- 09 May 2019
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Research Curator at York Art Gallery, shares insights from the new exhibition that marks Ruskin’s 200th birthday. A PMC grant supported research for the exhibition and its accompanying publication.
“The living inhabitation of the world—the grazing and nesting in it,—the spiritual power of the air, the rocks, the waters, to be in the midst of it, and rejoice and wonder at it … this was the essential love of Nature in me, this the root of all that I have usefully become.”
John Ruskin’s desire to share his love of the natural world shines through his writings. This passage, from his autobiography Praeterita, describes the revelatory experience of the time he spent as a young man in the Alps. It conveys his wish to help others see landscapes, clouds, and creatures more clearly, while insisting that he himself should not become the object of focus. As a critic, an artist, and a cultural commentator, Ruskin suggests new ways of looking. He heightens our appreciation of works of art by painters like J.M.W. Turner, as well as the world outside our windows.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, York Art Gallery and Abbot Hall, Kendal have worked in partnership to create a major exhibition of watercolours and drawings, Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud. The displays focus on the complex critical relationship between Ruskin and his contemporaries, as they each recorded their journeys into the mountains, or observed changing weather patterns. In particular, they highlight Ruskin’s opinion, which was articulated in his multi-volume study Modern Painters, that Turner’s landscapes were a truthful response to “Mountain Beauty” and “Cloud Beauty”.
The exhibition shows that Ruskin’s engagement with art and nature became disturbed from the mid-1870s by his awareness of darkening skies. He felt “persecuted by the storms and clouds”. The overcast heavens seemed to coincide with his own feelings of grief and mental fragility. In February 1878, he wrote in his diary about his “dreamy scatterment and bewilderment”, the “Perpetual fog, and depression of total me—body and soul—not in any great sadness, but in a mean, small—withered way.” By the mid-1880s, he was convinced that bad stewardship of the earth’s resources and industrial pollution were causing “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”. In lectures under that title, delivered in 1884, he pointed to “Blanched Sun,—blighted grass,—blinded man”. The clouds seemed to him to be “made of poisonous smoke; very possibly it may be: there are at least two hundred furnace chimneys in a square of two miles on every side of me. But mere smoke would not blow to and fro in that wild way. It looks more to me as if it were made of dead men’s souls.”
Through displays of works on paper, diaries, and letters, the curators at York have teased out the twin themes that emerge most urgently from Ruskin’s “Storm Cloud” writings: his awareness of climate change caused by industrialisation, and his own internal turbulence. We have also brought the themes into the twenty-first century, by commissioning new work from Emma Stibbon, RA. She has engaged with Ruskin’s insistence that artists must continue to watch carefully, and communicate what they see in the landscape. Stibbon has followed in the footsteps of Turner and Ruskin, returning to the Mer de Glace at the base of Mont Blanc. Her large-scale drawings, photographs, and cyanotypes eloquently illustrate how far the great glacier has retreated since Ruskin’s day.
Stibbon’s works echo Ruskin’s own prescient fears. In a letter to an old friend, he wrote of the “calamity of the ruin of the things we loved. Our Geneva—our Como—our Verona—twice dead—and plucked up by the roots.” The exhibition and its accompanying collection of essays will reposition Ruskin at the heart of today’s debates about environmental damage, mental well-being, and the true value of art.
Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud: Watercolours and Drawings is on at York Art Gallery from 29 March to 23 June 2019, and on display at Lakeland Arts from 11 July to 5 October 2019.