present and the future. In Ruskin’s unassuming drawing of Gneiss Rock, the body is palpable, a sensate mass or a medium thick with—composed of—strata of delicate membranes. As the chapters in this book make clear, this is not about imposing the human body on the world, it is about letting the body relate to the world, and therefore exist fully in it. The body is the conduit for relations between the human and the other-than-human. For healthy relations to be formed, the mind, body and soul must therefore be nourished, respected, refined, and cherished: ‘fineness of structure of the body, which renders it capable of the most delicate sensation’, is necessary for fineness of ‘structure of the mind, which renders it capable of the most delicate sympathies’.[5] Relation is pleasurable because it enhances and sustains the habitat for other human beings in the world, and the inheritance for those to come. And therefore there is a grave responsibility driving this refinement of body and mind, and therefore a social politics to relation, always. Pleasure is the basis of life.

John Everett Millais, John Ruskin
Fig. 0.2 John Everett Millais, John Ruskin (1853–4). Oil on canvas, 71.3 × 60.8 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

For all that, the body, for Ruskin, was complicated. A source of wonder, the body was also a source of difficulty, of peril, and even of torment. As life formed, the body, used well, could sustain and enhance relation. This sustenance and enhancement entailed, however, a very fine balance and constant effort, and Ruskin’s intensity of feeling (as evidenced in his books and drawings) often ran the risk of tipping the scales. Precarity was tied up with preciousness in Ruskin, and the body was an immensely precious gift. But the body could be seriously misused. Sexuality, dissolution, discipline, indulgence, sacrifice, solitude: all these are profoundly unstable in Ruskin. Yet, on the other hand again, the body was ultimately very simple for Ruskin; it was joy and suffering. Many of the chapters in the book explore how the body desolates as well as restores relations in Ruskin’s ecologies.


Ecologies of Ruskin

Building on Michael Wheeler’s groundbreaking volume, which focused on Ruskin’s engagement with the environment and environmental systems during his lifetime, Mark Frost further explores Ruskin’s powerful engagement with natural phenomena, revealing and teasing out a tangled network of vital energies which are at their very heart (proto-)ecological in nature. Examples of this are to be found in Ruskin’s concept of ‘Vital Beauty’, defined by Ruskin as ‘the joyful and right exertion of perfect life in man’ and which, as Frost points out, transpires ‘when we recognize effort and energy as something familiar’.[6] Frost rightly recognises in Ruskin the imperative of ‘self-improvement and collapsing the distance between observer and observed by revealing what they share’.[7] Frost’s valuable approach to exploring Ruskin’s ecological thinking situates Ruskin between two confrontational poles within nineteenth-century discourses on nature and the environment: one discourse founded on a legacy of religious doctrine—in which the human reigned over Eden—and a newer discourse founded in Romanticism, the emerging Earth sciences, and comparative anatomy, which elevated nature to the level of the human. Although Frost rightly remarks on Ruskin’s ‘ambivalent perspective’ when ‘nature-reading’, our book proposes that Ruskin’s ecologies were less about a reconciliation with a polemical nature, and that they were more ‘relative’, open to the human scale and condition—and by relative we mean relational.[8] Ruskin actively occupied and related to the world, within a human body, with a human intellect, and with a human’s capacity for feeling. To restate this: Ruskin was not dragged from philosophical pillar to post, he was invested in creating his own language, and ways of seeing, that negotiated many different, often contradictory perspectives. This can make him opaque at first, but once you start to see the relational principle structuring it all it starts to open up. The human, for Ruskin, is ‘the sun of the world’, but ‘not as the creation’. The human must ‘stand in relation to other creatures and to inanimate things—know them all and love them’. If the human were to ‘cast off this relation’, then ‘instead of being the light of the world, he is a sun in space—a fiery ball, spotted with storm’.[9]

