John Ruskin
Figure 1.--A 3 1/2 year old John Ruskin was painted in 1822 by James Northcote, National Portrait Gallery. The hills in the background "as blue as my shoes" were included at the reqiest of young John, who reportedly felt the "idea of distant hills was commected in my mind with the approach to the extreme felicities of life". It is unclear to HBC why he is holding a blue ribbon. But his mother claerly liked blue sashes and bows, Note the long sash flowing from a bow at his back, bows on his shoulders, and bows on his blue shoes.

John Ruskin (England, 1819-1900)

John Ruskin was a towering intellect and leading voice in England during the second half of the 19th Century. He was an author, art critic, and reformer--one of England's most respected Victorian thinkers. Some have called him the most influentional cultural figure of his day. He had a strict if protected childhood. While HBC at this time has little information on how he was dressed as a child, we do know that he wore dresses as a small boy. Available information, however, provides some fascination insights into child rearing practices in the Victorian era.

Parents and Family Background

John was the only child of Margaret and John James Ruskin. His father, a prosperous, self-made man who was a founding partner of Pedro Domecq sherries, collected art and encouraged his son's literary activities, while his mother, a devout evangelical Protestant, early dedicated her son to the service of God and devoutly wished him to become an Anglican bishop. In his parents' life the struggle with sin and the struggle with poverty were both won by effort and denial.


John was born on February 8, 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria. He was born at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London into wealth and leisure. From an early age he experienced the conflicting emotions of a very strict mother who also codeled the boy, keeping him close to her. He was not allowed to play with most other boys--even close family. His mother was very strict, demanding that he follow her direction from a very early age or spanked him. By the same token she was a classic over-protective mother. This was in part because she had so much trouble habing him and as a result she and her husband decided against another child. John ahad several cousins and his uncles and aunts had non trouble having children. John's mother was determine that no harm would come to her only very precious child.

As he grew up, John was forced to divide his allegiance between a religious ideology that professed duty, work, and a contempt for sexuality and a social ideology that located self-affirmation in the symbols of material wealth. Deeper even than these cultural contradictions were the contradictions of a narcissistic parental love. Overencouraged for every effort yet overregulated by an anxious watchfulness, Ruskin was both prematurely an adult and too long a child, bred up to be at once a great man and the instrument of his parents' wishes. This family romance, so to speak, suffered no serious intrusions: marked out for a special but undefined destiny, John had little way of understanding who he was concretely -- in regard, for example, to others of his age -- and so remained overconfident yet uncertain, forever afterward preferring relationships of carefully defined subordination. Throughout life he remained haunted by his primal relationship with parents to whom he could not entirely submit and from whom he could never free himself, bound as he was to the dream of a sheltered and protected past, the gifts of which could be enjoyed only by relinquishing the changing world without -- the world of independence and struggle and failure and a slow passage toward inexorable loss.

In the pages of Praeterita, Ruskin presents his boyhood chiefly as a pattern of release and restraint -- the release of childhood vacations and romping by paradisal meadows and streams and the restraint of the Herne Hill regimen, with its well-known images of denial: the fruit in the garden that it was forbidden to touch, the child sitting at evenings in a niche tracing the patterns on the carpet, and above all the severe figure of Margaret Ruskin, instructing the boy in daily Bible lessons and struggling three weeks over the emphasis on a particular syllable of verse. In a late lecture, he recalled that she shut him in an upstairs room with some bits of wood and a bunch of keys and told him, "John, if you make a noise, you shall be whipped" [Praeterita ch. XX, p. 372.] He was also whipped for crying, for not doing as he was bid, and for tumbling on the stairs [Praeterita ch.XXXV, p. 21.] We know now from the family letters that the real situation was more complicated; there were toys and companions after all and, in the boy's own letters, a greater exuberance and variety of pleasures than we would expect from the studious and complacent child of Praeterita. [See Van Akin Burd's introduction to The Ruskin Family Letters.]

But Ruskin does not reproach his parents for their discipline, which he found strict yet consistent and predictable. Instead, he lists four "calamities" of a different nature. First, he had nothing to love, so that "when affection did come, it came with violence utterly rampant and unmanageable, at least by me, who never before had anything to manage." Second, he had nothing to endure ("my strength was never exercised, my patience never tried, and my courage never fortified"). Third, he was taught no sociable manners. Fourth and chiefly, "the bridle and blinkers were never taken off me": "the little Creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself; set on the barebacked horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength. But the ceaseless authority exercised over my youth left me, when cast out at last into the world, unable for some time to do more than drift with its vortices" [Praeterita ch. XXXV, pp. 45-46.] At least three of these calamities center on the power of self-regulation, an emphasis consistent with Ruskin's mature conception of the moral life. For him wisdom is always essentially the channeling of spiritual energies in such a way that love, courage, and the experience of selfhood achieve their greatest fulfillment. The complaint in Praeterita is that the boy could not internalize his parents' predictable succession of pleasures and tasks before he was "cast out" into the vortices -- a problem understandable enough in an overindulged child who was made abnormally dependent on parental protection. Only by implication, though clearly enough for all that, does Ruskin suggest that his parents starved his [21/22] affections and thwarted his will.

