- Letters to James Allanson Picton; the Ruskin Society in Manchester
All texts create ripples of interpretation, creative acts themselves that move beyond the parameters of the original text. But few texts have held the particular status of the works of John Ruskin as inspiring multiple, multidisciplinary, and multigenerational layers of interpretation. Consider the incredible Victorian response to his work, a collective outpouring that interpreted Ruskin in a number of ways. Most obviously, this interpretive response includes Victorian writing about or in reaction to Ruskin's immense and often contradictory oeuvre. However, Victorians "interpreted" Ruskin in a wider sense, founding Ruskin societies that produced lectures, pamphlets, meetings, minutes, correspondence; creating paintings that attempted to achieve a Ruskinian "truth to nature"; giving sermons to inspire individual and civic reform; and building museums and writing exhibition catalogues to redeem industrial capitalism using methods inspired by Ruskin's art and social criticism,1 "interpretive" acts that functioned as addenda to and exegesis of Ruskin's collected works. Ruskinians often produced results that the man himself might have criticized, but they acted with the zeal of true believers and the particular missionary spirit that his works inspired. I use "addenda" to encompass the many texts created and acts performed in trying to put Ruskin's ideas into practice; I use "exegesis" to capture both the idea of interpretation and the religious inflection of Ruskin's influence. As examples, I will briefly examine the correspondence between Ruskin and a prominent art reformer on the city council in Liverpool and consider the aims and activities of the Ruskin Society in Manchester. These texts were part of the larger movement to enact Ruskin's criticisms of industrial capitalism by making the beauty of nature and art accessible to all, through lectures, sermons, or the establishment of city institutions such as parks, libraries, or art museums. However, they share the problem of putting Ruskin's contradictory ideas into practice and in fact operated in urban conditions that, by the end of his life, Ruskin himself often seemed to despair of ameliorating through anything but wholesale political and economic transformation.
We can see these contradictions in letters exchanged between Ruskin and [End Page 60] an avid Liverpudlian follower, city councillor James Allanson Picton. Picton led the effort to establish a municipal library, an art museum, and a museum of natural history in Liverpool in his role as the first chairman of the Library, Museum and Gallery of Art Committee, from its inception in 1852 until his death in 1889. He published numerous works on municipal improvements and institutions, archaeology and architectural history, the history of Liverpool, and the history of congregational churches in that city. Deeply influenced by Ruskin and sharing his ideas about art and culture as the highest expression of a society and therefore an index of its moral worth, Picton was an eloquent spokesman for making art and education accessible to all. It was largely through his efforts (along with those of fellow "art enthusiasts," as the skeptical Liberal Review dubbed them) that Liverpool established a library, a natural history museum, an annual art exhibition, and a city art museum, the Walker Art Gallery (Woodson-Boulton, "Industry without Art" 60-64). Like most art reformers, Picton was inspired by Ruskin for many years; however, he also actually met Ruskin, exchanged books, and entered into a brief correspondence with him in the mid-1880s (J. Allanson Picton 373).
This correspondence is not just a record of Ruskin's ideas, but of how Picton attempted to engage with them and the disagreements they ran into about putting them into practice. Picton invited Ruskin to come to the opening of the new extension to the Walker Art Gallery; Ruskin declined (J. Allanson Picton 374).2 Picton shared his works on Liverpool, and Ruskin responded with suspicion and distaste for industrial cities: "Your book on Liverpool is a model of such records. I only wish it had been of Carnarvon, or Conway, or Flint instead!" (21 July 1884) and then again: "You and I feel exactly alike about what is pretty and...