In adopting a broad definition of ecology, in which the human—and its relations with the other-than-human—are integral, we are responding to a range of recent theoretical work. Timothy Morton, for example, gathering up implications from Romanticism to contemporary culture, proposes abandoning the concept ‘Nature’ altogether, implying as it does a binary (Ecology without Nature, 2007).[10] Ruskin certainly used the term ‘nature’, and, following Ruskin, we do not refrain from using it in uncapitalised form. That is, Ruskin does distinguish between the human and nature but only insofar as this clarifies relations between them, and to make the point that these relations are coming apart in modernity. Aligning with Morton’s ecological criticism, this book proceeds in the belief that Ruskin’s writings on art, nature, and society, as problematic as they are, have immense power in provoking us in the twenty-first century to re-imagine ways to coexist.[11] In art history, Andrew Patrizio argues that we need to adjust our perception, as individuals and as a species, in light of the reality described by ecology. For Patrizio, who draws on a range of writers and thinkers including Donna Harraway, Herbert Read, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, art history has an important part to play in the era of the so-called anthropocene in bringing about these adjustments in perception and ultimately in instilling an ecological eye (The Ecological Eye, 2019).[12] One of the fundamental paradigms in Patrizio’s important and multifaceted book is the notion of ‘flat ontology’. In flat ontology, all things are brought up (or down) to the same level, human fantasies of hierarchy are collapsed and life and matter, as they come, in themselves, are respected. This resonates very strongly with Ruskin and relation. As Ruskinians, in fact, we identify a Ruskin-sized hole in Patrizio’s otherwise fine account of art-historical ways of thinking ecology, since for Ruskin, human pride—as the creation—brings corruption, dead matter, empty grandeur. Yet the human is the sun of creation. As such, hierarchy remains an important, perhaps the essential, aspect of relation in Ruskin. This raises the question of Ruskin’s difficult politics. Despite much wishful thinking on the part of uncomfortable scholars, Ruskin never resiled from an arch-Tory position, which he held in more than name, and many disgraceful passages on class and colonisation litter his sparkling books on art and architecture. Ruskin’s Ecologies faces up to this, and the chapters in the book are quite capable, in this regard, of speaking for themselves. Perhaps we might add, though, that relation is also about connection, having things in common, and the ability to change points of view. The issue of hierarchy, then, is double edged in Ruskin (at least). So that for Ruskin, ontology, we might say, is not flat, in fact it is Alpine, comprising glittering glaciers, steep mountain sides, rocky crevasses, verdant valleys, and freshwater lakes. There is order and vertical rank to these planes, but the rocky crevasse cannot exist on its own without the glacier’s progress to the lake and in Ruskin the human being is capable of wandering through and across these landscapes, changing perspective as they go, low to high and back again.

In an essay published in Speculative Art Histories: Analysis at the Limit (2017), the architect Lars Spuybroek considers the ontology at work in Ruskin, also identifying changes in height and hierarchy. For Spuybroek, Ruskin’s ontological formulations are neither flat nor Alpine: they are linear. Spuybroek interrogates the line in Ruskin’s presentation of the Gothic rib, which intersects, interlaces, bifurcates, interweaves, and explodes outwards, becoming bundled and configured into larger elements in linear networks visible in Gothic vaults, traceries, and columns. In light of this vital linear configuration that Ruskin perceived in the Gothic, Spuybroek names Ruskin’s ontological perceptions as ‘Gothic ontology’: ‘[i]n Gothic ontology all things are linear … The Gothic universe is a nervous world, made of sinews and tendons, not hard skeletons or soft flesh, i.e., not Greek skeletons or Baroque flesh. The smallest dimension of things is linearity’. Spuybroek’s concept of Gothic ontology positions the craftsmen, and their collaborative labour, as receptive and sympathetic to the will of the line, which they fervently carve into the stone; lines that draw themselves ‘in relation to other lines’. These lines are active, not in themselves ‘but because they want to find each other’.[13] From figuration to configuration, configuration to configurational variation, as evidenced in the multifarious nature of the Gothic; for Spuybroek, Gothic ontology is the framework of sympathetic relation. In his astonishing book The Sympathy of Things: John Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (2011; 2016), Spuybroek draws an analogy between Gothic ontology and digital code, writing a manifesto for the construction of digital Gothic cities. In an impassioned, imaginative and controversial argument with modernist aesthetics, Spuybroek describes how ornament activates relation, and proposes that modernism’s expulsion of ornament from surface effectively cuts us off from the built environment and the environment beyond the built.[14]

