The Reader as Editor in John Ruskin’s Defense of Pre-Raphaelitism in the Victorian Press

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The Reader as Editor in John Ruskin’s Defense

of Pre-Raphaelitism in the Victorian Press
Thomas J. Tobin

Duquesne University

“But whether thus submissively or not, be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not yours.”

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies 24)
John Ruskin was one of the foremost art critics in the nineteenth century: his numerous volumes of theoretical writing stand as a 9,000-page testament to his broad and deep thinking in art, history, social criticism, theology, and philosophy. Robert Speel defines Ruskin as “the greatest Victorian bar Victoria,” claiming that Ruskin “was an artist, scientist, poet, environmentalist, philosopher, and, importantly here, the pre-eminent art critic of his time.”

Ruskin established his position as the pre-eminent aesthetician in Victorian society with the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), in which he codified the experience of beauty, defining what was and was not beautiful based on his own experiences. Certain painting methods, says Ruskin, better represent the glory of nature—the highest ideal to which artists can aspire. Ruskin advocates that artists

go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing. (1:43)

His readers adopted his criteria for judging works of art, and Modern Painters became the standard of taste for the cognoscenti at the Royal Academy of Art exhibitions. Ruskin, recognizing his growing stature, produced Academy Notes, a yearly guide to the Royal Academy Exhibition pictures, in which he commented on the year’s paintings, drawings, and sculpture.

Favorable mention from Ruskin was seen as an imprimatur, the seal of acceptance into the canon of artistic taste. Ruskin’s reputation rests on his books of artistic and social theory. However, in his dealings with the Victorian periodical press, Ruskin maintained his reputation, offered his benediction, and thundered his scorn. His reputation as a Great Mind was such that editors of varying political, religious, and social stripes gave Ruskin space in their publications.

In particular, Ruskin’s defense of Pre-Raphaelitism in the London Times in 1851—claiming the movement’s artists as followers of Ruskin’s theories on the proper practice of art—shows Ruskin functioning as a sort of editor ex officio. George Landow claims that Ruskin nearly always argued against others in his periodical writings: “Ruskin. . . continually dramatized his role as Master of Interpretation and Master of Experience. . . . [he] always wrote as a polemicist, defining his position in relation to that which he wished to refute.” (“How to Read Ruskin” 56).

The newly formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, unknown to Ruskin, used Modern Painters as a practical manual for painting. When John Everett Millais, Charles Allston Collins, and William Holman Hunt exhibited paintings in the 1851 Royal Academy Exhibition, the London Times heaped derision on their painting methods in its review of the exhibition. Ruskin came to their aid with a letter to the editor, published 13 May 1851.

This letter is often quoted as a leading factor in helping to legitimize Pre-Raphaelitism, but few scholars mention the opening, where John T. Delane, the editor of the Times, introduces the letter—a highly unusual practice for the conservative and space-conscious newspaper: “We have received the following remarks upon our criticism on the pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy [by] Messrs. Millais and Hunt, from Mr. Ruskin, the author of many well-known works on art” (8). This alludes to the high regard in which Ruskin’s opinion was held and to Ruskin’s reputation as a prolific writer. His opinion held weight, both metaphorically—his ideas were complex and original—and literally—one might use an average Ruskin tome as an effective hammer.

Ruskin’s letter begins with the pleasant deference typical of letters to the editor:

Sir,—Your usual liberality will, I trust, give a place in your columns to this expression of my regret that the tone of the critique which appeared in The Times of Wednesday last1 on the works of Mr. Millais and Mr. Hunt, now in the Royal Academy, should have been scornful as well as severe.