Childhood Clothing

HBC has few details on Ruskin's childhood clothing. We do know because of a 1822 painting by James Northcote that he still wore dresses. The portarit shows him wearing a long white dress in the Empire fashion. It is unclear to HBC why he is holding a blue ribbon. But his mother claerly liked blue sashes and bows, Note the long sash flowing from a bow at his back, bows on hios shoulders, and bows on his blue shoes. The shoes and ribbon/sash trim are all blue, but HBC does nmot believe that color conventions were yet established. While he has not yet been breeched, he does wear short hair.

Other details are unknown. Given the elegant white dress pictured here, it is likely that his adoring movie gave particular attention to his wardrobe as a boy. Ashe was mostly educated at home, she presumably could have dressed himmas she wanted. John was quite an obdedient boy as is unlikely to have raised any serious objected as he was allowed only limited contact with other children. Presumably he wore skelton suiys an tunics, but HBC does not have any actual information to substantiate this. It woul be interesting to know, for example, what he and the other boys wore when he attended school for a time. Rushkin has written one of the most detailed autobiography ever publised by anyone--Praeterita. Hopefully as HBC reviews it, we will find some insights on his childhood clothing.


Ruskin, who received his education at home until the age of 12, rarely associated with other children and had few toys. During his 6th year he accompanied his parents on the first of many annual tours of the Continent. Encouraged by his father, he published his first poem, "On Skiddaw and Derwent Water," at the age of 11, and 4 years later his first prose work, an article on the waters of the Rhine. Even after 12 he was mostly educated at home. In his first school the other boys did not know what to make of Ruskin. He was a total inocent. If they teased him, he often did not unerstand the point of their "chafing". In the classroom he outshown them all. What his parents were not going to do was to send him to an English "public" school--which could be very rough an even dangerous places.

1836 Resides in Oxford, accompanied by his mother, until 1840. Publishes a series of articles entitled 'The Poetry of Architecture' in the Architectural Magazine (1837-8). In 1836, the year he matriculated as a gentleman-commoner at Christ Church, Oxford, he wrote a pamphlet defending the painter Turner against the periodical critics, but at the artist's request he did not publish it. While at Oxford (where his mother had accompanied him) Ruskin associated largely with a wealthy and often rowdy set but continued to publish poetry and criticism; and in 1839 he won the Oxford Newdigate Prize for poetry. The next year, however, suspected consumption led him to interrupt his studies and travel, and he did not receive his degree until 1842, when he abandoned the idea of entering the ministry. This same year he began the first volume of Modern Painters after reviewers of the annual Royal Academy exhibition had again savagely treated Turner's works, and in 1846, after making his first trip abroad without his parents, he published the second volume, which discussed his theories of beauty and imagination within the context of figural as well as landscape painting.


Ruskin on April 10, 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia Chalmers Gray. Their marrage was to be one of the strangest in Victorian England--the relationship would be suitable for a moern soap opera. The the next year he published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, after which he and Effie set out for Venice. In 1850 he published The King of the Golden River, which he had written for Effie 9 years before, and a volume of poetry. The following year in 1850 Turner died and Ruskin made the acquaintance of the Pre-Raphaelites. It was at this time he began defending John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelites and developed close personal friendships. Ruskin played an important role in making their work acceptable in conservative England. He also published the first volume of The Stones of Venice. The final two volumes appeared in 1853, the summer of which saw Millais, Ruskin, and Effie together in Scotland, where the artist painted Ruskin's portrait. The next year his wife left him and had their marriage annulled on grounds of non-consummation--after which she later married Millais. During this difficult year, Ruskin defended the Pre-Raphaelites, became close to Rossetti, and taught at the Working Men's College.


Ruskin's father published some of his son's boyhood poems and works. Ruskin is best known for his monumental studies of architecture and its social and historical implications described in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and its sequel, The Stones of Venice. The first notable works were published in 1849-53 on painting and archecture. He sought to introduce a new and loftier conception of the subject of modern archetecture. He then proceded to publish a vast number of works addressing art and archedtecture. He was the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford. Ruskin was premently an art critic, but his teaching and writing extend overa much broader range iof issues. Art for Ruskin was closely and inseparably bound up with truth, morals, and religion.

Kate Greenway

Kate Greeway is the authoress of many charming children's books which she illustarted herself. She also did almanacs and calendars. Many of the drawing are about animals, but she did many wonderful drawings of children in early 19th century outfits, including Empire dresses, smocks, pinafores, tunics, and skeleton suits. Ruskin was a respected Victorian art critic. He held a position of substantial influence during the 1850s. He promoted the carers and art of many young artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Ruskin was especially helpful to amateur and aspiring professional artists of the period, especially women which had virtually no avenue for professional training. The traditional path for training and exhibition at the Royal Academy and other major institutions was for men. Women found professioanal tarining as an artist difficult or impossible. Ruskin published Elements of Drawing in 1857. It brought art education within theraech of many women as well as individaulasof humble circustances who could not afford a formal art eduaction. Therewas extensive corespondence beteen readers and the author. Many wrote to Ruskin. His informative replies to their were the 19th century equivalent of distance learing. Most of these correspondents he never met, but several like Kate Greenway and Louise Blandy became close friends. Greenway's artistic vision was influenced by Ruskin who especially appreciated her figures of rose-wreathed girls in long white dresses.


Burd, Van Akin Burd. The Ruskin Family]

Ruskin, John. Praeterita.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: March 16, 2001
Last updated: March 16, 2001