Ruskin’s Ecologies follows in Spuybroek’s wake to renew the study of Ruskin’s Gothic. One of the exciting discoveries of this book (not surprising, perhaps, but confirmatory in its scope and consistency) is that Ruskin’s Gothic is, through and through, entirely ecological. That is, approached from whatever angle, Ruskin’s Gothic is revealed to be made up of—generated by—manifold relations: relations of affect; relations between the thin surface of the Earth and thickening ornament; between stone and language, text and image, between draughtsman and engraver, author and reader; between geographies; and even between timelines. However, rather than unfurling in a somewhat smooth linear operation, the Ruskinian relations we trace in Ruskin’s Ecologies are misshapen, hard to follow, obscure, broken, delightfully confused, in a word: Gothic.



Ruskin’s Ecologies proposes that the value of Ruskin’s relations is in misalignment. In Ruskin there is relation between every two ‘thoughts’ (to use the language of the chapter ‘Of Ideas of Relation’ in Modern Painters 1), but they relate to each other imperfectly. They do not line up side by side, or fit neatly together, as in Ruskin’s characterisation of classical architectural aesthetics. There are many gaps, asymmetries, irregularities, omissions, interruptions, and points where things get taken too far. These misalignments generate contacts of friction which slow down the progress of thought, creating pauses that enable one to take stock, to look, and to recognise the unevenness, the roughness, the imperfection of the encounter and the subject-object relation. For self-referentiality of this kind—taking stock, unceasing engagement with one’s own intellect, and with the world through that engagement—was the basis of perception for Ruskin, and his way to begin to make sense of the world he occupied. Relation takes place through a recognition of one’s differences, as well as one’s commonality, and a communion of sorts takes place in which the other is taken in, consumed, and the magnitude and beauty of lived experience is shared. As Ruskin said of Turner in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton (1867), his work ‘is a digestion of nature, which makes glorious human flesh of it. All my work in Modern Painters, was to show that one must have nature to digest’.[15] Incomplete alignment paradoxically becomes a way of recognising our completeness with the world. This is deeply ecological and vital, being at once part of the ‘circles of vitality’ of materials as well as the profound ontological realisation that ‘yes, I am here and I’m alive and you’re alive, and isn’t that magnificent!’.[16] With misalignment we might often feel on the edge of chaos, and this can be frightening, but for Ruskin misalignment draws one close to the thing, and this is extremely delightsome: we gravitate towards the imperfection in the object or concept which sparked our curiosity. Ruskin sought out the misaligned as a way of apprehending the larger design. With imperfection we recognise something of ourselves. In these misalignments between relations in Ruskin there is difference, change, growth and therefore possibility.

Fig. 0.3 J. C. Armytage after John Ruskin, The Vine: Free and in Service. Engraving, reproduced in The Stones of Venice 2 (1853). Library Edition, Plate Six, facing 10.115. Photo: The London Library.

Ruskin’s illustration The Vine: Free, and in Service epitomises our definitions of Ruskinian relation and misalignment (Fig. 0.3). Ruskin’s drawing was engraved by J. C. Armytage and included as Plate Six in The Stones of Venice (1851–3), volume two (1853), in the key fourth chapter on St Mark’s Basilica. It depicts ‘a fragment of one of its archivolts’ from the west front. Above this fragment, Ruskin has drawn a vine, inviting us to compare its composition and forms with the mosaic ornament on the spandrel beneath. In directing the reader’s attention to this small fragment of the architectural masterpiece of Venice, Ruskin wishes the reader to understand the impossibility of capturing the full magnitude of St Mark’s in either engravings or words, writing that the drawing doubly acts ‘to illustrate the impossibility of illustration.[17] There is quite simply more than can be told, although that doesn’t stop him (and shouldn’t stop us) trying. In interpreting the vine lovingly and putting it into the service of architectural composition, the Byzantine architect, Ruskin says, preserves an impression of the vital beauty of the vine within earnestly stylised ornament, lovingly arranging its forms in the adornments of habitation. This human impression of vine life is embedded in the exquisite surface of the building, and visible, to those who would look, in subsequent centuries. ‘[I]f the reader will supply in imagination to the engraving’, imparts Ruskin, ‘what he supplies to a common woodcut of a group of flowers’, the reader will appreciate that:

[f]rom the vine-leaves of that archivolt, though there is no direct imitation of nature in them, but on the contrary a studious subjection to architectural purpose more particularly to be noticed hereafter, we may yet receive the same kind of pleasure which we have in seeing true vine-leaves and wreathed branches traced upon golden light; its stars upon their azure ground ought to make us remember, as its builder remembered, the stars that ascend and fall in the great arch of the sky; and I believe that stars, and boughs, and leaves, and bright colours are everlastingly lovely, and to be by all men beloved.[18]

The lofty height of the archivolt, and the starry azure sky thus depicted, force the eye physically and conceptually upward, skyward, heavenward, and ‘ought to make us remember, as its builder remembered, the stars that ascend and fall in the great arch of the sky’. Here, Ruskin connects us (the observer) to the craftsman, and we gaze as he did, ponder as he did, the unfathomable mystery of celestial bodies, indicated in the band of spheres composed of webs and stars, running along the edge of the archivolt. Ruskin spends time in the passage relating the varieties and harmonies of colour with which these bodies are adorned, ‘violet, crimson, blue, gold, and green, alternately’. ‘The intermediate circles have golden stars set on an azure ground, varied in the same manner: and the small crosses seen in the intervals are alternately blue and subdued scarlet, with two small circles of white set in the golden ground above and beneath them, each only about half an inch across (this work, remember, being on the outside of the building, and twenty feet above the eye), while the blue crosses have each a pale green centre’.[19] The reader gets a sense from this of the incomprehensible complexity of the whole, in exquisite variations of surface, material, and colour. Our ascending gaze also gives added directionality to the upward climbing growth of the delicately rendered lines of interweaving vines. The abstract, stylised, linear stems, branches, and leaves embody the essence of organic growth in their meandering, searching—coiling in places—figuration, as they appear to encompass, perhaps, even to bind together, the chain of stars, capturing them in their spheres and linking them one by one in what could be described as a chain of aspects.

What is so intriguing about Ruskin’s decision to focus on this particular fragment of St Mark’s is not so much the centrality as the pivotal status of the human figure, which sits perched within and yet separate from—in front of, even—the serpentine figuration of the vines:

[t]he ground of it is gold, the sculpture in the spandrils [sic] is not more than an inch and a half deep, rarely so much. It is in fact nothing more than an exquisite sketching of outlines in marble, to about the same depth as in the Elgin frieze; the draperies, however, being filled with close folds, in the manner of the Byzantine pictures, folds especially necessary here, as large masses could not be expressed in the shallow sculpture without becoming insipid; but the disposition of these folds is always most beautiful, and often opposed by broad and simple spaces, like that obtained by the scroll in the hand of the prophet seen in the Plate.[20]