I regret it, first, because the mere labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt; and, secondly, because I believe these young artists to be at a most critical period of their career—at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness; and I believe also, that whether they choose the upward or downward path may in no small degree depend upon the character of the criticism which their works have to sustain. I do not wish in any way to dispute or invalidate the general truth of your critique on the Royal Academy; nor am I surprised at the estimate which the writer formed of the pictures in question when rapidly compared with works of totally different style and aim; nay, when I first saw the chief picture by Millais in the Exhibition of last year2 I had nearly come to the same conclusion myself. But I ask your permission, in justice to artists who have at least given much time and toil to their pictures, to institute some more serious inquiry into their merits and faults than your general notice of the Academy could possibly have admitted.

Let me state, in the first place, that I have no acquaintance with any of these artists, and very imperfect sympathy with them. No one who has met with any of my writings will suspect me of daring to encourage them in their Romanist3 and Tractarian4 tendencies. I am glad to see that Mr. Millais’s lady in blue5 is heartily tired of her painted window and idolatrous toilet-table, and I have no particular respect for Mr. Collins’ lady in white,6 because her sympathies are limited by a dead wall, or divided between some gold fish and a tadpole (the latter Mr. Collins may, perhaps, permit me to suggest, en passant,7 as he is already half a frog, is rather too small for his age). (8)

Ruskin’s denial of knowing the Pre-Raphaelites, his nod to the ideas of an earlier critic—even as he dismantles those ideas—and his zeal in denouncing the popish tendencies of Pre-Raphaelite art are all characteristic of the courtesies customarily shown to periodical editors by correspondents. Ruskin abruptly shifts tone in his letter, steering his argument toward matters in which he is expert:

But I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant, Alisma Plantago,8 among which the said gold fish are swimming; and, as I never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn, I must take leave to remonstrate with you when you say sweepingly, that these men ‘sacrifice truth, as well as feeling to eccentricity.’ For as a mere botanical study of the water lily and Alisma, as well as of the common lily and several other garden flowers, this picture would be invaluable to me, and I heartily wish it were mine. (8)

Having established himself as an authority, albeit on botanical grounds, Ruskin defines and defends Pre-Raphaelitism:

But, before entering into such particulars, let me correct an impression which your article is likely to induce in most minds, and which is altogether false. These pre-Raphaelites (I cannot compliment them on common sense in choice of a nom de guerre)9 do not desire nor pretend in any way to imitate antique painting, as such. They know little of ancient paintings who suppose the works of these young artists to resemble them. As far as I can judge of their aim—for as I said, I do not know the men themselves—the pre-Raphaelites intend to surrender no advantage which the knowledge or inventions of the present time can afford to their art. They intend to return to early days in this one point only—that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture making; and they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael’s10 time, and after Raphael’s time did not this, but sought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts, of which the consequences has been that from Raphael’s time to this day historical art has been in acknowledged decadence. (8)

By beginning with a qualifying phrase, “before entering into such particulars,” Ruskin neatly assumes the role of self-critic, the role of editor. He manages his own letter as though he were correcting something submitted to him by another writer, suggesting changes in the style, subject, and order of topics.

Now, Sir, presupposing that the intention of these men was to return to archaic art instead of to archaic honesty, your critic borrows Fuseli’s expression11 respecting ancient draperies—‘snapped instead of folded,’ and asserts that in these pictures there is a ‘servile imitation of false perspective.’ To which I have just this to answer:—

That there is not one single error in perspective in four out of the five pictures in question, and that in Millais’ ‘Mariana’ there is but this one—that the top of the green curtain in the distant window has too low a vanishing point, and that I will undertake, if need be, to point out and prove a dozen worse errors in perspective in any 12 pictures containing architecture, taken at random from among the works of the most popular painters of the day. (8)

Ruskin’s primary defense of Pre-Raphaelitism is not really a defense; he sets up the “straw man” argument that no artist in the Royal Academy Exhibition is a perfect draughtsman—and then knocks it down by comparing the details of draperies in some Pre-Raphaelite paintings with external reality:

Secondly: that, putting aside the small Mulready12 and the works of Thorburn13 and Sir W. Ross,14 and perhaps some others of those in the miniature room which I have not examined, there is not a single study of drapery in the whole Academy, be it in large works or small, which for perfect truth, power, and finish, could be compared for an instant with the black sleeve of the Julia, or with the velvet on the breast and the chain mail of the Valentine of Mr. Hunt’s picture;15 or with the white draperies on the table in Mr. Millais’ ‘Mariana,’ and of the right hand figure in the same painter’s ‘Dove returning to the Ark.’16 (8)

Ruskin finishes by commenting once more on his own methods and evidence, pointing out a direct but imperfect lineage from Albrecht Dürer to the Pre-Raphaelites:

And further: that as studies both of drapery and of every minor detail, there has been nothing in art so earnest or so complete as these pictures since the days of Albert Durer.17 This I assert generally and fearlessly. On the other hand, I am perfectly ready to admit that Mr. Hunt’s ‘Silvia’ is not a person whom Proteus or anyone else would have been likely to have fallen in love with at first sight; and that one cannot feel any sincere delight that Mr. Millais’ ‘Wives of the Sons of Noah’18 should have escaped the Deluge, with many other faults besides on which I will not enlarge at present, because I have already occupied too much of your valuable space, and I hope to be permitted to enter into more specific criticism in a future letter,

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,


Denmark-hill, May 9. (8)

In this last section, Ruskin drops his editorial tone gradually, opening the paragraph by questioning his own assertions with “on the other hand.” By the end of that sentence, Ruskin has reverted to his manners, apologizing for taking up too much of the editor’s space, and begging leave to continue his correspondence. In doing so, Ruskin cedes the editorial function to the editor once more.

Ruskin’s assertions are made “generally and fearlessly,” beginning with a particular (the painting of leaves in Convent Thoughts) and leading to a general renunciation of the argument of an earlier writer on all points—much as an editor’s comments admonish, suggest, and correct. Ruskin goes further, becoming metacritical: reconstructing and reshaping his own argument as he writes, contradicting himself, and negating earlier assertions. Rather than present his claims concretely at once, Ruskin winds his way to his conclusions through auto-editing, addressing and revisiting the same topics again and again, each time in a new fashion. His cadge at the end of the letter about having “already occupied too much of your valuable space” is a useful deception which acknowledges that his argument is imperfect, and partially excuses Ruskin’s use of evidence contrary to his conclusion. Finally, Ruskin signs his letter as both reader—“your obedient servant”—and authority—“THE AUTHOR OF ‘MODERN PAINTERS.’”

In the letter discussed above, Delane deferred to Ruskin’s authority and allowed him space for the debate about Pre-Raphaelitism. Ruskin’s editorial function is even more apparent in a second letter to the Times, published on 30 May 1851, to which an unsigned response from Delane is appended. Ruskin begins by referring to his previous correspondence:

Sir,—Your obliging insertion of my former letter19 encourages me to trouble you with one or two further notions respecting the Pre-Raphaelite pictures. I had intended, in continuation of my first letter, to institute as close an inquiry as I could into the character of the morbid tendencies which prevent these works from favourably arresting the attention of the public; but I believe there are so few pictures in the Academy whose reputations would not be grievously diminished by a deliberate inventory of their errors, that I am disinclined to undertake so ungracious a task with respect to this or that particular work. Three points, however, may be noted. . . . (“The Pre-Raphaelite Artists” 8)

Ruskin's words belie his purpose. He makes obeisance to the editor of the Times in his introductory phrase, which the editor is flattered enough to include—an uncommon practice in the space-starved Times. Ruskin speaks of the editor’s previous “obliging insertion,” and of the editor’s goodness in allowing Ruskin to “trouble you with one or two further notions.” These “one or two” notions have, by the end of the paragraph, become “three points,” and continue to expand in the body of the letter:

The most painful of these defects is unhappily also the most prominent—the commonness of feature in many of the principle figures. In Mr. Hunt’s “Valentine defending Sylvia,”20 this is, indeed, almost the only fault. . . . But all this thoughtful conception, and absolutely inimitable execution, fails in making immediate appeal to the feelings, owing to the unfortunate type chosen for the face of Sylvia. Certainly this cannot be she whose lover was—

“As rich in having such a jewel,

“As twenty seas, if all their sands were pearl.”21

Nor is it, perhaps, less to be regretted that while in Shakspeare’s [sic] play there are nominally “Two Gentlemen,” in Hunt’s picture there should be one—at least, the kneeling figure on the right has by no means the look of a gentleman. But this may be on purpose, for any one who remembers the conduct of Proteus throughout the previous scenes will, I think, be disposed to consider that the error lies more in Shakspeare’s [sic] nomenclature than in Mr. Hunt’s ideal. (8–9)

Ruskin raises Hunt by lowering Shakespeare—a heavy pronouncement, indeed. However, Ruskin’s polemic tone, arguing against his detractors, allows him to edit his own words as he continues:

No defence can, however, be offered for the choice of features in the left-hand figure of Mr. Millais’ “Dove returning to the Ark.”22 . . . Yet let the spectator who desires to be just turn away from this head, and contemplate rather the tender and beautiful expression of the stooping figure, and the intense harmony of colour in the exquisitely finished draperies; let him note also the ruffling of the plumage of the wearied dove, one of its feathers falling on the arm of the figure which holds it, and another to the ground, where, by the by, the hay is painted not only elaborately, but with the most perfect ease of touch and mastery of effect, especially to be observed because this freedom of execution is a modern excellence, which it has been inaccurately stated that these painters despise, but which, in reality, is one of the remarkable distinctions between their painting and that of Van Eyck23 or Memling,24 which caused me to say in my first letter that “those know little of ancient painting who supposed the work of these men to resemble it.” (9)

Here, Ruskin argues not only against his detractors, but he edits his previous letter. This assumes the reader’s familiarity with Ruskin’s previous correspondence. Ruskin sheds light on his earlier pronouncement by explaining his reasoning after the fact; editing and repurposing throughout. Ruskin now refers to current painting practices, derogatorily citing “the best works of Mulready” against the minute detail in “the drawing by John Lewis.”25 After addressing the faults in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Ruskin edits himself again in a direct about-face:

The fact is, nevertheless, that the fault is far more in the other pictures of the Academy than in the pre-Raphaelite case. It is the former that are false, not the latter, except so far as every picture must be false which endeavours to represent living sunlight with dead pigments. I think Mr. Hunt has a slight tendency to exaggerate reflected lights; and if Mr. Millais has ever been near a piece of good painted glass he ought to have known that its tone is more dusky and sober than that of his Mariana’s window. But for the most part these pictures are rashly condemned, because the only light which we are accustomed to see represented is that which falls on the artist’s model in his dim painting-room, not that of sunshine in the fields.

I do not think I can go much further in fault finding. (9)

Having found fault with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the arguments of their critics, the paintings of everyone in the exhibition, and his own argument, Ruskin should indeed have difficulty finding further targets. However, Ruskin edits himself a final time:

I had, indeed, something to urge respecting what I supposed to be the Romanizing tendencies26 of the painters; but I have received a letter27 assuring me that I was wrong in attributing to them anything of the kind, whereupon, all I can say is that instead of the “pilgrimage” of Mr. Collins’s maiden28 over a plank and round a fishpond, that old pilgrimage of Christiana and her children towards the place where they should “look the Fountain of Mercy in the face”29 would have been more to the purpose in these times. And so I wish them all heartily good speed, believing in sincerity that if they temper the courage and energy which they have shown in the adoption of their system with a patience and discretion in pursuing it, and if they do not suffer themselves to be driven by harsh or careless criticism into rejection of the ordinary means of obtaining influence over the minds of others, they may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years. (9)

Ruskin ends with a fourth of “three points,” disclaiming the religious iconography of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. His disclaimer of non-treatment is itself a treatment—otherwise why bring up what one isn’t going to discuss? He ends with a synthesis: congratulations to the Pre-Raphaelite artists and a challenge to future criticism, claiming that Pre-Raphaelitism is the first new school of English painting since the 1550s. He signs the letter, as usual, “The Author of ‘Modern Painters,’” pointing to the authority on which his editorializing rests.

