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  • Ruskin’s Change Over Time

John Ruskin, memory, Venice, France, The Lamp of Memory

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Figure 1.

Plate VI in The Poetry of Architecture, a book subtitled “the architecture of the nations of Europe considered in its association with natural scenery and national character”; the plate was used to explain what Ruskin calls “the mind of the people” by reviewing “the chimneys of a few nations.” (Collection, J. Dixon Hunt)

“Ruskin’s jerky life”


One’s opinions … are the soul’s clothes—and a healthy soul is always growing too big for its opinions and wanting to them to let out”. 1

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What follows is a miscellany that charts some of Ruskin’s attention to preservation, not just in Venice, but through his attention to architecture in northern France and vernacular architecture and landscape in the Alps. Yet, given his own often esoteric approach to whatever topic he took up during his career, it seemed useful to gather his remarks, his obiter dicta, even his asides, under the themes that obsessed him from his early days. So they are gathered under nine headings that he himself might have supplied: concerns with national identity; identity or spirit of place (genius loci) and its impact on architecture; architecture’s debt to, or alliance with, natural forms and conditions (mountains and, in ornamentation, plants); a focus on details rather than on whole buildings; time and its effect on buildings; and, of course, ruins and restoration. The role of memory that sustains much of his beliefs found expression in “The Lamp of Memory,” and is presumably well known to those who are interested in this aspect of his career; but further insights into this can be found in Gabrielle Ruddick’s essay on that lamp above.

This miscellany is offered in part to help readers mine the exhaustive materials in the thirty-nine volumes of his Collected Works2 (references are given to those parenthetically by volume and page numbers), and in part to stimulate them to add their own trouvailles. It is often said of Ruskin variously that, while he never “formulated [any] coherent body of architectural doctrine [that could] be neatly abstracted from his books,” what ideas he had “did not change greatly over time.”3 That doesn’t seem entirely true, not least because Ruskin formulated his ideas in different ways according to the situation where he found himself (writing letters, giving lectures to a variety of very different audiences, publishing books, and in casual remarks and correspondence with newspapers). When and how his ideas were offered do, in fact, change. His drawings, too, changed in their focus and rhetoric, not least because his skills greatly improved, but, later, because he found that he valued photography for its careful and quick focus on what he himself took long to sketch.

I: “The great architect of the mountains” (6.180)

In Praeterita, at the end of his writing career, Ruskin wrote of his first visit to the Alps, “the seen walls of lost Eden” (35.115) to which “my heart and faith return to this day” (35.116); though he wrote poorly of them in verse, he still admired “their fixed solidity of size” that “told that they were not of the skies” (2.367). [End Page 93]

“The brotherhood between the cathedral and the alp. …” (10.188)

“A mountain … does not tell this fact to our feelings, or, rather … tells us of no time at which it came into existence.” (1.68)4

II: Building and Architecture

“Architecture concerns itself only with those characters of an edifice which are above and beyond its common use.” (8.29)

“Art which proceeds from an individual mind, working through instruments which assist, but do not supersede, the muscular action of the human hand, upon the materials which most tenderly receive, and most securely retain, the impressions of such human labour.” (9.456)

“The true colours of architecture are those of natural stone, and I would fain see these taken advantage of to the full. Every variety of hue, from pale yellow to purple, passing...