Though we can’t see, insists Ruskin, the supreme delicacy of the serpentine figures of the vine, we get a strong sense that they work in concert with—in relation to—the ‘close folds’ of the figure’s drapery and in counterpoint with the ‘broad and simple spaces’ of the scroll. The figure perches on the vine but is also fully enmeshed within the network of traced vine stems and leaves, protected within its lush ornamental tracery. We might notice the contact that the prophet’s foot makes with the broad mass of the vine leaf fanning out beneath the foot. We want to follow the line of the vine stem beneath the foot and fanning-out leaf, and up into and along the lines formed by the closely folded drapery. The thick vine leaf or semi-leaf touching the prophet’s left knee and the curling emanations framing his solid halo form continuities between lines rendered by the figure’s drapery and lines rendering the figuration of the vine, and the surfaces, masses, and folds of intervening forms. As ever in Ruskin, the fullness of life is attained through sacrifice, in service. As acknowledged in the plate’s title, ‘service’ is several-fold here, formed of interlocking feedback loops. Nature at the service of human architecture; figuration at the service of human habitation. At the same time, this epitome of human creation, St Mark’s Basilica, stands as a loving witness of vegetal life: of the vine, free. In ‘service’, in short, we see ecology. Stepping back now to take in the plate as a whole, we see the manifold misaligned relations Ruskin perceives between other-than-human life and human creation. Beneath and to the right, in shadow, we glimpse the forms of the ogee, the pointed arch, and understand the depth of the St Mark’s builders’ comprehension of natural forms. The vine leaf rendered by Ruskin top left, figured as ornament in the spandrel, becomes the structure supporting the facade of the cathedral.

In some ways, the line emanates from but also returns to the saintly body, completing a new ‘whole’ of body and vegetation together becoming one. At the same time, and paradoxically, there is no doubt where the one ends and the other begins. At this point our eyes fall upon the scroll. The broad flat shape of the scroll, we propose, stands apart from this highly interwoven composition. A gnostic symbol of impossible knowledge now invisible to human eyes, at the centre of a sensate and profane world of leaf and flesh. ‘[I]f the reader will supply in imagination to the engraving’, says Ruskin. We see the scroll as the invitation to the reader’s imagination made manifest. Ruskin is suggesting a further relation here, between drawing (and engraving) and the page of the book. For when reading Ruskin, the ultimate relation—the final one and the first—is between word and image. In viewing Ruskin’s fragment of St Mark’s, and in reading his words, we act to try to fill in the image, to complete his words according to our own world and experience, and so we begin to inscribe upon the scroll, in the full knowledge that there will always be more than can be told.


The chapters: links on the chain

Our book is different to the books which take a ‘Ruskin and…’ approach. Ruskin’s Ecologies does not re-contextualise Ruskin. We are deploying ‘ecology’ in the expansive sense we have just elaborated, as a lens through which to read and look at Ruskin’s work again. This will take us in familiar directions (to Venice and Gothic architecture, often; to William Morris and Arts and Crafts; to Turner and Veronese) and in new ones (to Salvator Rosa and to Bridget Riley, to contemporary China, to present-day Lambeth, to queer theory, and Bexhill-on-Sea). It takes us into the nineteenth century, to Victorian ways of seeing the past and of imagining the future, and at the same time it leads us inevitably to the present day, to how Ruskin makes us think about the urgent, planetary issues facing us all, the role of art and imagination in conceiving and engaging with these issues, and the place of the human being amidst a now-imperilled nature and an uncertain world.

Kate Flint’s chapter, ‘Ruskin and Lichen’, considers Ruskin’s interest in an intriguing lifeform which in many ways eludes classification, in light of Donna Harraway’s provocation that ‘[w]e are all lichens now’ and environmental criticism of poetry and painting. Flint reveals how for Ruskin lichen involves oscillations between micro- and telescopic vision, resonating with contemporary ecology’s critique of human-centred scale, and she retrospectively detects in Ruskin’s and Victorian art’s representations of lichen premonitions of the long processes of environmental damage. In ‘The Balcony’, Thomas Hughes re-visits an astonishing passage in The Stones of Venice to ask new questions about Ruskin’s attitude to architecture and time. Drawing attention to overlooked homoerotic elements in Ruskin’s architectural ekphrasis, Hughes argues Ruskin’s combination of vivid, embodied response and historical reflection responds to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s history of ancient art and, in turn, reveals Marcel Proust’s adaptation of Ruskin’s queer temporality in his epic novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–27). In a similar vein, Moran Sheleg traces patterns in time by focusing on intriguing resonances between architecture and painting in Victorian and modern Britain. From the glittering yet cold Crystal Palace to Bridget Riley’s paintings via the subterranean tombs at Giza, ‘A Pattern in Time’ follows the figure of the arabesque. Sheleg reveals a surprising thread of continuity from Ruskin, William Morris and John Frederick Lewis, through to Henri Matisse and Riley’s op art, reconceptualising the arabesque as a Gothic device for activating relations between vision and sensation, pattern and the body. In ‘Feeling Gothic’, Timothy Chandler reaches to contemporary queer theory to shed light on affect in The Stones of Venice. Focusing on Ruskin’s deferred conceptualisation of the grotesque, Chandler reveals Gothicness to be an intense, emotionally fluctuating experience of obscurity. Resonating with Hughes’s discussion of Ruskin’s queer encounter with the Gothic workman in Venice, and Sheleg’s analysis of the disembodiment of labour manifested in the Crystal Palace, Chandler’s analysis of Ruskin on the grotesque workman offers us a way to think through and cope with the precarious nature of our contemporary social reality.