At this point, Delane reasserts his role as editor by commenting that

we should find it no difficult task to destroy the web which the paradoxical ingenuity of our correspondent, the “Author of Modern Painters,” has spun, but we must confine our reply within narrower limits than the letters with which he has favoured us. If we spoke with severity of the productions of the young artists to which this correspondence relates, it was with a sincere desire to induce them, if possible, to relinquish what is absurd, morbid, and offensive in their works, and to cultivate whatever higher and better qualities they possess; but at present these qualities are wholly overlaid by the vices of a style which has probably answered its purpose by obtaining for these young gentlemen a notoriety less hard to bear, even in the shape of ridicule, than public indifference. (9)

Ruskin’s technique is quite well described as “paradoxical ingenuity”: he seems always to be revising and never to come to a firm conclusion. This slipperiness prompts Delane to address directly the perceived defects of Pre-Raphaelite painting:

This perversion of talent—if talent they have—we take to be fairly obnoxious to criticism: and we trust the authority of the “Author of Modern Painters” will not have the opposite effect of perpetuating or increasing the defect of a style which, in spite of his assertions, we hold to be a flagrant violation of nature and truth. In fact, Mr. Ruskin’s own works might prove the best antidote to any such false theory; for (if we remember rightly) he has laid it down, in his defence of Mr. Turner’s landscapes,30 that truth in painting is not the mere imitative reproduction of this or that object, as they are, but the reproduction or image of the general effect given by an assemblage of objects as they appear to the sight. . . . Many of our correspondent’s assertions may be more summarily disposed of by a reference to the pictures in question than by discussion in this place; . . . the mere expression of a difference of taste does not suffice to shake any of these established rules of art and criticism upon which such works have been tried and found wanting. It will give us great pleasure if we find next year that these young painters are able to throw off the monkish disguise in which they have been fooling, and stand forth as the founders of the illustrious school which our correspondent announces to the world. (9)

Ruskin is here hoisted with his own petard. Delane’s citation of Ruskin’s previous writings to counter Ruskin, however, is unproblematic, since Ruskin does not assume continuity in his argument from publication to publication—indeed, Ruskin re-shapes his argument over the space of the days between the two letters under discussion here.

It may be argued that Ruskin’s method is not unique: most good critics and scholars revise and refine their ideas over time, often changing their minds as they go along. Ruskin indeed claimed, here and elsewhere, that his opinion constantly evolved in light of new information. The difference between the more common polemic argument against an opposite view and Ruskin’s self-editing lies in the unique form of Ruskin’s letters. Instead of proposing a coherent, consistent, and discrete argument—the outcome of his thinking process—Ruskin chooses to show his entire thinking process, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” He is comfortable contradicting what he has just written on the strength of nothing more than his faith in his own authority. Ruskin functions in these letters not only as a polemic critic, but as his own editor. Ruskin subsumes his critics, making them part of the fluid process of his thinking and, therefore, part of his argument. The dictum that “everyone can find something to like in Ruskin” is apt, for Ruskin today is not Ruskin tomorrow, nor, it seems, is he Ruskin five minutes from now. The rapid pace of the changes in Ruskin’s thinking are best seen not by comparing his large works, written years apart, but in the week-to-week fluctuations in his periodical correspondence.
Landow, George P. “How to Read Ruskin: The Art Critic as Victorian Sage.” John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993. 52–80.

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. 5 vols. London, 1860.