Turning from questions of temporality to materiality, but remaining with The Stones of Venice, Stephen Kite’s chapter, ‘From Earth Veil to Wall Veil’, considers the resonances between Ruskin’s description of the thin skin of life that coats the Earth and Ruskin’s celebrated formulation of the ‘wall veil’ as a surface of almost-living embroidery, revealing the ecological nature of this architectural concept. Kite traces William Morris and Philip Webb’s realisation of the wall veil in architectural designs at Red House, Bexleyheath and in Holland Park, London, recasting these Victorian spaces in terms of the medieval Garden of Pleasure. Similarly inspired by Gothic figuration, in ‘The Osteological Line’ Kelly Freeman traces Ruskin’s use of bodily metaphor in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. She interprets Ruskin’s revitalisation of skeletal metaphors embedded in traditional architectural discourse in terms of connection, relation, and holism in art, architecture, and natural history, bringing these fields together into a composed linear system of relations: an ecology mediated through metaphor. Turning to Ruskin’s description, analysis and reproduction of Veronese’s Adoration of the Virgin by the Cuccina Family (1571) in Modern Painters 5, Jeremy Melius reveals the exquisitely intricate, vital relations underpinning Ruskin’s theory of great composition. In ‘Forms of Intermediate Being’, Melius follows ‘the chain of lowering feeling’ down through allegorical figures, the human family, to a little dog (and back up again), bringing into focus the radical nature of Ruskin’s search for an ecology of pictorial structure, one staged in his descriptions less as a system of fixed bonds than an atmosphere of potential affinities. Remaining with Ruskin and painting, in ‘Rosa’s Fall’, Giulia Martina Weston considers Ruskin’s systematic and highly pragmatic denunciations of the landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa (1615–73), a Neapolitan seventeenth-century artist, and argues Rosa was exploited by the British critic as a paradigmatic ‘anti-Turner’, a pedagogic anti-hero whose ultimate function was to throw into relief the excellence of Turner’s art. Looking into Salvator Rosa’s nuanced afterlife in Britain, Weston contextualises Ruskin’s absolute moral imperative, ‘truth-to-nature’, in relation to histories of taste and collecting. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the ecological imperatives underpinning Ruskin’s rejection of Salvator Rosa and his criticism of Turner.

Turning to Victorian painting, Nicholas Robbins addresses Ruskin and an artist who is also often juxtaposed with Turner in appraisals of Ruskin on painting: James Abbot McNeill Whistler. In ‘Ruskin, Whistler, and the Climate of Art in 1884’, Robbins focuses on Ruskin’s struggle to reconstruct climate as a coherent scientific object, or as a subject of textual and visual representation. Examining Whistler’s painting and exhibition practice, he goes on to argue that Ruskin and Whistler formulated diametrically opposed attitudes to the body and its relations to environment: for Ruskin, the body should be open to the world, but for Whistler, the modern body could be tightly controlled and manipulated, at one remove from nature. The body and environment are also the central concern of Polly Gould, who turns from art to scientific writing. In her chapter ‘Molar Heights to Molecular Lowlands’, Gould compares the asymmetrical thought of Ruskin and the Victorian scientist John Tyndall (1820–93) and their engagement with the epistemologies and aesthetics of human scale. In their imaginative upscaling and downscaling of mountains, Ruskin and Tyndall provide distinct but related perspectives on the body’s role in materialist thinking, which find their place within contemporary ecological discourse and ecotheory. Gould, who is a practicing artist, concludes her chapter visually with pieces which respond, playfully and beautifully, to these issues of scale, the human, and the mountain.

Focusing on the intriguing Plate Three in ‘The Lamp of Truth’ in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Courtney Skipton Long offers a novel and close reading of Ruskin’s presentation of French Gothic windows as they relate to secular knowledge of natural history, particularly to William Buckland’s teachings on geology and mineralogy, as well as to contemporaneous religious and scientific debates about the origins and progress of life on Earth. Seen through the lens of species development, Long presents a new way of thinking about Ruskin’s engagement with evolutionary theories, and distinguishes Ruskin from Victorian historiographies of the Gothic. Stephen Bann also addresses the question of illustration in Ruskin’s presentation of Gothic architecture, revealing the integral function that it played in Ruskin’s argumentation. Bann sheds very rich light on the visual-verbal makeup of The Stones of Venice, revealing manifold relations between engraving and early photography, text and image, and author and reader.

Turning to contemporary art, but remaining in Venice, Lawrence Gasquet’s chapter ‘“That Golden Stain of Time”’ addresses Jorge Otero-Pailos’s fascinating and beguiling latex casts of the surfaces of the Ducal Palace, which trap traces of pollution particles within their indexical matrix. Thinking through the various paradoxes involved in Pailos’s work The Ethics of Dust (2009) in terms of Ruskin’s celebrated imagery of the traces of time which stain the surfaces of architecture, Gasquet brings the body back to the fore in her reflection on the status of pollution as a human artefact. She unpicks relations between marble, latex, and flesh, as they appear to be held in suspended states of both conservation and decay. Ryan Roark also revisits Ruskin and architectural conservation, revealing the dense webs of entanglement which Ruskin built up in his own work over time, by comparing Seven Lamps with his book on flowers, Proserpina (1875–86). In her chapter ‘The Afterlife of Dying Buildings’, Roark extends our understanding of the Gothic through Ruskin’s concept of the plant life cycle, and turns to some recent buildings in China and Britain to reveal the widespread contemporary purchase of Ruskin’s ecological attitude to conservation in architectural practice.

These chapters are not perfectly aligned with each other. As is proper to Ruskin, many apparent contradictions will be raised by the authors’ interpretations. These contradictions constitute the messy mass of entanglement that makes up the vital relations of Ruskin’s thought. This book is the culmination of our efforts to trace the web, to tease out some of its salient points, and to feel its edges, although we do not propose for one minute to have captured and represented the entire living network that makes up Ruskin’s ecologies.

Relating is hard. In relating to something or someone else, one’s self is delineated, and this can be smarting; it requires—demands—humility. Relating, then, is effort and this book is testament to our own imperfect efforts in this vein. The Ruskin that emerges from tracing these ecologies—Ruskin’s Ecologies—is a Ruskin whose value is generated in the fissures between thoughts, leaps of faith, and imaginative calls to arms. This is what makes his work alive.

References to Ruskin’s writings are to the Library Edition; volume and page numbers are given in the notes and are followed by titles and initial publication dates in parentheses. Since Stephen Bann cites specific editions of Ruskin’s works, his chapter refers to the original pagination and Plate numeration.



This book originated in collegiate relations between two London art history departments, at University College London and The Courtauld Institute of Art. Our collaboration resulted in a two-day conference hosted by both institutions in December 2017, during which we were pleased to welcome many international speakers. We remain deeply grateful to the Ruskin Society for a grant which made the conference possible, and we would like to thank the UCL History of Art Department (Past Imperfect Seminar Series) and the Research Forum at The Courtauld and all the speakers and attendees for making it a productive and pleasurable occasion. In particular, at UCL we are grateful to Mechtild Fend and Rose Marie San Juan, and at The Courtauld to Alixe Bovey and Fern Insh. The book that has evolved from this conference is a testament to what collegiate relations can help one to achieve. At its heart, this book is all about relations and relationships, with each other and with Ruskin.