Ruskin, John. “The Pre-Raffaelites.” Letter to the Editor. London Times 20,800 (13 May 1851): 8–9.

Ruskin, John. “The Pre-Raphaelite Artists.” Letter to the editor, with unsigned editorial response from John T. Delane. London Times 20,815 (30 May 1851): 8–9.

Speel, Robert. John Ruskin (1819–1900). 10 May 2000. .

1 Wednesday last: see “Exhibition of the Royal Academy, second notice.” London Times 1.20,794 (7 May 1851): 7–8.

2 chief picture by Millais in the Exhibition of last year: Christ in the House of His Parents.

3 Romanist: Roman Catholic. This reflects the debate over the use and extent of symbolic ritual and iconography allowable in Protestant practices; too much earned the suspicion of popery.

4 Tractarian: also known as the Oxford Movement, Tractarians attempted to reconcile high-church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. For a fuller explanation, see .

5 Mr. Millais’s lady in blue: Mariana in the Moated Grange by John Everett Millais (1829–1896).

6 Mr. Collins’s lady in white: Convent Thoughts by Charles Allston Collins (1828–1873).

7 en passant: in French, “in passing.”

8 Alisma Plantago: botanical nomenclature for the great water plantain.

9 nom de guerre: in French, “name of the struggle.”

10 Raphael: born Raphael Santi (1483–1520), Raphael was one of the Italian painters commissioned by the pope to decorate the Vatican.

11 Fuseli’s expression: Johann Heinrich Fuseli (1749–1825).

12 Mulready: William Mulready (1786–1863).

13 Thorburn: Robert Thorburn (1818–1885) was an English miniature painter.

14 Sir W. Ross: Sir William Charles Ross (1794–1860) was an English miniature painter.

15 Mr. Hunt’s picture: Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910).

16 ‘Dove returning to the Ark’: The Return of the Dove to the Ark.

17 Albert Durer: Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was a noted German engraver.

18 Wives of the Sons of Noah: from Saint Hippolytus (?–236), Anti-pope from 217–235, whose Commentary of the Holy Hippolytus of Rome Upon Genesis contains “The names of the wives of the sons of Noah are these: the name of the wife of Shem, Nahalath Mahnuk; and the name of the wife of Cham, Zedkat Nabu; and the name of the wife of Japheth, Arathka.” Ruskin supposes that the figures in Millais's painting represent these women.

19 my former letter: see London Times 20,800 (13 May 1851): 8–9, above.

20 “Valentine defending Sylvia”: Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus by William Holman Hunt.

21 “As rich . . . were pearl”: Valentine’s speech in Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.4.823–825 is: “And I as rich in hauing such a Iewell/ As twenty Seas, if all their sand were pearle,/ The water, Nectar, and the Rocks pure gold.”

22 “Dove returning to the Ark”: The Return of the Dove to the Ark by John Everett Millais.

23 Van Eyck: Jan van Eyck (ca. 1395–1441) was the most famous of the Dutch School of painting.

24 Memling: Hans Memling (1435–1494) was a follower of Van Eyck.

25 John Lewis: John Lewis (1805–1876) was a British Orientalist painter, elected to the Royal Academy in 1865.

26 Romanizing tendencies: the overt religious symbolism in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings smacked of Roman Catholicism to some reviewers.

27 a letter: likely a note from William Michael Rossetti (1819–1919), but currently untraced.

28 the “pilgrimage” of Mr. Collins’s maiden: Convent Thoughts by Charles Allston Collins.

29 that old pilgrimage . . . “in the face”: from Part 2, Stage 6 (“Discourse with Old Honest”) of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1628–1688), which reads “Mercy is thy name? by mercy shalt thou be sustained, and carried through all those difficulties that shall assault thee in thy way; till thou shall come thither, where thou shalt look the fountain of mercy in the face with comfort.”

30 Mr. Turner’s landscapes: Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was known for his loose, impressionistic handling of his compositions.

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