As the book continued to evolve, we incurred many other debts. We would like to thank wholeheartedly several institutions and colleagues for their help. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University kindly devoted a term’s programme of the Ruskin Seminar to us, culminating in a series of seminars and in a day-long workshop. We sincerely thank them for the financial and intellectual support they have offered this project, in particular Sandra Kemp and Christopher Donaldson. The British Association of Victorian Studies kindly allowed us to host a panel, ‘Renewing Ruskin’s Ecologies’, at its annual conference in Dundee in 2019 and we would like to thank attendees for their comments and enthusiasm. We are particularly grateful to Dinah Birch, president of BAVS, for her contributions at this panel and for her encouragement.

We are grateful to colleagues at The Courtauld Library and The London Library. Furthermore, at The Courtauld we would like to thank Karin Kyburz, Picture Researcher, for her help in sourcing illustrations for the book. At Courtauld Books Online we would like to thank Mollie Arbuthnot for diligent copyediting, Grace Williams for beautiful design work, Maria Mileeva for overseeing the project, and Alixe Bovey for her stewardship and support.



[1] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society [1976] (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), pp. 108–9.
[2] Ruskin, 17.105 (Unto this Last, 1860). Unto this Last provided the title for the Ruskin bicentenary exhibition at Yale Center for British Art, which culminated in a beautifully constructed exhibition catalogue: Tim Barringer et al., Unto this Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019).
[3] Ruskin, 3.112, 115 (Modern Painters 1, 1843).
[4] Ruskin, 7.234 (Modern Painters 5, 1860).
[5] Ruskin, 7.345.
[6] Ruskin, 4.64 (Modern Painters 2, 1846), quoted by Mark Frost, ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment, and the Ecological Impulse’, in Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison (eds.), Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 17.
[7] Frost, ‘Reading Nature’, p. 13.
[8] Frost, ‘Reading Nature’, pp. 13–28. Mark Frost has worked extensively on these topics in Ruskin, see also: ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss: John Ruskin and the Ecology of the Mundane’, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 14:1, Victorian Ecology (2011): pp. 10–22; ‘“The Circles of Vitality”: Ruskin, Science and Dynamic Materiality’, Victorian Literature and Culture 39:2 (2011): pp. 367–83; ‘“The Guilty Ship”: Ruskin, Turner and Dabydeen’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature 45:3 (2010): pp. 371–88.
[9] Ruskin, 7.262 (Modern Painters 5, 1860).
[10] Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2007). As Wendy Parkins and Peter Adkins have said, the concept of the anthropocene, which describes an epoch in which humankind has become a geological force, has been criticised for going against the grain of ecological efforts to decentre the human. The tensions and ambiguities we describe between human and other-than-human in Ruskin’s thinking resonate with this controversy. See ‘Introduction: Victorian Ecology and the Anthropocene’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 26 (2018), accessed 1 June 2021, doi: 10.16995/ntn.818.
[11] Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
[12] Andrew Patrizio, The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).
[13] Lars Spuybroek, ‘Gothic Ontology and Sympathy: Moving Away from the Fold’, in Sjoerd van Tuinen (ed.), Speculative Art Histories: Analysis at the Limit (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), pp. 152, 146, 143.
[14] Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design [2011] (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).
[15] John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, Ambleside, 8 August 1867, reproduced in Jeffrey L. Spear, ‘“My darling Charles”: Selections from the Ruskin-Norton Correspondence’, in John Dixon Hunt and Faith M. Holland (eds.), The Ruskin Polygon: Essays on the Imagination of John Ruskin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), p. 245. This excellent book has stood the test of time.
[16] Ruskin, 16.378 (The Two Paths, 1859).
[17] Ruskin, 10.115 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[18] Ruskin, 10.116–7.
[19] Ruskin, 10.116.
[20] Ruskin, 10.115–6.